A big step forward while remaining in place

Still with Maccabi Haifa, Roman Sorkin looks to build upon last season’s coming-out party.

VERSATILE HOOPSTER Roman Sorkin is a threat both inside and outside the paint and Maccabi Haifa hopes to ride the Israeli big man to success this season. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
VERSATILE HOOPSTER Roman Sorkin is a threat both inside and outside the paint and Maccabi Haifa hopes to ride the Israeli big man to success this season.
This weekend sees a full slate of Israel Basketball League games on the docket as a number of teams will make their season debut. One of those clubs is Maccabi Haifa, along with its rising star Roman Sorkin, who scored 29 points in his last Balkan League clash and is ticketed to have a breakout campaign.
Sorkin spoke to The Jerusalem Post just ahead of Haifa’s home date with Hapoel Beersheba and discussed his career to date, his desire to represent Israel on the National Team, his big dream and the contract negotiations that broke down with Maccabi Tel Aviv this past summer.
“I’m really excited to get back to basketball, we’re finally returning to play,” said the 24-year-old big man. “I hope we’ll have a proper season and not just these games here or a shortened campaign. We want to get back to what it was like before, with fans, supporters but right now it’s just great that we are getting to play again.”
Sorkin made sure to keep busy during the lockdown when basketball was put on pause.
“During the break I trained and did some running while working on a plan from the fitness trainer. I did the best and most that I could even running up and down stairs in my building because I wanted to stay in shape.”
Last season was the best in Sorkin’s career. The Minsk-born 6-foot-11 (2.1-meter) star, who can play both power forward and center, helped Haifa advance to the Winner League playoffs and averaged 10.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists in over 22 minutes per game. As one of the top Israeli players, the 2019/20 season was his first full campaign in the first division.
“I didn’t really think about the stats that I put up last season. It was much more important for me to go as far as we could as a team. This was my first full season and it was great for me to finally be able to show what I can do and that more and more people would know who I am. I was in the United States for a while and I played in the youth system, but I wasn’t really there in my head. I grew up on Israeli basketball and I watched the games as a young child and to now be a part of it, it’s just amazing.”
Coach Daniel Seoane is a colorful character on the Greens sidelines and Sorkin has enjoyed working with him so far.
“It’s a lot of fun. He is from the new generation of coaches and he always comes to practice with new things. He gives you confidence and he will scream at you if need be but he’s just great to be with.”
Sorkin, who was moved from Belarus to Israel when he was two years old, also played soccer but his uncle – who was once his birth country’s national team coach – pushed him towards the sport of basketball.
“I loved soccer and I didn’t want to stop playing. But when I was young and in elementary school everyone told me that I was too tall to play and that I would get the ball stolen off of my feet [because of my height]. So I moved to basketball and fell in love with it.”
There may not have been specific basketball role models that Sorkin patterned his game after, but he certainly has a number of players that he enjoys watching.
“Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic are two players that I really love to watch play. They make the game look so easy and they have such a great understanding of the game.”
In 2014, Sorkin took a big step in his career and went to the University of Oregon to play college hoops. Although he didn’t play big minutes during his four years at the school, he did advance to the 2017 Final Four and played with current Maccabi Tel Aviv guard Tyler Dorsey as well.
“I was very unprepared for what awaited me and many said that perhaps I made a mistake by going as I was very young and wasn’t ready for this step as a player. But I learned a tremendous amount in work ethic, mentality at the highest of levels and this was what I wanted to experience. I wanted to go there and learn the game and it wasn’t a problem that I didn’t play very much as I worked on my game and constantly improved.
“Tyler and I are in touch and we talk a lot. During the coronavirus break we couldn’t see each other and he also flies a lot with Maccabi so there isn’t much time to hang out, but we used to room together at Oregon. We are really good friends.”
At Oregon, Sorkin played with Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher, both of whom have won NBA titles, Bell with Golden State and Boucher with both the Warriors and the Toronto Raptors.
“Those two guys deserve to be where they are from a mentality, physicality and understanding of the game standpoint. They play every game hard and they always want to win. They are such fun players to be with and you can only understand that if you were with them on the team.”
Very few players, especially Israelis, have the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament and even fewer advance to the Final Four. However, Sorkin was one of the lucky few to do so.
“It was crazy. I remember sitting on the bench just looking out at the crowd in the massive Arizona football stadium. We had what seemed to be a 10-minute run from the locker-room to the court, it was a grandiose event and the biggest that I was ever at.”
