New Book Explores African-American Basketball Players in Israel
JNS.org – David A. Goldstein is a Canadian sports executive, lawyer and author of the new book, Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land.
According to Goldstein, when he started on the book 11 years ago, he discovered an unknown, upbeat phenomenon.
“I didn’t set out to create that positive feeling about Israel. That feeling is created by this country — how players embrace it, and in turn, how this country embraces them,” he said at a Nefesh B’Nefesh event featuring a panel with some of Israel’s most well-known Zionist basketball superstars.
According to Goldstein, more than 800 African-American players have competed in Israel. “This phenomenon was hiding in plain sight,” he told JNS. “It’s a phenomenon that’s much larger than many [people] realize. After playing here, some players convert. And others fully commit to living life here as Israelis — staying and becoming citizens, joining the IDF and raising their kids as Israelis with fluent Hebrew.”
Although many hoopsters are at first hesitant to even visit Israel, let alone live there, said Goldstein, many come for the beautiful weather and scenery; friendly people; good nightlife; and the ease with which English speakers can get by.
Eventually, Goldstein said, many come to love Israel.
“They celebrate Jewish holidays like Purim and Pesach, go to beach or the Western Wall, show patriotism on Israel’s Independence Day and even choose the No. 18 jersey (“chai,” the number symbolizing life in the Jewish faith) later in their careers — as a homage to Israel and the Jewish people,” he said.
As these athletes embrace Israel, Goldstein found, Israel embraces them back. “In Israel, players are welcomed in a way that’s special compared to other countries,” said Goldstein.
“They like Israel — and even love it — take less money [to play here], and then go on to tell others Israel is not what they see on the news,” said Goldstein. “They become part of the family.”
According to Goldstein, although players who stay in Israel and become citizens have the notoriety of being famous, they share a lot of commonalities with other olim (new immigrants) who become citizens. They might complain about having no personal space at the bank or dealing with aggressive drivers, but they are also invited to Shabbat dinners.
Aulcie Perry is perhaps the first and best example of a player fully embracing Israel — and being embraced in return.
“Aulcie is the forefather of this movement and phenomenon,” said Goldstein.
Perry originally signed a two-month contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s; he ended up not only staying in Israel, but serving in the Israel Defense Forces, converting to Judaism and becoming an Israeli citizen.
Perry’s aliyah predated Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization founded in 2002 to make the aliyah process easier and facilitate the integration of new immigrants into Israeli society.
Despite the various hardships of getting used to Israeli culture, Perry fell in love with Israel. Recalling his first year with Maccabi, he said it was “an unbelievable dream come true” — to play at a high level and have the whole country behind the team.
He also found that he was accepted in Israel in a way that he never experienced in the United States.
“I was born in the 1950s in America during the Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination,” Perry told JNS. “And here in Israel, I learn there’s 100 ethnic groups all together as one and hardly no racism,” he said. “And that opened the door.”
Goldstein, who has studied the intersection of sports, Zionism, culture and race for more than a decade, found that other African-American players share this sentiment. “By and large, they don’t feel racism,” he stated. “Many see commonalities in the history of persecution between Jews and African-Americans.”
According to American-Israeli Josh Halikman, editor of sportsrabbi.com, this phenomenon “speaks volumes of who we are as a country and a people.”
“Everyone knows that Israel is the best country to play in,” said Perry. “I don’t know any African-American basketball player who doesn’t want to play here.”
Tamir Goodman, an American-Israeli basketball player known as the “Jewish Jordan,” found this capacity of family-building especially unique when he moved to Israel. He told JNS of its special capacity “to break through boundaries while at the same time uniting so many people.”
Goodman lauded the influence of African-American players in Israel who have changed the Israeli basketball industry. “Their influence in Israel is all positive, as I see it,” he said. “Now, playing in the NBA is possible for Israelis. We wouldn’t have gotten that if not for African-American players who taught us a different style of play, better defense and how to get to the hoop. We learn from the great players, and that’s what basketball is about.”
Goldstein concurred with Goodman, saying, “When you’re an Israeli kid playing basketball, it’s an escape or a game. But if you’re an African-American playing here, it’s your job, and you work hard at it. They teach Israelis players to raise their work ethic. Omri Casspi said he learned about hard work and dedication from them.”
“I want people to know that if they see an African-American basketball player walking around in Israel or watch them play, they know what that person has contributed [to Israel] in so many different ways,” Goldstein added.
As he told JNS, “my biggest aspiration is that this very positive phenomenon about a really amazing group of people, and a really unique and amazing country, becomes better known.”