Hoop Dreams: Israeli High-scorer Shoots for the NBA

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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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.”

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