Israel has had very few players to have graced the courts across North America in the National Basketball Association, but one of them is Gal Mekel, who is currently playing for Unicaja Malaga in Spain’s top division the ACB League.
The 33-year-old Sabra not only featured for the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, but also won two league titles in Israel with Hapoel Gilboa/Galil and Maccabi Haifa. In addition, the point guard and Israel National Team captain has played in Italy, Russia and Serbia.
This week, ahead of Israel Independence Day, The Jerusalem Post had a chance to catch up with Mekel, who was happy to discuss how important his homeland is to him.
“I’ve been playing outside of Israel for many years in a number of countries, but I always remind myself that I am an ambassador and it’s very important for me to make the best impression as not only a player and a person, but as an Israeli who is proud of my country.”
Having played in so many locales, Mekel has met many teammates who are always curious as to what it’s really like in the Holy Land.
“They ask a lot of questions about the country and the politics. Recently, the coronavirus situation has been a hot topic and since it’s known that Israel is No. 1 in the world in terms of vaccines many ask about that. We also have a lot of conversations about Israel and the situation around the Middle East and the conflicts.
“In fact, my teammates also know about the new situation with the United Arab Emirates. My dad came to visit us in Spain straight from Dubai and it was a good story that we can now travel to places like Dubai and that have peace with them.”
One of the most challenging parts of playing abroad is being away from his friends and family.
“Luckily my wife and son are together with me so it’s a bit more of a family, but it’s not easy to be away from friends and siblings.”
Mekel is married to Danielle Sims, the daughter of one of the all-time great Israeli hoopsters, Willie Sims, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1980s and ’90s.
“People around the world who have followed basketball for many years as well as coaches know Willie and were surprised about the connection. Danielle is very familiar with the lifestyle of a basketball player and that helps as well. We have been together for so many years and it was cool at the beginning, but we got used to it.”
It was natural for Mekel to be raised in a family that loved the land of Israel.
“We are super Zionist. All of my grandparents escaped the Holocaust and came to Israel from Poland. Some of them lost a big portion of their families. For them to come to Israel and build a country was something exciting. My father was in a top unit in the army and Danielle was in the same unit, so the love for Israel and pride was a big part of me growing up.”
Mekel decided to play college ball in the United States at Wichita State, which was something unusual for the typical Israeli post-high school student, but the Ramat Hasharon native plotted his basketball future carefully in order to maximize his potential.
“I knew I wanted to go to college because I felt this was the best middle step between the junior and professional levels. I started to search for the right place and videos and highlights were sent to colleges. I had a few offers and in 12th grade I flew to America to check a few out – USC, Providence, Miami and Wichita. I really wanted to focus just on basketball and I was impressed with the coach Mark Turgeon. They had recently been to the Sweet 16 and I felt that this was the right place for me.”
Heading to a new country presented something totally new for Mekel, who was able to really dive into his basketball education head first.
“It was hard in the beginning, especially as a freshman, even if you are American so even more so as a foreigner. Physically, I wasn’t ready as I was skinny and that was one of the biggest things I was able to work on, my athleticism and physical abilities. The other aspect I improved on was on the defensive side of the game and I got much better. I had a period of adjustment and I feel that it was one of the best moves I ever made. I also met so many people in college and there was a Jewish family that adopted me and are still a family to me. More important than basketball was also making lifetime relationships.”
After two years in college, Mekel felt he wasn’t yet ready for the NBA and went back to Israel to sign a deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“The dream to play in the NBA was always there like any young kid that plays basketball. I didn’t think I was ready after college and I got an offer from Maccabi. In college those first two years, you are a younger player and you are working with older guys. Then you are older and compete with younger guys and my goal was to get better, play tougher competition and play in Europe. Back in Israel, with Galil and the year in Haifa, I grew and grew and got better as a player and at some point I knew there was a good chance to make it back to the United States.”
Finally on July 11, 2013, Mekel’s dream came true when he signed a deal with the Dallas Mavericks and made his NBA debut on October 30 of that year, becoming the second Israeli after Omri Casspi to play in the world’s best league.
“It was an unbelievable experience and I was so proud. I see that kids now want to make it to the NBA and only three guys made it from Israel, so it means something.
“At the beginning it was all big, bright and shiny and the players you grew up watching on TV were on the court next to you. But then the competitive nature takes over when you start to play and you want to help your team win. I had great moments and some bad luck during those two years, but I am so thankful for that and this was my biggest accomplishment.”
This season, Israel added its third player to the ranks of the NBA as Deni Avdija was selected by the Washington Wizards with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 Draft.
“I think he is doing well and is definitely a hell of a player,” said Mekel. “I don’t think we had this type of talent before. As Israelis, we have a tendency to celebrate that we are the kings of the world and we have to understand that the key is patience. He is doing very well in his rookie season with a team that isn’t playing the best basketball or one that is necessarily the best fit, but day by day he will enjoy the ride. Deni doesn’t have to pay too much attention to other people’s expectations. So far, his numbers are really solid and I am sure he will get better and better. I see him as a solid player for many years in the league.”
Mekel was named captain of the Israel National Team by head coach Oded Katash when he took over the reins a few years ago after having represented the blue-and-white for more than a decade, playing in four EuroBasket tournaments and having led the team to the next edition in 2022.
“This gives me a huge amount of pride. If I had a bucket list in my career this would be one of the boxes that I would have been checked off. I’ve ticked off most things on that bucket list and maybe I have two or three items left, but this was a big one. My dream was to play for the national team and being the captain will always be with me. It’s huge.”
Fans have been allowed back into stadiums and arenas across Israel as the coronavirus rate continues to plummet. Hopefully this will also be the case in the rest of the world very soon because one of the upcoming hopes for Mekel is to be in a packed arena singing Hatikvah with the thousands of supporters.
“When we all stand together with the fans it’s very exciting. In a full gym, whether it’s Yad Eliyahu or any home game, everyone is singing with so much pride and it’s a moment that sinks in deep inside of me.”