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March 1, 2013 1:24 am

How an NBA Player Plays Ball in the Holy Land

avatar by Deena Rosenblatt / Tazpit News Agency

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Craig Smith. Photo: Deena Rosenblatt/Tazpit News Agency.

When most people think about sports in Israel, the first sport that comes to mind is soccer. But over the years basketball has become increasingly popular in the Holy Land. One of the major teams that play in the Israeli Basketball Super League, the top division of Israeli basketball, is Hapoel ‘Migdal’ Jerusalem. Based out of the Malha arena, Hapoel Jerusalem was originally founded in 1943 and has attracted players from all over the world.

Currently the team is home to nine Israeli players as well as five from abroad; one Georgian player, and four Americans.  Although the majority of players on Hapoel Jerusalem are Israeli, the team attracts American NBA players and its most recent is American power forward/center, Craig Smith.
Originally from Inglewood, California, Smith graduated from Fairfax High School and went on to play Division I basketball at Boston College.  Smith graduated as the team’s leader in rebounds and was the second highest scorer, in addition to attaining a degree in Sociology. After college, he went on to be drafted into the NBA where he played for six seasons on the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trailblazers; for his seventh season he decided to come overseas to continue his basketball career in Israel.
Although it was difficult for Smith to leave his family and fiancé, they have been very supportive of his decision and understand how important the opportunity is for him.  “It’s a once in a lifetime experience living in Israel for a year, [especially] with so much history [and] biblical aspects,” Smith told Tazpit News Agency. He finds a lot of meaning in playing “where [his] homie Jesus is from.”

Smith views coming to Israel not only as an opportunity to play basketball, but also as a “learning opportunity on and off the court.” He had lived in the States his whole life and explained that he was “always curious to know what it would be like to live abroad [and also] learn another culture and adapt to it….Jerusalem felt right in this situation.”

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Another factor in cementing Smith’s decision to play in Israel was the encouragement he received from former American Hapoel Jerusalem player Roger Mason to do so. In addition, Smith also cited the weather, which is similar to his native California.

Since Smith stepped off the plane, the Hapoel team has opened their arms and welcomed him warmly to the Hapoel family. Smith described how the Israelis and Americans on the team are very close and “often joke around with each other.”

The former LA Clippers basketball player has also been invited to several Shabbat meals by his teammates, which have all been eye-opening experiences. When Smith encounters religious people in Israel, he says he enjoys learning about their traditions. “They will explain to you what the process is before you can eat….all the different types of Jewish culture here are pretty cool,” he stated.

When asked about the differences of NBA style of basketball to Israeli basketball, Smith points to some variances in rules. “In the NBA a player cannot stay in the key for more than three seconds or it is a violation, while in Israeli basketball there is no such rule.” In addition the game in Israel according to Smith is somewhat more physical “which is a little tough.”  He also mentioned that in Israel “it’s a little bit more of a team game” in contrast to the NBA where there is more of an individualized effort. In the Israeli league, Smith feels he is more of a focal player and a target, which he explains is “a great honor.”

As for the “Malcha Brigade,” which is Hapoel Jerusalem’s dedicated fan base, Smith describes them as being “rowdy in a good way” and that “not until you experience it do you really know and get a feel for it.”

Based on Smith’s overall experience, he recommends the overseas experience to any basketball player. It “will definitely enlighten you; make you a better person at the end of the day and more knowledgeable about the world.”

As for Craig’s future with Hapoel Jerusalem, he is in no rush to get back to the NBA. He elaborates, “I am having a great time out here, but it really comes down to what happens in the summer time.”

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