Field Work: A league of his own

When Brooklyn native Sylven Landesberg was left in limbo, Israel seemed to be a natural choice, given his Jewish background.

Sylven Landesberg 521 (photo credit: Maccabi ‘Bazan’ Haifa)
Sylven Landesberg 521
(photo credit: Maccabi ‘Bazan’ Haifa)
Sylven Landesberg is not exactly your typical looking Israeli. Indeed, being a six-foot-six-inch black man means you never quite blend into a crowd. But despite spending just two years in Israel, the 21-year-old Maccabi Haifa guard already feels like this is his second home.
And he has the documentation to prove it.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Landesberg is the son of a Christian mother, Ingrid, and Jewish father, Steven – hence his aliya in 2010 to embark on a professional career as a basketball player.
Landesberg seemed destined for great things after being named a McDonald’s High School All American, as well as New York State Mr. Basketball.
It was on his parents’ advice that he went to the University of Virginia in 2008 and his future seemed as bright after he averaged 16.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game his freshman season, and was named the ACC Rookie of the Year.
Landesberg led the Cavaliers in scoring again in his sophomore season, averaging 17.3 points a game, along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
However, his season was marred after he was suspended for failing to meet academic obligations towards the end of the campaign. Shortly afterwards, he declared for the NBA draft.
But Landesberg was left in limbo after no NBA team was willing to give him an opportunity, leaving him to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional basketball player overseas.
Israel seemed to be a natural choice considering his Jewish background, but life in the Holy Land wasn’t always as straightforward as Landesberg had predicted.
“To come here from college was very tough,” he admits. “I went to school away from home, but coming to a whole other country was really ‘wow.’ The first two months were really tough. I would phone home every day and tell people I don’t know if I can make it.
“But I adjusted, not just to the country, but to being a professional. I had to adjust to all of that. But I love it now and look at Israel like a second home.”
Growing up in a mixed-religion household meant that Landesberg often spent Jewish holidays at his grandparents, while going to church with his mother during Christian festivals.
He nevertheless feels that his upbringing has helped him settle in to life in Israel.
“I felt like being half-Jewish and having the background I do would help me to relate to the people more and feel like I’m part of the country,” he says. “I felt it was more special coming to Israel. Knowing some of the traditions definitely did help me.”
Landesberg had a largely erratic 2010/11 season, averaging 13.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 27 games for Haifa, which ended a disappointing campaign in ninth place, beating Ironi Ashkelon in the relegation playoffs.
He says he never imagined that his second season with the team would be even worse, with Haifa currently in last place in the league with a 3-15 record, losing its past 12 BSL games, a streak stretching back to November.
However, Landesberg is the last player that can be blamed for Haifa’s desperate struggles, averaging 21.0 points – second in the league – while also contributing 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
“With the players we have we expect a lot more from ourselves,” he says. “We continue to fight and come out and practice hard. It’s just been tough. I’ve been playing all right, but I can’t say I’m pleased with my play because the things you do on the court should help to translate into wins. I feel like I should be doing more to help the team win.
“I feel like I can help more on the defensive end and on rebounding,” he adds. “I should get more players involved. These are things I’ve always been doing, but I need to do them better.”
Being just 21 and only in his second season as a pro, Landesberg believes he has plenty of room for improvement.
“I came back a more improved player in my second year,” he says. “Last year was my first year and it was tough just adjusting to the league. It was also my first year professionally. I think I improved largely because I’m more confident and more comfortable in the league. Experience was also very important. I feel that experience is underrated. That one year experience helped me out a lot, and I learned a lot and I continue to learn this year.”
As an Israeli citizen, Landesberg is also eligible to play for the national team and he hopes to be selected for this summer’s EuroBasket 2013 qualifiers.
“I feel like it would be a great opportunity and a great honor to play for Israel,” he says. “To compete against professionals from around the world would be a lot of fun and a great opportunity.”
Landesberg completes his two-year contract with Haifa at the end of this season, and considering his form in recent months, it is all but inevitable he will be snatched up by a bigger team for 2012/13.
Not surprisingly, one of the teams being mentioned in connection with Landesberg is the all-conquering Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has made a habit of scooping up the best local talent.
“I have no idea what’s going on next year. I don’t know what’s happening,” he says. “We’ll wait until after the season to see what’s going on. Maccabi is a great team. If a team like that shows interest in me, that’s a big honor.”
While an offer from Tel Aviv will be very welcome, it is not what Landesberg dreams about at night.
“The NBA is the big dream for any basketball player,” he says. “It is definitely a goal and a dream. But if I remain in Europe, that’s not a bad thing.”
In the meantime, Landesberg is appreciating the subtleties of life in Israel.
“The Israeli experience has been pretty cool. I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “I’m from New York where everything is fast and where everyone wants the big city life. But out here I feel that people are more laid back. They have a more relaxed way of going about things.
“It amazes me that people remember to kiss the mezuza every time they go through a door. In New York people forget to even hold doors open for people.”