When Brad Leaf went all the way from Indiana to Northern Israel in 1982 to play professional basketball, he came equipped with a Jewish certificate, granting him Israeli citizenship. This enabled him to play as a nationalized player for Hapoel Galil Elyon and later Maccabi. Seventeen years (and one Israeli MVP Award) later, Leaf left Israel as a basketball legend—and in retrospect nobody cares that he wasn’t actually Jewish and that the source of his papers was questionable (those were the wild ’80s and he played for a kibbutz team anyway). Now, his 20-year-old son, T.J., who was born in Tel Aviv, is headed to the NBA.
If he plays in an NBA game, the 6’10” forward and projected a first-round selection will be just the second Israeli-born NBA player in history to see minutes, following the footsteps of Omri Casspi (who was selected as the 23rd pick in the 2009 NBA Draft).
T.J. is not Jewish. He was was born in Tel Aviv in 1997, two years before his dad called it quits from basketball and returned to the states. “There was the Lebanon War and the Gulf War when we were there, but it’s not like what people think,” Brad told The Los Angeles Daily News. “We loved it there. The people are great. I didn’t know if we’d ever come back.”
T.J. grew up in San Diego and developed his basketball skills under the supervision of his father, who was also his coach in Foothills Christian High School where he excelled as a top talent. In summer of 2015, when it was time to start looking for a suitable college home—Arizona, Indiana and Oregon were considered before choosing UCLA—Leaf decided instead to go back to his homeland, this time as a member of the Israeli under-18 national team in the European division B tournament. “It grew me up a lot culture-wise and maturity-wise. But it was awesome being there, where I’m from, and just having a good time,” Leaf told Bleacher Report. “It was just a fun trip, and I’d love to do it again.” This fun trip turned out to be a success as he led his new friends to the finals by averaging 16.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Leaf managed to duplicate these numbers a year later as a freshman in UCLA.
While the Bruins star Lonzo Ball caught most of the fan’s and media’s attention, Leaf thrived and posted 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting 46.6 percent from behind the arc, showing excellent accuracy for a big man. Both Ball and Leaf will find their new NBA homes on Thursday, as the draft gets underway in Brooklyn. The former will see his name come off the board in the beginning of the evening, his fellow forward will be picked in the middle of the first round. He already worked out for Atlanta, Utah, Indiana, Portland, Denver and Miami. Whatever team picks him, Leaf’s NBA future is secure for now, as opposed to Casspi’s who is a free agent and spent eight underwhelming seasons playing for five teams overall. Who knows, maybe the two will play together in the Israeli national team. Or in an American state year you.