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Israel’s Teen Basketball Hopefuls Head to NYC

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team met NBA stars and hit the court during visit

Yaron Weitzman
February 20, 2015


The kids were all pointing to their shoes and smiling. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Under-14 team had just dropped its third game of the week, this one a 52-38 loss to Harlem’s Thurgood Marshall Academy, but wins and losses were what the weekend was about.

Officially, they had come to New York City to take place in the Gatorade Battle of the Boroughs tournament. For Maccabi, though, the exhibition, which was organized by the NBA and held at Baruch College in conjunction with All Star weekend, was more about opportunities, for both the players and the club.

“We’re expanding and trying to build the Maccabi brand to get fans in American to follow our team,” said Maccabi Tel Aviv general manager Danny Federman, who accompanied the youth team on the trip to New York. Federman watched the games, but also used the time to meet with some of the many scouts that had flocked to New York for the All-Star Game. “And we want our kids to see how American kids play and be exposed to all the great things that this tournament offers.”

For the 10 Israeli kids who made the trip to New York last weekend, though, it was the time off-the-court that really stood out. On Friday the team attended an open All-Star Game practice and on Saturday night the players headed to the Barlcays Center for the dunk and three-point contest. Afterwards the group took the subway back to the Pennsylvania Hotel in Manhattan, where they were staying. Every single one of them fell asleep during the ride. On Sunday they visited Ground Zero. But it was the touristy bright lights that left the greatest mark.

“Times Square was my favorite,” said 14-year-old Herzliya resident Danny Avtija, who was seeing New York for the first time. He, and nearly every other member of the team, purchased a pair of brand new blue and gold Under Armour Stephen Curry basketball sneakers in Times Square. The shoes matched the club’s uniform colors, and the players couldn’t wait to show them off.

But the trip wasn’t just about experiencing New York. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the only international team invited to the tournament—according to the club, it was due to their status as defending Euroleague champion—and they didn’t want to waste the opportunity. That’s why the group they sent was the top Under-14 team in Israel. The best players from there will continue to rise through Maccabi’s system (the rest will go on to play at different levels, like any American high school team) with the hope, according to Federman, of having one or two of them eventually make it up to the club’s top level. The goal is to find talent—Maccabi starts with 10-year-olds and slowly trims its numbers as the kids get older—and develop it. That’s where a tournament like the Battle of the Boroughs comes in.

“This gives them the chance to see what basketball in the States is like,” said Alon Ben Zaken, managing director of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth department. “It’s more aggressive, more athletic, faster. The teams they play at home are not on this level. This is experience that they can’t get in Israel.”

Seeing how the players adjusted was what Federman said he was most interested in.

“The referees don’t call fouls here,” said 14-year-old Avtija. “In Israel you touch a guy and they blow the whistle. It’s a completely different game.”

Maccabi lost its first game by 30 points, but trimmed those deficits down 15 and 14 points in its next two match-ups. Despite the losses, the final scores served as moral victories for the players, the type they could take home with them. To some of the teenagers, such a thing might even be worth more than a shiny new pair of shoes.

Yaron Weitzman is regular contributor to Bleacher Report and senior writer for SLAM magazine. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, New York, and The Ringer. His Twitter feed is @YaronWeitzman.

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