Unorthodoxly Orthodox: Shafir excels at Toledo

Sinai Says: Na'ama Shafir went against all conventions by chasing her dream of becoming a professional basketball player while maintaining devout way of life.

Na'ama Shafir 311 (photo credit: FIBA Europe)
Na'ama Shafir 311
(photo credit: FIBA Europe)
For Na’ama Shafir, setting precedents has become somewhat of a habit.
Hailing from the religious community of Hoshaya in the Lower Galilee, Shafir went against all conventions by choosing to chase her dream of becoming a professional basketball player while maintaining her devout way of life.
Eleven days ago, the 21-year-old recorded yet another first, leading the University of Toledo to a 76-68 victory over Southern California in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship game, guiding the Rockets to their first ever title with a career-high 40 points.
For the 15th time this season – and as she has done throughout her three years in Toldeo – Shafir walked to Savage Arena, as it was still Shabbat. While her teammates gave interviews to the media and signed autographs, she was preparing to make the 20-minute stroll back home.
Shafir is adamant on practicing her religion while doing all she can to realize her potential on the basketball court, agreeing to play for Toledo only after receiving assurances that she would be able to maintain her Kosher diet and wear a t-shirt under her jersey.
UT coach Tricia Cullop agreed to make sacrifices, including scheduling workouts all season long around Shabbat, practicing on Friday afternoons before sundown and Saturday nights after sundown, so that Shafir could balance playing basketball with being a student and a religious Jew.
Cullop would not regret that decision.
“She’s as good as they come, and I think tonight she showed she’s one of the best guards in the country,” Cullop said after Shafir earned tournament MVP honors for her 40-point display, which included 23 points in the second half. “She was unstoppable. She had that will and desire that she wasn’t going to let this go the other way. Na’ama has shown that at times when we’ve needed her the most.”
Shafir, who is believed to be the first female Orthodox Jew to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship, had her doubts before deciding to move to the US, but she now relishes every moment in college.
“After discussing my options with different people I decided that I had to give it a shot. I knew that this was an opportunity I had to take and that it was now or never,” she told me last week. “I’m not sure how they heard of me but from the first time I spoke to them they sounded like they really wanted to help.
“It is an amazing experience. At the beginning it wasn’t simple, but everyone helped and welcomed me very warmly. I’m very happy I made this decision, especially from a basketball standpoint. It is amazing to play in front of thousands of fans.”
Cullop was alerted to Shafir’s talents by a friend who sent her a DVD of a few of Na’ama’s games for Israel’s under-18 national team, and the coach believes her point guard has helped her team in more ways than one.
“It would be easy for her to say, I’m away from home, I’ll eat whatever, I’ll practice over Shabbat,” Cullop said when Shafir first joined Toledo. “It’s to be admired that she said, ‘this is what I want to do.’ My team admires what she’s doing. She’s a great example of someone who is sticking to their guns and doing what they believe.”
Shafir credits her teammates and coaching staff for allowing her to make a smooth transition and achieving such success.
“I’m sure it was slightly strange for them at the start,” she said. “But they were very interested, and now they have gotten used to it and do all they can to make life easier for me.”
Shafir, who averaged 15.3 points, 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 30.8 minutes this season, feels that her game has significantly progressed over her three seasons in Toledo, but she still has no idea what she will do when she graduates with a Business Management degree in the spring of 2012.
“I’ve really improved. I can’t really put my finger on exactly what, but I’m a much better player overall. My shooting and understanding of the game have improved and I’m a much more mature player,” she said.
“I have one more year in Toledo and I really have no clue what I’ll do after that.
I’m not thinking of that yet. I believe that I’ll continue with basketball but I have no idea exactly how and where.”
Like each of the past two years, Shafir will return to Israel in the coming summer, but this time she will be doing so not just to spend time with family and friends, but also to join the senior national team in its preparations for EuroBasket Women 2011 to be played in Poland in June.
Israel’s Group B opener will be played against the Czech Republic on June 18, which happens to be Shabbat.
However, Shafir has found her way to combine tradition and sports and is happy with the balance she has achieved.
“I first played on Shabbat for Israel’s youth teams and I’ve gotten used to it. It really isn’t a big deal for me to walk to the arena and back,” said Shafir, who stays with a teammate in a hotel near the arena when Toledo plays on the road.
“The people around me are very supportive, but I’m sure that there are people who don’t agree with me 100 percent.
However, I asked people I trust and I’m at peace with what I’m doing. I try to listen to those who support me rather than those who criticize.”