Hoop Dreams: Israeli High-scorer Shoots for the NBA

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On Monday, Elad Inbar came one step closer to going where no Israeli has gone before: the National Basketball Association.

At a practice facility in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey, Inbar had a tryout in front of the general manager and CEO of the New Jersey Nets, Rod Thorn — the same man who drafted a young Michael Jordan from the University of North Carolina.

Inbar, a 26-year-old forward, is not a bad prospect himself. During his last year at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Inbar was named national player of the year for Division II college basketball, and he graduated last Sunday as the highest-scoring Israeli player in the history of NCAA basketball.

Before and after the tryout, Inbar received moral support from his college coach, Ron Barer, who was wearing a silver Star of David around his well-tanned neck. Barer is a former MVP of the international Maccabiah games. In the three years since he arrived at Lowell, he has presided over a tiny outpost of the Israeli basketball world, with four Israeli players graduating this year alone.

Inbar’s game clearly takes after the European style of smooth, crisp basketball. At the Nets practice facility, Inbar gestured dreamily at the retired number of Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian great who was one of his early heroes. Like Petrovic, Inbar is a great shooter; during his junior season at Lowell, he made an almost superhuman 53% of his shots from beyond the three-point line.

Thorn said the Nets have been looking for another strong shooter to prop up their roster since the season ended two weeks ago with a devastating loss in game seven of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Nets constitute their own little empire of Jewish basketball in the NBA. Larry Frank, one of two Jewish coaches in the league, coaches the team, and a Jewish developer, Bruce Ratner, is expected to become the new owner after a perfunctory vote of executives at an upcoming NBA meeting.

There is no shortage of Jews at the executive levels of the NBA, right up to the commissioner of the league, David Stern. In the past, great Jewish players have taken the court, including Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, who played for the Syracuse Nationals throughout the 1950s, and Ernie Grunfeld, the son of Holocaust survivors, who went on to star with the New York Knicks in the 1980s. Today, though, there are no Jewish players in the NBA, and there never has been any representation from Israel.

That situation may change this year — even if Inbar does not make the team. Another Israeli, Amit Tamir — a 6-foot, 10-inch recent graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, who grew up in Jerusalem — has been mentioned by a number of scouts previewing next month’s NBA draft.

Indeed, the chances of Inbar being the first to make the leap did not look particularly bright Monday. It was evident that he was not quite prepared for the level of play he was confronted with at his hour-long individual workout. When he came over to speak to reporters, Inbar was drenched in sweat, white crust forming at the edges of his lips.

“I felt a little tired out there,” Inbar said. “I’m just happy to have a chance to work out with NBA coaches.”

After the tryouts, Thorn said he knew from his scouting that Inbar was a great passer and team player. But Thorn knocked his conditioning and said the Israeli’s lanky, 6-foot-7-inch frame could use some beefing up.

If Inbar could put on the necessary muscle and elevate his game, it would be a public relations coup for the Nets. Ratner recently announced his intentions to move the Nets to a new arena in Brooklyn, designed by Frank Gehry, which, if New York politics don’t block it, will be built at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, near the epicenter of what is still America’s largest Jewish community. Having the only Jewish player in the league would be an obvious draw for the team.

But if it does not work out, all will not be lost for Inbar. Hours after his Nets tryout, he boarded a plane for Israel, preparing for a tryout with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the kings of Israeli basketball. Just last month, the team won the European championship at a game in Tel Aviv, setting off euphoric celebrations throughout the country. Inbar said that playing for the team would not be a bad second option at all.

“Watching Maccabi Tel Aviv while growing up, that’s always been a dream of mine,” Inbar said.

Inbar’s childhood was spent in Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa. Unlike American children, most kids there gravitated toward soccer, but Inbar’s father had played for the Israeli national basketball team, and young Elad’s growth spurts made his choice of sports easy. Inbar did his obligatory three years of military service, but was given a special allowance and schedule to play for a club basketball team.

Age restrictions make it difficult for Israelis to play Division I college basketball in America after their military service; a recent NCAA rule change mandating that players finish college within five years of completing high school will effectively exclude Israelis who serve in the army after high school. But until recently, the rules were different for Division II teams like Lowell, and Barer welcomed Israeli players with open arms.

Barer took his Israeli players to synagogue with him, and they broke the fast together on Yom Kippur. Inbar said he was not particularly religious, but these moments of maintaining his ties to Israeli tradition made the time away from home much easier.

Inbar and his teammate Uri Grunwald led Barer’s team to a record of 100 wins and 27 losses over their four years. In the last win of his college career, Inbar scored the game-winning shot with 4.5 seconds left.

He has a calm reserve that was evident Monday as he ran and dribbled across the floodlit practice court alone, with more than a dozen coaches and trainers silently watching him and judging his every move.

Part of this calm undoubtedly comes from the sobering experience that Inbar had while serving in an armored unit of the Israeli military, where he faced crises more dire than making a last-second basket.

“I take it a little easier,” said Inbar. “I realize it’s just a game.”

In fact, Inbar did not seem flustered after his less-than-stellar tryout. Even if the Nets pass him over, and even if Maccabi Tel Aviv says no, with his honors as an Academic All-American, Inbar said he could see himself working at some “Wall Street type of job.”

Not that he’s counting himself out quite yet. In a moment of bravado probably learned during his years in America, it was clear that he is not underestimating his chances at making the NBA: “I think I can do pretty much everything when it comes to a basketball game.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.