In 2018/19 Sorkin played for Maccabi Haifa in the Leumit League and was one of the club’s most important players, helping the team win the finals series over Hapoel Galil Elyon 3-1 to send the Greens back to the top division.
“That was our goal all season long as a number of players stayed with the team in order to help us move back up a league. We all had a chip on our shoulders and we knew that we had to do it, but we did have some bumps along the way. Ultimately, we played as a team and it was one of the sweetest feelings in the world to be able to accomplish the mission we set out to do under all of that pressure.”
Over the summer of 2019, Sorkin took part in the Universiade in Napoli with the Israel National Team under the direction of Oded Katash.
“We played the United States and ended up losing but we led most of the way. The other great thing was that although it was an under-25 team, we were with the full national team staff and I was able to take in a lot. The practices were at the highest level and it was just great to be able to be in that environment.”
When Sorkin returned to Israel from his time at Oregon, he enlisted in the Israeli army and is set to finish his service in the spring of 2021. In an exhibition game against Ness Ziona, Sorkin had to leave in the middle in order to get to his military base for his shift in time. The big man explained that combining the army and basketball isn’t that simple.
“I’m handling it and it’s part of the requirements that I have to meet. I hope that people will think of me even more positively and Haifa has been very accommodating with the practice schedule.”
Sorkin almost made his full Israel National Team debut recently, but had to be held out due to an injury and although he’ll have to wait a bit longer, he can’t wait to fulfill a dream.
“I don’t think that there is a basketball player in the entire world who doesn’t want to represent his country. To be at the level where you can play for your own national team is a dream and I hope that the opportunity will present itself in the near future.”
This past summer, Sorkin was a candidate to join Maccabi Tel Aviv and according to various reports a deal was to be consummated with the yellow-and-blue having to buy out his contract that had a year remaining on it with Haifa in order to obtain his services. Ultimately the move didn’t happen and many didn’t understand why it fell apart.
“We didn’t come to an agreement because at the end of the day I didn’t sign with Maccabi. Things were put out in the press as if they had spoken to me and there wasn’t a deal in place, it was just talk.
“It was said that it was all done, I don’t know, to put pressure or not to put pressure, but we were in negotiations with a lot of options as to why to go and why not to go. I still had another year on my contract and that was also a part of this for better or for worse. I don’t really mean ‘worse,’ but I wasn’t a free agent who could just sign with another team. It didn’t work out and I hope that in the future I will be able to play there and they will want me. But this time around it just didn’t work out.”
Sorkin continued: “Of course I would want to play [with Maccabi Tel Aviv]. They are one of the best teams in Europe and it’s the dream of every player, especially as an Israeli. It wasn’t the case that they didn’t want me. There were a number of bureaucratic things that needed to be worked out and not just money issues, there were many things.”
Playing in another European country is also an option.
“A number of teams approached me, including Dinamo Sassari. I want to continue to advance and I can do that with Haifa. We also have one of the best arenas in the country and one of the best crowds that support the club. Right now I am with Maccabi Haifa and what will be afterwards may change a million times. As long as we continue to improve as a club, the more we will all benefit later on.”
Almost every preseason, Haifa goes on a tour of the NBA as the club has a chance to play numerous exhibition games against the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers and other teams across North America.
“The toughest player that I had to go up against was Boban Marjanovic who was just so huge that you couldn’t do anything against him. He literally dunked on me like I was a little child when I tried to block him.”
Sorkin has an excellent shot and he averaged 57.8% and 38.4% from three-point range last season as he is a dual threat from the field for a big man.
“I think that the game is moving towards the three-pointer. Jimmy Butler spoke about Duncan Robinson before Game 6 of the NBA Finals and said that it’s important he hits his shots because three points are more than two. This really shows where the game is headed more and more.”
“When I was around 16 or 17 I was told that three-pointers weren’t important for me because I was big, but I didn’t listen and I kept working on that part of my game. It ended up helping me and it’s a part of my arsenal. In the NBA there are many big men who shoot threes and that is the style of their game.”
As for dreams down the road, for Sorkin he’s looking to win as many titles as he can.
“That’s what people always remember you for. But I also want to be able to tell my grandchildren what I accomplished. You won’t be remembered for scoring, but when you win a title you’ll be remembered forever.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]