Taking a shot at life in Israel

David Goldstein takes a look at the many African-American basketball players who choose to play for the Jewish state.

DERRICK SHARP (left) plays a game for Maccabi Elite in February 2008 (photo credit: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS)
DERRICK SHARP (left) plays a game for Maccabi Elite in February 2008
(photo credit: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS)
In the spring of 2004, during Passover, the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team hosted Zelgiris Kaunus in the deciding game of the Euroleague quarterfinals.
With two seconds left, and Maccabi trailing by three points, Giedrius Gustis, who had not missed a free throw all season, stood at the charity stripe with a chance to seal the victory for the Lithuanian team. As Tel Aviv fans headed for the exits, Gustis missed the first and then the second shot.
Israeli player Gur Shelef grabbed the rebound, heaved the ball down the court to Derrick Sharp, who made a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
Completing the “Zalgiris Miracle,” Maccabi won the game in overtime.
Born in Orlando, Florida, Sharp is an African-American who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv for 16 years. During that time, he became an Israeli citizen, served in the IDF, and co-owned Shine and Sharp, a steakhouse located near Maccabi’s Nokia (now Menora Mivtachim) Arena. His eldest son now plays for Bnei Herzliya.
Sharp is one of dozens of African- Americans who have played professional basketball in Israel. In Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land, David Goldstein, a journalist and sports executive, draws on interviews with 40 of them to examine experiences that are, he suggests, at the intersection of race, religion, nationality, politics and sports.
Alley-Oop to Aliyah covers a lot of ground. Goldstein summarizes the league rules that limit the number of foreign players per team and those who can be on the court at any given time, thereby providing incentives for hoopsters to become Israeli citizens.
Because the regular season of the Women’s National Basketball Association occurs in the summer, he reveals, WNBA players (including many African- Americans) can compete in Israel in the fall and winter “off-season.”
And Goldstein tells the stories of Jewish African-American basketball players, including Amar’e Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All Star, who traveled to Israel at the height of his career to connect with his “Hebrew roots,” purchased a stake in the Hapoel Jerusalem team, embraced the faith, had a “Hebraic wedding,” and is now “all in.”
In assessing the adjustment of African- American players to Israel and Israelis to the players, Alley-Oop to Aliyah is decidedly upbeat, with Goldstein tending to take optimistic comments about matters small and large at face value. Asked why African-American players choose Israel, Jeffrey Rosen, the Jewish-American owner of Maccabi Haifa, declares that Israel is a modern, liberal society, open and inviting: “And the misperception that this is a country at siege... is washed away when you are sitting there hanging out at the Mediterranean or going up to have falafel on Mount Carmel, or visiting the sites at Jerusalem. Suddenly, it’s ‘Wow!’” Andrew Kennedy, a Jamaican-American player, tells Goldstein that the people of Haifa greeted him with “nothing but love.” Cory Carr, a native of Fordyce, Arkansas, who played for a dozen teams in Israel, adds that, unlike the United States, being part of a sports organization in Israel “is like being part of a family.”
Goldstein’s treatment of racism is more nuanced. He acknowledges that in a lecture to military officers in 2001, Pini Gershon, the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, claimed that darker blacks “are stupid, they will do whatever you tell them, like slaves.” However, Goldstein reads into the record the comments by several African-Americans who played for Gershon, and deemed the remarks “something he got caught up saying,” that he surely regrets, that he is not a racist, “just Pini being Pini.”
Jitim Young, who played in Israel for three seasons, we learn, attributes the lack of discrimination in Israel to the experiences of Jews over the centuries, as slaves in Egypt and as victims of the Nazi genocide.
“It would be weird to experience racism,” Young said, “from people that have been through the same things you’ve been through – it wouldn’t make sense.”
Even as he asserts that Israel does not have “a major racism problem,” Joe Dawson, who played more than 14 years in Israel, and became an Israeli citizen, responds “Of course,” when asked if he has experienced racism.
Fans, he adds, have called him “nigger.” While trying to enter his car, whose door he had inadvertently locked, Willie Sims, who played for six Israeli teams, was jumped by three plainclothes officers, handcuffed, and pushed to the ground. If “this had been a blond, white guy,” Sims insists, the police would not have acted as they did.
Biases, “conscious, willful or otherwise,” Goldstein concludes, exist in basketball as well as other spheres.
That said, Goldstein suggests that the decision of so many African-American hoopsters to remain in Israel after their playing days are over testifies to their satisfaction with their lives, in comparison, no doubt, with the United States. They have voted, it seems clear, with their (very large) feet.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.