Israel’s Under-18 squad ready for its turn

Omer Mayer and Co. hope to follow the summer success of other young blue-and-white National Teams.

 JUST 16 years old, Israel guard Omer Mayer will suit up for the blue-and-white Under-18 team this weekend in the group stage of the European Championship. (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
JUST 16 years old, Israel guard Omer Mayer will suit up for the blue-and-white Under-18 team this weekend in the group stage of the European Championship.
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

Omer Mayer is no doubt one of the up-and-coming stars in Israeli basketball and will be one of the key players for the Israel Under-18 team as it embarks on its European Championship campaign this weekend in Nis, Serbia.

With much success by the young blue-and-white teams in both basketball and soccer this summer, there are expectations for head coach Sharon Avrahami’s team to keep pace with the others.

However, heading into a group stage with the likes of Lithuania, France, and Sweden, the competition will no doubt be a difficult one for Mayer and Israel.

Mayer's goals and pride for the team 

Just ahead of the squad’s opening game on Saturday against Lithuania, the 16-year-old Mayer sat down with The Jerusalem Post to speak about his role models, his basketball dreams, the incredible performance by Noam Yaacov and Danny Wolf with the Under-20’s and the U18 team’s goals heading into the tournament.

“First off, the most important thing is winning the fourth game because that will determine our success for the entire tournament,” Mayer began as he explained that the three group-stage games set up Israel’s Round of 16 opponent. With a win, the Israelis would move on to the quarterfinals; however, a loss will send them into a relegation battle that could see the squad drop to Division B.

 The Israeli National Basketball Team participating in the U-20 European championships. (credit: FIBA)
The Israeli National Basketball Team participating in the U-20 European championships. (credit: FIBA)

“We will focus on taking it game by game, with our first goal being to defeat Lithuania in our opening game on Saturday. After that will be France, then Sweden and then whoever we will tip off against in the knockout games. We’ll take it one game at a time and we will do what we can and things should be fine.”

Mayer was extremely excited about how the Under-20’s did in their European Championship, coming home with the silver medal having been led by Yaacov and Wolf, a newcomer to the Israeli hoops scene.

“It brought a huge amount of pride and that is the case with both the youth basketball and soccer teams. It was absolutely incredible what these teams did and it gives us a tremendous amount of motivation as we all want to be able to bring pride to our country as well.

“It was really impressive to see Wolf play, who no one knew beforehand. He came to Israel and was able to integrate with the team, the players and staff who deserve a ton of credit for being so welcoming. Most of the players knew one another for years and for someone totally new to just arrive, it was really special to see how he became such a big part of their success. It was as if he had been playing with them since the age of 14.”

The evolution of Mayer's connection to basketball

Mayer, who was born in Ramat Gan, currently lives with his family in Ramat Hasharon. As a youngster, he began playing basketball in the local Ramat Hasharon system, but in third grade he moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv and has been a part of the yellow-and-blue youth system ever since.

“As a child I loved the game of basketball,” Mayer said. “I just enjoyed getting together with my friends and doing what we loved most. I didn’t grow up in a basketball family, although my father did play when he was younger, but ever since I was a toddler I remember just playing the game. I also played soccer and tennis, but basketball was my love from the get-go.”

As he continued to develop, Mayer enjoyed watching a number of players from both the NBA and the Euroleague, which is the competition he prefers to watch on a regular basis.

Mayer's basketball role models

“Steph Curry is probably my all-time favorite player from the NBA, but like many I also liked Kobe Bryant who had a mindset that was just impossible to understand. I try to take various attributes from a number of players to become an even better player myself.”

“I remember a year ago when I was at the Euroleague Final Four I saw Vasilije Micic play. I hadn’t even heard of him until I had seen him for the first time and I was like ‘wow, how did I not know about this guy?’ I’ll never forget that.”

Mayer, who was part of the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team that recently won its league title, sees playing with the senior team as his goal.

Mayer credits his coaches and teammates for their immense role in his basketball journey 

“It’s a dream to play with Maccabi. I have been a part of the club for so many years, from such a young age, it would really be a dream come true to play with the senior squad. To see what it’s like to play in the Euroleague at Yad Eliyahu is unbelievable. I hope to be able to lead the team one day.”

There have been a number of coaches who have been influential in Mayer’s development, including Adi Amos, Adi Yisrael and Giora Eitan at Maccabi and his national team coach Avrahami, who worked with guard in Under-16’s as well.

“They have all given me so much throughout the years,” Mayer commented. “Last season with coach Avrahami we did not have a good preparation period and then all of sudden it was time for the championships. But he was with us and worked with us as he lives the game and we ended in 5th place which was terrific.”

It all comes back to basketball

One of the players who will not be playing in the tournament is Ben Saraf who suffered a hand injury at the start of training camp. Saraf was named to the Team of the Tournament for the Under-16’s last year and Mayer understands that it’s a big loss not to have him with them in Serbia and others will need to step up.

“It’s really upsetting that Ben can’t be with us. I really wanted to be able to play this campaign with him as I enjoy being on the court together with him. I don’t even have to explain how good he is. We are all disappointed, but that’s part of sports and we will all have to step up. We have already stepped up and we all will make up for his absence.”

Outside of basketball, Mayer enjoys meeting up with friends, watching a bit of Netflix with his family as well as playing backgammon, but ultimately it all comes back to basketball.

“I want to be able to reach my potential, work hard and enjoy every moment to be able to go as far as I can. Basketball is fun, it’s the best.”