A basketball life well lived by Liron Cohen

Israeli icon reflects on her long and winding hoops journey across the world over two decades.

LIRON COHEN was a great ambassador for Israel through her many accomplishments on the basketball court, both at home and all over the globe.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
LIRON COHEN was a great ambassador for Israel through her many accomplishments on the basketball court, both at home and all over the globe.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Liron Cohen is arguably one of Israel’s greatest basketball players. Playing in nine countries, winning multiple titles and championships while featuring on the Israel National Women’s Basketball Team, Cohen will go down in the annals of history as one of the best ever to don the blue-and-white jersey.
It’s been a couple of years since she hung up her sneakers as a pro and has transitioned into working with Maccabi Israel.
“It’s totally different compared to waking up in the morning and going to practice, even from the way I dress to how I eat lunch,” said Cohen to The Jerusalem Post. “I played basketball all these years because I loved it and I still love it, but I got to a point where I achieved everything I had dreamed of and it was time to move on. I’m very realistic and I always knew I would not play basketball forever, I wanted to retire at the top of my career. I was never injured, so I understood that I was ready for the next step.”
Cohen continued the thought: “It’s still hard to stop doing what you know, but I’m happy that I stayed in basketball with Maccabi Israel. Yes, it’s true that I don’t run on the court, but I’m there for the teams and I’m there to watch games, so I’m still doing what I love.”
Growing up, Cohen was always active and a career in sports was something that didn’t quite come as a shock.
“I played all kinds of sports when I was young, and if it had anything to do with a ball, then I was there,” said Cohen. “Basketball was something that I liked, equally to football [soccer]. I always played, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just wanted to play. I played mostly with boys, Jews and Arabs, we played all the time. I remember my mom yelling and telling me to come back home because I was on the streets playing until 8 p.m. I did it because I loved it and I wasn’t even thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Playing for fun on the streets is one thing, but finding a way into organized basketball was quite another.
“One day a coach by the name of Boaz Attire came by and asked me if I wanted to join a team. I said no at first,” noted Cohen. “But the idea of wearing a uniform and a number on my back was something that I was interested in. I understood that I was good and maybe I could try a little more. Every day I dreamed bigger and bigger and I wanted to do and achieve more. I was lucky that Boaz saw the potential in me and that he came back and wanted me to join the team.”
However, a rough start was in the cards.
“I’ll never forget the first practice. It was so intense that I threw up,” said Cohen. “Afterwards when we were driving home, my mom said ‘are you sure you want to do this? Maybe you should stop if you don’t feel so well? Why do you need it?’ And I said no! I like it and I’ll try again. I eventually left Jerusalem and moved to Ra’anana because I needed to be able to both practice and go to school without all of the travel involved. The school combined both education and basketball so I was able to focus on both.”
As Cohen began evolving as a basketball player, she looked to some of the greats, be it in the NBA or in the Israeli women’s basketball league, for inspiration.
“I watched the NBA with my brother and we loved the Lakers and Magic Johnson. My coach also advised me to follow Liron Mizrachi who was playing in Israel and I really liked her style. Years later, we ended up playing together when I got to Ramat Hasharon the season before she retired. That was a great achievement,” said Cohen.
Interestingly enough, Cohen played the majority of her career in Europe and not at home in Israel. It could be daunting for a young woman to travel and play across Europe all alone and it could be a bit scary.
“First of all, you are scared because you come to a new place and you have to adjust,” explained Cohen. “But I must say that I was lucky because everywhere I went, everyone welcomed me from management to players and fans. However, it is hard to go to a new place – especially as a Jewish Israeli – even like Turkey during the good days.”
Antisemitism certainly could be a factor to contend with at times.
“I didn’t have any problems with the club teams. But on the Israel National Team we did,” recalled Cohen. “There was a time when we played in Bulgaria during a period of tension and you could feel the difference. I don’t think that it added any extra motivation because athletes don’t really need something to push them, because they are always motivated.”
Cohen’s colorful career took her to many other stops across the continent which also proved to be a ton of fun.
“I enjoyed every place I played in because of the people, but if I had to choose the place I really loved the most, it would have to be Italy. I was up north and very close to Venice. I learned the language, enjoyed the food as well as the people and we played in front of a sold-out arena every single game.”
Cohen never had the opportunity to play in the WNBA, but it all turned out for the best.
“The Los Angeles Sparks asked me to come to their training camp, but they ended up cutting me. Part of the reason why players go to the WNBA is to secure a contract for Europe. On a professional level, I don’t think the basketball there is better than it is in Europe and they also play in the summer, which is when the Israel National Team plays and trains and that was something that I wasn’t ready to give up. Playing for my country of Israel is everything to me,” said Cohen.
“Basketball made me who I am and taught me so much, plus I worked and earned a living doing something that I loved. Basketball also taught me responsibility, discipline and confidence. It taught me a crucial lesson for life – that if there is something that you love, then go for it; there is no reason that you won’t be able to succeed. You can achieve anything, if you do it right. I wouldn’t have discovered the world if I didn’t have basketball.”