Although they read and write from right to left, Israeli women still run down the basketball court and shoot hoops in the same direction – and as well as their American counterparts – an attribute that women’s college basketball coaches and fans across the US have been increasingly aware of.
There are currently fifteen players at colleges across the US, an all-time high. Some, like Liad Suez (Villanova) and Shay Doron (Maryland) are making their mark at high profile Division One colleges. Others have found their spots at smaller colleges, in lower divisions. But no matter where they are located, they are making a big impression, both on and off the courts.
“Because they play sports, these women are in the limelight,” says Scott Granowitz, a freelance sportswriter for American Jewish newspapers and a college basketball expert.
He explains that it is customary for announcers at college games to call out the players’ home towns, in addition to their names. “That alone is a positive advertisement for Israel,” he told ISRAEL21c. “And since in most cases, Israeli players tend to do well in both school and athletics, they are great ambassadors for Israel.”
The increased presence of Israeli women at American colleges is attributable to a general increase in the popularity of the sport in Israel, says Rachel Ostrowitz, co-founder and coach for Israel’s current top team, Anda Ramat Hasharon.
“There was a big revolution in the sport after Ramat Hasharon made it to the finals in Europe in 1999,” explains Ostrowitz, who says that it was the first time a women’s basketball game was broadcast in prime time in Israel. “For the first time, people really encountered women’s basketball.”
As more young Israeli women turned to basketball, they found incentives to play for American colleges – an opportunity to play ball while earning a degree on scholarship.
“Female college players in Israel cannot survive by playing basketball,” says Ramat Hasharon co-founder Orna Ostfeld. “Israeli schools don’t have the same kind of scholarship system for professional sports. It’s not part of the culture. The money just doesn’t exist here. Israel simply cannot offer players the same conditions to develop.”
Ramat Hasharon Captain Ornit Shwartz, 26, will testify to this fact. “After the army, I wanted to travel and get exposed to a different culture; I wanted to meet new people; I wanted to study; and I wanted to play ball,” says Shwartz, who left Avi Hail, a small village near Netanya, to play ball at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 2000. “Deciding to go to the States on a scholarship was the perfect – and most affordable – way to combine all those goals.”
Maryland Terrapins superstar Guard Shay Doron, 20, agrees and adds a pull factor into the mix. “Women’s basketball has come a long way in Israel, but playing in the US is different because here, they make women’s basketball a big deal; they promote it; they show it on TV a lot; and lots of people come out to the games,” she told ISRAEL21c.
Paradoxically, while more Israeli players are going to the US, more international players are making their way to Israel, resulting in increased competition among Israeli players for spots on Israeli pro teams.
“Israeli players have increasingly narrow chances of playing for the Israeli pro league,” says Eli Rabi, Head Coach for Israel’s National Women’s Team, who explains that there are 10 professional teams in Israel, each with at least three to five American and European players, as opposed to hundreds of colleges across the US that offer women’s basketball at various levels. “Young Israeli players don’t want to sit on the bench in Israel, so they go to the US and there, they get more playing time.”
How do they fare once they get there? Pretty well, according to sportswriter Granowitz.
“Overall, Israeli players are known as good shooters and passers, with the need to improve their conditioning, defense, and subtle fundamentals – such as being able to use both hands around the basket,” he says.
“Israeli players tend to be more mature than American players and appreciative of the opportunity they have been granted to come to the US. As a result, college teams usually get players who are willing to work hard, both individually and for the team, while doing their part in the classroom. Israeli women tend to do very well once they get over the initial adjustment period.”
There are a lot of differences to adjust to. To begin with, there are several differences between American and European/Israeli game styles, such as slightly different-sized balls and a different pace – games in the States are historically much faster, and tend to involve more running.
“Games in the US rely more on physical athleticism and are much quicker than in Europe or Israel,” says Maryland’s Doron. “My biggest challenge playing in America has been learning to play at such high speeds.”
“Americans do things differently than in Israel,” adds Liad Suez, 24, who started playing for Villanova in 2002. “Their playing style is very unique and it has taken me a long time to adjust.”
According to Suez, the basketball culture is very different, in general. “The atmosphere is very different,” she says. “First of all, the crowds in the US. are not as loud and rowdy as the crowds in Israel. In Israel, 500 people make more noise than 5,000 in the US.”
Despite the diminished ruckus, the Israeli players say that coaches and players in the US take the game more seriously. “The players and coaches I played with were very dedicated to the game, and really worked hard,” recalls Shwartz, who attributes the difference at least partially to the fact that American players begin at a much younger age than Israelis. She explains that in Israel, the national priority is the military, so that at age 18 – when a player needs to focus on developing her body in order to play the sport to the best of her ability – she goes to the military instead. A woman who does not do her army service is not eligible to play on Israel’s national team.
“I was a freshman at 21 instead of at 18,” she says. “It’s a big difference. Your body adjusts very differently to training from 18 to 21.”
“In Israel, the coaches don’t spend as much time developing the players as they do worrying about the next game,” adds Suez, who is studying to become a sports psychologist. “Another big difference is that in the US, you are a student first, and then an athlete. Coaches don’t just worry about wins and loses; they worry about each player as an individual.”
For Inbar Orion, 20, who has been a forward for the Stony Brook Seawolves since 2003, achieving balance between academics and athletics has been the biggest challenge. “There is no room for error,” she says. “If you don’t do well in school, you may become ineligible to play basketball, and it may put your scholarship at risk. The standards are very high due to the tough nature of the competition.”
According to Orion, practice in the US is also particularly intense, and usually runs three hours per day, as opposed to 1.5 hours in Israel. They also do quite a bit more weight lifting than in Israel, where coaches are more focused on cardio. “In the US, practice is harder, and hard work and achievement are more highly valued.”
“It’s a different mentality,” adds Shwartz, who concurs that practice in the US is much harder than it is in Israel. “The mentality in Israel is to take shortcuts. You don’t learn how to practice hard. In the US you learn how to make the most of yourself, how to push yourself to the edge, how to take yourself to a higher level, and how to become the best player you can be.”
Although she says she would recommend the experience of playing in the US to prospective players in Israel, Shwartz says some recent studies suggest that the tougher American style of practice is not necessarily healthier. “New studies out of Europe suggest that the European and Israeli ways of practicing might actually be better,” she says.
Perhaps that’s why National Women’s Team coach Rabi disapproves of Israeli women who decide to play in the US. “I don’t think they should go,” he says. “They don’t come back to Israel any better.”
Granowitz disagrees, saying Israeli players do get stronger from playing in the States. “Israeli players get the opportunity to learn a different system, which is important to learn and grow as an athlete, and to become a more well-rounded player.”
Although most players do find their home away from home in the US, almost all admit to missing Israel. Says Doron, “I miss my family, my friends, the food, the weather – everything about Israel! But off the courts, the highlight of my experience in the US has been to see how may Jews here in Maryland support me at games and around campus,” she says. “The Jews of Maryland – especially those at the school’s Hillel House – have been so warm and so welcoming.”
Adds Suez, “Living in the US, has made me appreciate Israel more, and although I’m having a wonderful time here, and I’m learning a lot, there is no place like home.”