Sinai Says: Promoting Israel through its African-American hoopsters

Even those players who return to the US are often left with an indelible mark from their time in Israel.

CORY CARR is one of many African-American players who came to Israel to play basketball and went on to remain in the country and become citizens. (photo credit: Courtesy)
CORY CARR is one of many African-American players who came to Israel to play basketball and went on to remain in the country and become citizens.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
David Goldstein never imagined a visit to his grandparents at their assisted living complex in Jerusalem would end up resulting in a book, one focused around basketball no less.
During one of his annual summer visits in 2007, the fact Goldstein hails from Toronto sparked an excited response from a group of elderly women who began raving about Anthony Parker.
Parker starred for Maccabi Tel Aviv for five seasons between 2000 and 2006 before going on to join the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for three years.
“I was really struck by how much they loved him as a person beyond just as a basketball player,” said Goldstein, a journalist and sports executive, and author of the recently released book Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land.
“I was intrigued by the bond and started looking into it. I had no idea that players loved the country the way they do and were embraced by the country and that players stayed and converted and made their lives there,” he added.
“I just kept digging and what I ultimately found was a book.”
One player who Goldstein feels represents the whole phenomenon is Fred Campbell, a former basketball player at Fort Hays State University in Kansas who played in several different countries before arriving in Israel in 1992.
“Fred is someone who played in a small college and really wanted to use basketball to see the world,” said Goldstein, the Chief Operating Officer of U SPORTS (the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA) who is also an adjunct professor of sports law at the University of Toronto.
“He always wanted to play one year in a country and then go and play in another country. His agent for years was trying to get him to go to Israel and for years he said no because as he put it ‘they are fighting over there.’ Eventually the agent convinced him to go and told him to try it for four days ‘and if you don’t like it after four days I’ll fly you home.’ He went with the intention of giving it a week and ended up falling in love with the country.”
Campbell, who is still playing basketball at the age of 55 at amateur side Maccabi Kafr Qara, an Arab town southeast of Haifa, converted to Judaism, became a citizen, served in the IDF and his son is also about to enlist.
“He is a vocal and fierce advocate for Israel as anyone that I know,” noted Goldstein. “He is a perfect symbol of the whole phenomenon.”
More than 800 African-American players have competed in the Israeli top flight since the 1976 arrival of Aulcie Perry, a native of Newark, New Jersey, who helped Maccabi Tel Aviv to two European championships in 1977 and 1981.
While only a small percentage have stayed and become citizens, Goldstein found that many of them formed a deep bond with the country.
Perry, who spent almost five years in prison in the US after being convicted on heroin distribution charges before returning to Israel for good following his release in 1992, sat beside Goldstein in Jerusalem two weeks ago when the author discussed his book in a Nefesh B’Nefesh and Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel sponsored event for olim.
Goldstein discusses in his book the difficulties some of the African-American players encounter in Israel, mainly once their playing careers are over.
“I think generally speaking they feel accepted and embraced, but the one challenge that players talked about, specifically players that stayed after their playing careers, was getting coaching positions,” he explained. “Most of the players said similar things that they were able to get coaching positions in the second or third divisions or coaching youth or kids, but that it was very difficult to get coaching positions, even an assistant coaching position, in the first division.”
Goldstein noted that the ultimate goal of the book was to highlight how these players contribute to the country and sacrifice for the country, which is generally unknown.
“I think people know lots of individual stories but I don’t think they understand the collective phenomenon as a whole,” he said. “Even people that are fans and know that this is a pretty good league, they might think that these are hired guns or mercenaries that come play for a year, get as much money as they can, try to get their stats and then go somewhere else. What I found is that this not the case at all and that this is a real bond. Not in every single example of course, but generally speaking across the board this is a very legitimate bond with the country and with the people.”
Even those players who return to the US are often left with an indelible mark from their time in Israel.
“There is something very touching about speaking to an African-American who is now living in Chicago who is trying to have a Friday night dinner that is similar to Shabbat even though he is not Jewish because he enjoyed that the family sat together no matter how busy their week was. He took a page out of the Jewish custom to make sure that the family sits together, breaks bread and shares stories,” said Goldstein, speaking of Andrew Kennedy, who first arrived in Israel in 1989 and went on to spend much of the next 13 years playing in the country, most notably at Hapoel Galil Elyon which he helped to an historic league championship in 1993.
While he didn’t set out to write about hasbara (pro-Israel advocacy), Goldstein recognizes that the stories in his book can help change the perception people have of the country.
“The biggest thing was that players before they came to Israel had a misconception that it was constantly at war and that they wouldn’t feel safe,” he said. “Player after player told me that is what they thought before they went and then they went and felt this warm country, warm culturally and warm inter-personally, and that they felt safe and secure.
“It is not a fairy tale and it is not perfect, but it is a positive story about the players that make these contributions and make these sacrifices and embrace Israel,” he added. “And it is a positive story about a country that people hear a lot of negative things about and now they are hearing very positive things about it and it is not necessarily from someone who was born and raised there and has a vested interest. But somewhat of an objective person who may have played in three or four countries before arriving in Israel and saying ‘actually I love it here and I want to stay.’”