Na'ama Shafir has become a role model in the Jewish community as the first Orthodox woman playing NCAA basketball.
By JOSH RASKIN
Driving down the lane, the starting point guard sinks the layup and sacrifices her body for a foul. The play is symbolic of the combination of skill, leadership and fearlessness that have opened people's eyes to Israeli teenager Na'ama Shafir.
In her first year away from home, the freshman from Hoshaya has been a splendid success on the basketball court for the University of Toledo Rockets. But what makes her story even more compelling is what happens off the court. Shafir is not only a leader on the team, but she has become a role model in the Jewish community as the first female Orthodox Jewish athlete in the NCAA Division I competition, the top level of American collegiate athletics.
Shafir, who turned 19 at the end of February, always has a smile on her face, whether she is on the court or off. Her personality shines through both her performance and her ability to make new friends. Unselfish, modest and always looking out for her teammates, she has taught them about both basketball and religion, as many of them had never come into contact with a religious Jew before.
Coming off back-to-back Most Valuable Player trophies for the Israeli U-19 League in 2007 and 2008, Shafir decided it was time to take her game to the next level: the United States.
"I knew it was going to be hard and different, but I wanted to follow my dream," she says. After sending out DVDs to colleges around the United States, Shafir was deciding between two universities. But when one coach left the program and another was not willing to accommodate all of her religious needs, it was back to square one.
Enter head coach Tricia Cullop, who is in her first year at the University of Toledo after eight years at Evansville University in Indiana. At Evansville, Cullop coached another Israeli, Tal Milchan, who helped convince the young point guard to go to the University of Toledo and play for her former coach.
The Rockets were more than willing to accommodate Shafir as much as possible, knowing that the team and administration would have to be creative throughout the next four years to assist her.
"One thing that we figured was to get in touch with a rabbi in town to find out what was most important. We then spoke to her uncle and father, who gave us a list of what Shafir would need. This included access to kosher food, a T-shirt under her jersey, not riding in a motorized vehicle on Shabbat and not practicing on Saturdays," says Cullop. "The list was not long, and we knew she would observe the holidays. Luckily the calendar works out in our favor. They were more concerned with school and appreciative of everyone finding solutions."
Due to her religious needs, Shafir sometimes needs to stay in a separate hotel closer to the arena so she can walk. Normally one teammate will stay with her in the hotel so she isn't alone, and they are more than willing to walk with their friend and teammate, no matter how far the hotel is from the arena.
The Rockets have postponed all of their Saturday afternoon practices to Saturday evenings after sunset. However, Rabbi Chaim Bogonski and Shafir worked out a deal four years ago allowing her to play games on Shabbat. When Shafir was on the Israeli National Junior Team, she was the only Orthodox player. Bogonski ruled that since practice was work and games were fun, it was acceptable to take part in games that fell on Shabbat. This was important, since a majority of the games for Toledo are on Saturday afternoons.
Despite the small size of Toledo's Jewish community, Shafir has made friends and often has dinner with families who keep kosher so she can get a home-cooked meal. That allows the freshman to feel at home, even though she is thousands of miles away.
On the court, Shafir has the ability to change a game as she drives to the basket, but her game also includes the skill to see plays unwind in her head and see open players through small holes.
After struggling for the first few weeks of school, everything came together in Hawaii when the season started with the Rockets winning two of their first three games. While most athletes are nervous for their first game, Shafir had a different spin.
"I was excited, really excited. No one knew how I could really play but me, and we won," the point guard recalls.
Not only did they win their first game, but Shafir was named Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week for her performance in those first three games.
That excitement has continued throughout the season as Shafir has continued to succeed and impress her teammates, coaches and fans.
"She has a great future ahead. I'm thrilled with what she has been able to do as a freshman," Cullop states, "It gets me excited to know that she'll only get better over the next four years. She's a class act as well, and we are all very proud of her."
With the difference in the level of competition, it was difficult to determine how well her freshman year would go, but Shafir has succeeded so far during her initial year.
After her first 21 collegiate games, Shafir was averaging 11.2 points and 4.4 assists per game. These numbers place her in 26th and sixth respectively in the Mid-American Conference overall, but fourth in points per game and first in assists per game compared to the other freshmen.
Her off-court behavior, meanwhile, has joined the Rockets together as one big family.
"They are like my family here. They are always asking me a lot of Hebrew. Their favorite words are 'shalom' and 'kvutza' [team]," says Shafir.
After a successful trip to the Under-18 European Championships, where she was the tournament's leading scorer and was named the best point guard at the competition, Shafir traveled to the United States with her father, Itzik, for the first time in her life. The trip included a stop at a caterer in Detroit, Michigan, where Shafir would have her kosher food shipped to her in Toledo.
For all road games, she brings a cooler of food in the hope that wherever the team eats, the chef will heat it up for her. For the pregame meal before facing Arizona, their first opponent in Hawaii, a restaurant said Shafir could have her food heated up, but couldn't eat it in the restaurant. Instead of allowing their teammate to eat alone in the lobby, all of the team members and coaching staff followed her into the lobby and ate as a kvutza.
This event was only one of the early moments that helped bring the team together. The team members are very respectful of their point guard's religious needs, and ask her every week when sundown is so they can get her back on Saturday nights.
"It was a big change from Israel, being away from family and friends," Shafir says. "it's a different place, but being with the team makes it easier. The team has become my family here."
Despite being offered a scholarship, Shafir could not be eligible to play unless she met certain deadlines by the NCAA, including having her high school transcript translated.
"It was tough at the beginning. We had to fill out a lot of paperwork, she didn't have an SAT score, and deadlines needed to be met," the coach states. "She also had to fly here right after the championships, but a lot of hurdles all came together in the end, and we're happy that they did."
Although she had some struggles at the beginning of school, Shafir continues to improve her English and her performance on the court.
"The language is tough. It is hard to study and understand in a language that you are not confident with, but when we started to play it was better," explains Shafir. "It was hard the first few months before we could practice. I didn't know how everything would work out with the food, but the season helped everything come together, and the games helped. I knew what I could do, but they didn't know. I didn't know what the coach thought about me, but she gave me the opportunity and let me focus on basketball."
Shafir has become a role model for other Orthodox girls who never thought that they could play a Division I sport. A pioneer, she has shown that excelling at sports doesn't have to mean forfeiting your religious beliefs.
Most importantly Shafir has gained the respect of her teammates, which she feels is what anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps should know and strive for.
Cullop knows that the maturity of her players is most important, both on and off the court. Shafir's teachings have allowed the team to blend together and help focus on basketball and teamwork. Even Cullop is impressed with her team, especially how they are always asking questions to understand Judaism.
"I'm very happy with how the team is responding. Different players volunteer to go with her early on travel days," she says, "The teammates always want to walk with her to games, and I'm happy that we have a team that is mature and unbiased. They understand the big picture, and it helps."
The Rockets started the season with 12 wins from 21 games and are looking at the possibility of a winning season for the first time since 2003. A large part of that is thanks to their Israeli freshman point guard.
Shafir, however, is concentrating on the present and knows that she needs to take one day at a time.
"The level is higher, the players are more physical, and they are more experienced. I don't think about it, because I am just trying to help my team. I can always be better, but I don't think about it," she states.
Shafir is slowly getting more comfortable in her new surroundings in America. Her teammates have helped her get acclimated, but they are also getting a lesson in culture, language and religion. And that collective effort is helping to make this a winning season for all involved, regardless of how it finishes on the court.
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