The Friday Feature: Yossi Tamari: Regular guy, fantasy legend

An Israeli software engineer's unlikely ascent to basketball stardom.

yossi tamari basketball 248.88 (photo credit: NBA website)
yossi tamari basketball 248.88
(photo credit: NBA website)
Yossi Tamari isn't your typical NBA Hall of Famer. At about 1.8 meters in height, with straight dark hair and professor-style spectacles, Tamari - a computer science graduate from the Technion Institute and the CTO of a software development company in Kfar Sava - doesn't look much like a basketball legend. Plus there's his name, which just doesn't quite mesh when uttered in the same breath as other hoops immortals. Michael. Magic. Wilt. Kareem. Yossi? "Growing up, I wasn't especially good at basketball," admitted Tamari, 37, a Ra'anana resident who last summer became the second-ever inductee into's Fantasy Basketball Hall of Fame. "When I was in high school my friends and I thought we had a future [in athletics]. But we were wrong." Approximately 30 million people - a majority of them grown men - take part each year in Fantasy Sports, a largely Internet-based activity in which owners create and manage teams of pro athletes in a given sport, and then compete against other owners on the basis of individual players' statistics. For Tamari, who as a teenager in the mid-1980s would regularly pull all-nighters to catch NBA games on Middle Eastern Television, Fantasy Sports is the ideal hobby. ""I've always liked to look at the stats and figure out who was hot and who was not," said Tamari, who works as the chief technical officer of BackFlip Software, an Internet startup firm. "I always watched the NBA and followed the scores anyway, but once I had something invested in it, it became more exciting. [Playing fantasy] was just a way to make my existing hobby more interesting." In popular culture, book-wormish geeks and sports-obsessed jocks tend to occupy polar extremes of the "coolness" spectrum. Participation in fantasy sports, however - which requires a passion for athletics but also a nerd-like affinity for statistics - represents the merging of these two opposing stereotypes. Yet, try explaining the intricacies of your fantasy league to a non-sports enthusiast, and expect the listener to respond with an exaggerated eye-roll, if not an accusation of all-out dork-like behavior. Addressing the Nerd Issue, Tamari - during a sit-down interview with The Jerusalem Post - conceded the point. "Look, I'm a software engineer. It's obvious [that I'm a geek]," said Tamari, who was wearing a black t-shirt with the words 'Beer is Food' written in white across the center of his chest. "I can't really deny it. I mean, you have to like crunching numbers [to play fantasy ball]. But in the US fantasy sports are huge. Here in Israel you look much more strange for doing it, though." Tamari said his expectations "weren't very high" when he made his fantasy debut in a league on two years ago. "But I won the league," he said with a shrug, as though his victory had been the result of a lottery drawing as opposed to having anything to do with his basketball intellect. "I also finished for that specific fantasy site in the top half percent or something like that. I was surprised at how well I was doing, I guess." "I knew I was good, though," he said. Building on that success the following season, Tamari entered two leagues on, the National Basketball Association's official website. One of those formats, the NBA "Stock Market Exchange," was based on a financial system of supply and demand in which owners buy and sell players on a daily virtual trading floor. "That league turned out to be a huge amount of work," said Tamari, appearing exhausted at the mere thought of re-hashing the experience. "You basically had to be in front of the computer at the same time every day to do trades. If you missed one day it could be catastrophic." In fact, Tamari, whose job requires him to travel to the US on business, would often alter his trans-Atlantic flight schedule to accommodate the rigors of the league. "If I had to go to the West Coast, I would take a longer connection just so that I was on the ground at the time the trading floor opened," Tamari said, with a smile acknowledging the absurdity of his words. "I'd do a few trades quickly, then run to the plane. I even had cases where I was typing [on my laptop] as they were calling, 'The last passenger, please come on,' and then that's where I have to admit it got crazy." "If I was married it probably would've been a much bigger problem," he added. Even without a wife, however, the intense, around-the-clock time requirement made him consider leaving the league, although such thoughts evaporated once posted its first year-to-date standings, in which Tamari ranked favorably. "Once I found out I was doing pretty well, I couldn't quit," he acknowledged. The decision would pay off. At season's end, he owned the top aggregate score of all players worldwide. Shortly after, he received an email from informing him that his achievement had warranted induction into the website's Hall of Fame. "It was exciting, I have to admit," said Tamari, who joined a Yale-educated, Taiwanese-born physics scholar as the Hall's only other honoree. Per the league's request, Tamari filled out a questionnaire and sent in a photo of himself, and the next thing he knew, his face was immortalized in the form of a bronze-like bust on the NBA's website. The sketched image, however - any observer with decent eyesight would likely agree - looked nothing at all like the real Yossi. "I guess they did it so that people wouldn't see how ugly fantasy players are," Tamari suggested. So, how did Tamari's friends and relatives react to the news? "Somewhere between 'Don't care' and 'Hey, nice,'" said Tamari. "Nobody got extremely excited. [But at least] nobody told me that I'm crazy for all the time I put in or anything like that." This season, Tamari is competing in four leagues - one on, another on Facebook, and two on - although none are as time-intensive as the Stock Market Exchange from a year ago. "I'm playing with a friend in the office and he's doing better than me," Tamari said. "So I'm getting an excellent reality check." But unlike many of his cyber-space opponents - whom Tamari claims talk trash in fantasy chat forums and whose "childish" behavior makes him "feel really old sometimes" - the high-tech CTO never loses sight of what's important. "It's just a game!" Tamari exclaimed, in by far his most animated tone of the conversation. "That's the point here. Not to get so emotionally attached. It's just like being a fan of basketball or any other team. Obviously [you want to win]. But it's just for fun." "I would never be the fanatic guy who curses and writes stuff on the [forum] walls," he said. At the interview's end, this reporter - who's currently battling to remain competitive in the 'Jpost Challenge,' a fantasy basketball league - tried to extract some tips from the rotisserie league guru. "There are no secrets," Tamari unfortunately responded. Instead, he emphasized common-sense pointers like knowing who's injured and strategizing for the long term. He did, however, offer some general advice that summed up his own keys to success. "You have to be willing to put in time," said Tamari, "You have to be able to develop a strategy and a tactic." "And oh," he added with a chuckle, as if forgetting something vital, "you have to be somewhat intelligent."