PHILADELPHIA — NBA forward Deni Avdija wants everybody back home in Israel to know he’s thinking of them.
Though he’s an ocean and thousands of miles away from his homeland embarking on his fourth NBA season with the Washington Wizards, he feels his fellow Israelis’ pain at Hamas’s murder of some 1,200 people and capture of another 240 and is praying for the IDF soldiers on the front lines in the war, now in its second month, against the terror organization that rules the Gaza Strip.
While Avdija may be crying on the inside, he’s trying his best to remain upbeat on the outside. Following the Wizards’ 146-128 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on November 6, the 22-year-old Avdija was kidding around with teammates, trying his best not to stand out.
Speaking of those teammates, he says they’ve helped him deal with something that falls well outside the playbook.
“My teammates are the best,” said the 6’9″ Avdija, who scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds and handed out six assists in 28 minutes in the game as the Wizards fell to 1-5. “They’re supporting me. They’re asking questions. They want to know what’s going on in my country and I respect that. They’re trying to understand the situation.”
“It helps. You’re away from home, your friends are fighting, and the nation of Israel is not really safe right now. Them coming and showing that they care means a lot to me,” he said.
It’s the least they can do, they say. “We try to support him in every way and be a light for him in a very uncertain time for him and his family back home,” said Wizards fourth-year forward Anthony Gill. “If there’s time you see him down we try to provide light and joy for him.”
“Deni’s a joyous person. He’s always looking for a joke. So any day he’s not doing that we try to lift him up,” said Gill. “For Deni it just allows him to know he is supported. That’s the biggest thing,”
Philadelphia’s Nicolas Batum can relate in a unique way. “I played the same day there was a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris,” said Frenchman Batum of the coordinated Islamic State attacks that killed at least 130 and injured hundreds more. “It wasn’t easy, but you want to show your people your strength.”
“My teammates were there for me. They stood up and supported me,” he said.
In the same vein, knowing his teammates have his back has allowed Avdija to flourish on the court. While it’s early in the season, statistically he’s off to his best year yet, averaging a career-high 12.0 points, with 6.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists, while shooting at a 50% percent clip.
It’s been noticed. “Deni’s played very well,” said Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. who’s had Avdija in the starting lineup every game. “He’s been assertive, aggressive and we’ve seen an uptick in his efficiency. He also has a better level of confidence. So I think he’s at a good place basketball-wise and I think he’s weathering the climate at home pretty well.”
Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not always on his mind.
“I’m calling home a lot to check on my people, my friends,” said Avdija, who’s relieved knowing all of his family members are safe. “Praying for them. Praying for the families. Praying for the people who got kidnapped. I want them back home and healthy.”
Sadly, there’s little he can do about it on the court, where he finds himself surrounded by eight new teammates this season. “It’s part of the NBA; part of the business,” said Avdija, who joins Gill as the longest-tenured Wizard. “You can’t do anything about it.
“But I like having new teammates. They bring a new culture. It’s got to mean something if you’re one of the longest here,” he said.
That was made evident when Avdija recently signed a four-year, $55 million contract extension to remain with the Wizards.
“It feels good and the money is definitely great and it’s a bonus,” said Avdija, who hails from the central Israeli city of Herzliya. “But the fact you’re wanted here means a lot. It’s more about showing that the organization respects you and wants you to stay.”
Of course, Avdija is also very much respected back home. That’s why some 50 of his fans waited an hour after the game hoping to greet him. They ranged from representatives of the Philadelphia Jewish community to native Israelis, to even survivors from the October 7 massacre at the Supernova music festival where Hamas gunmen mowed down some 260 partygoers. Unfortunately, due to security concerns, the Wizards wouldn’t permit it.
But their admiration remains unchanged. “For kids who love basketball in Israel, Deni is an icon,” said Mikayla Dubery, who came to Philadelphia to help organize the outing after being in Israel at the time of the attacks.
“For those of us, even though we don’t play basketball, Deni is an icon,” she said. “He represents the epitome of an Israeli doing what he loves at a time when we’re being dehumanized by society and by crazy people who want to spread hatred. The fact Deni is able to show faith and play and represent Israel as he does is the biggest deal for us.”
In turn, Avdija has a message for these fans and for all Israelis. “I just want to say my prayers are for all the people and for the guys who got kidnapped,” Avdija said. “I wish for them to return home safely.”
“I’m sorry for all the soldiers; the people who lost their lives in this attack. My prayers are for the families and standing with Israelis always no matter what happens,” he said.
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