Holding Court: Derrick Sharp

"You go to all these countries and you have Palestinian flags in the crowd, and people throwing stuff. It makes me more focused."

Derrick Sharp 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Derrick Sharp 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
There were two seconds left on the clock, and Maccabi Tel Aviv was trailing 94-91 in its crucial European game to Zalgyris Kovna on April 8, 2004. As the crowd prayed for a miracle, Maccabi's Gur Shelef hurled the ball in from under his own team's basket. Team captain Derrick Sharp was about to have a date with destiny. "Something just made me remain in the spot I was in and the ball just came right at me," recalls Sharp of the moment, as he eyed the ball heading downcourt. As the 10,000 Yad Eliahu fans watched, Sharp remembers "I just jumped up and caught it. I didn't have much time to really think about anything. Instinct took over, and I took one more dribble and shot it." The ball swished through the hoop, sending the fans into hysterics, the game into overtime and Maccabi, ultimately, to the European title. Now, almost five years later, his team once again locked in another European playoff campaign, the hero of the day looked back on that night and his career in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. Sharp's seen that historic play hundreds of times, he says, and remembers it as "a kind of out-of-body experience, something out of my control, I was just the body used - it was an immaculate shot." The Maccabi captain, who's leading his team into the Final 16 again this year, recalled the "chills and the goose bumps" he feels whenever he sees the replay of the shot, the reaction of everyone around. But for Sharp, who's known as having ice water in his veins at crunch time, it was just another example of his - as Shelef himself termed it, when he and Sharp received the championship trophy - just "being like Derrick," a play on a famous phrase used to describe another basketball winner, Michael Jordan. By that, Sharp, 37, said Shelef meant he's always "combining hard work, heart and spirit... overcoming adversity, never giving up." For Sharp, who began his career here in 1993 with lower-league Hadera and then Migdal Ha'emek, that meant coming from the University of South Florida, "a small college, and not getting much attention" and still achieving success. When an agent brought a few of Sharp's fellow college players here for tryouts, he decided to bring Sharp along, too and his Israeli professional career began. Eventually, in 1997 the call came from Maccabi, and Sharp's never looked back since. "I always believed in myself, continued to think positive, practice hard and stay focused, and be a positive person, and I think that's what he meant: small in stature but a big heart," says Sharp, who remember his humble beginnings as a child growing up in Orlando, Florida, where he practiced with "a tennis ball, and a bicycle rim I nailed up." In Eatonville, staying at his grandmother's house during the broiling summer, he remembers "I had on real tight shorts and a basketball that was all worn down, because it was the only one I had, and I played with it all the time. It started growing hair because all the rubber was worn out, and underneath the rubber are the fibers that hold it together." He'd play from morning till when the street lights went out, waiting for his chance, never knowing one day it would come, but in Israel, hitting the hairiest of shots. Now, whether wearing Maccabi's colors or playing for the national team, he knows what it's like to represent his country, especially when there is turmoil in the Middle East. "You go to all these countries and you have Palestinian flags in the crowd, and people throwing stuff, coins, and spitting. Actually it drives me even more. It makes me more focused, more excited, your adrenaline flowing. You realize it's time to play and represent your country... it's an honor and we just try to bring integrity and respect for Israel." He credits his mom for helping him "building my character and personality - what it takes to get what you want - hard work, love, compassion." As captain he tries to "respect the game, people, to love the shirt that you wear and to represent it to the fullest on and off the court," including participating in the New York Salute to Israel Parade one year. Despite living here now, having grown up in the South and seen racism, he was very moved by the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He described it as "one of those giant steps that mankind has made to better the world, better everyone, and it was just a great day." He hopes that it will "show that eventually we're going to get to the mind-set where we [realize] we are all created equal no matter the color of our skin, where we come from [or] what we've done." He recognizes Maccabi had a slow start this year, but feels certain it's back on track now, raising its game just like he raised his own on stops at lower division teams before landing a place with the perennial champs. "I always thought that when you have an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it, so I figured that was the path I needed to take," he recalls of the long days spent shooting at rundown gyms, 2,000 shots a day, which finally paid off in the big shot heard round the basketball world. "It goes back to believing - always believing that you've got a chance, that you can win. It's just something that's inside you." For Sharp, who lives in Herzliya, the best part of being here is the weather and being with his family, wife Tina and children Derrick Jr., 12, Gabriel, eight, Immanuel, five, and Maya, two. "Watching them growing up and being with them - that's the greatest thing." An Israeli citizen, his favorite holiday, Yom Kippur, may seem surprising to some, but only underscores his feeling of community both on and off the court. "It shows how together Israel is as a country. There is no place in the world where an entire country respects the holiday even if they don't fast or aren't religious," says Sharp. "Plus it's one of my kids' favorite holidays because they get to ride their bikes in the street without worrying about cars!" He spends a lot of time watching former teammate Anthony Parker play in the NBA. What does he think of new NBA sensation LeBron James and the like? He's impressed, but thinks everyone owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Dr. J or, of course, Michael Jordan. "They paved the way and I'm sure back then they said there would be nobody greater than some of those guys. Everybody has taken a part of those guys' games from the past, and they're the reason we are where we are. They brought basketball to the forefront and showed us so much, and we've taken it and grown from that. You always have to have a stepping stone, and they laid the basis, and the younger guys are still building on it." As the 1.83-meter Sharp prepares for the intensity of the final months of the basketball season, he realizes that if he had not come here, "who knows whether I would have had a professional career at all... I feel blessed by God and thank God for all the blessings that I've had." Despite receiving more limited playing time this season, Sharp stays ready for when the big shot might be needed. Meanwhile, he sticks to his credo, which could mean more hairy shots ahead for one of the gutsier leaders ever to play on the Israeli hardwood: "I think it's not about your size, but what's inside - I try to live by that motto." The Sharp File On his iPod: Kanye West Favorite movie: 'The Color Purple' Favorite TV show: 'Lost' Book reading now: 'Autobiography of Kareem Abdul Jabbar' Favorite Israeli food: A lafa with meat in it, from Safed, 'the best thing I ever tasted in Israel' Best airport to be stuck in: Madrid Leisure time activity: Playing at Pokerstars.com Favorite comedian: Chris Rock Favorite NBA player and teammate: Anthony Parker Holding Court is a new feature offering interviews with local professional and amateur athletes about their careers and lives.