Single Dad’s Hoop Dreams Come True in Tel Aviv
When the NBA passed on him, guard Tyrese Rice found a home in Israel—and led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth Euroleague crown
Rice joked that other former Maccabi players “set the bar really high for Tel Aviv.” One who told him “You’re going to heaven” when he signed with the club—and would text him asking “How you likin’ heaven right now?”
Heaven sounds about right to Maccabi guard Ricky Hickman, a North Carolina native who joined the team in 2012. “It’s almost like being in college again because the fans and people really embrace you, and they show you love here,” said Hickman, who went undrafted after leaving UNC-Greensboro in 2007 and took a job loading trucks for the Post Office in North Carolina until after Thanksgiving, when he got a call from a Romanian club offering him a job. But playing ball in Romania, it turned out, wasn’t much better than working for the Post Office.
“I played in Romania and Finland and lower leagues, and some of them, it’s like a disaster being there. The working conditions are just terrible and if you’re not mentally strong, you’re going to end up just going back home and getting a job,” he said.
Like Rice, Hickman—who was also given citizenship by Georgia to play for their national team—said that signing with Maccabi was taking a step forward, even if some people in the United States didn’t quite get it. “My mom was like ‘Is it safe over there? Is it a good idea to be there?’ Everybody thinks there’s a war going on over here all the time,” Hickman said.
There are also moments when the cultural differences between Israel and the United States emerge in unpleasant ways. On May 27, a little over a week after the Maccabi victory, Oded Tira, the chairman of the National Council for Sport, used the term kushim, a derogatory Hebrew term for black people, when describing the team’s victory. During an event to congratulate Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi, Tira said how some people were dismayed that the club “played with five kushim throughout much of the game.” Though there was a short-lived controversy and Tira apologized to the Maccabi players, he faced nowhere near the retribution of Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who in April was banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million by the league after private recordings of racist comments he made about black people were made public.
“I don’t really care if he’s a racist or not honestly, he made the comment, it’s wrong, but for me I don’t care because I don’t know this guy, he doesn’t know me, that’s what he thinks, that’s what he thinks. People aren’t going to know him or love him or us any less than they do because of it,” Rice said, when asked about the controversy.
Forward David Blu, the mixed-race son of a white Jewish mother and an African-American father, also appeared to take a forgiving stance. “I never want to judge somebody by what they say but by what they do and how they act toward me. He made that comment and came in that same night and apologized. Sincere or not, he made the effort.”
Blu, who grew up in Los Angeles and played for USC, will be 34 next month. On Wednesday he played what he said would be his last basketball game, as Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Maccabi Haifa for their 51st Israeli championship title. With an upbringing that included celebrating Jewish holidays and playing in the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel as a teen, Blu (then “Bluthenthal”) came to Tel Aviv with a bit more familiarity with the religion and the culture. He attained Israeli citizenship and started taking Hebrew “ulpan” classes, but his feet didn’t quite touch the ground until he learned to embrace his Israeli life for its own sake, and not as a substitute for playing NBA ball. “Americans come over here to make money,” he explained. “My rookie year I came over here for a paycheck and to make it to the NBA. Once I learned that the key is to try to understand where you are and where you live, I started to enjoy it.”
For his part, Rice said he has acclimated well to Israel, but he still has his eyes set on returning to the United States. In five years he’ll have spent 10 years playing pro ball, which is how he planned it. He said he’s looking to buy a house in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston. On Maccabi’s dream season and his newfound status as an Israeli sports hero he said simply, “It’s one of those things you embrace because you don’t know if one day it’s not going to happen anymore.”
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