AFP — Israel’s first major achievement in international basketball was Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 European championship, an event so important that then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin delayed his resignation announcement until the final match had ended.
Basketball’s popularity in the Jewish state has grown massively over the ensuing decades, but Israel has not yet produced a homegrown star who excelled in the world’s top league, the NBA.
That could be set to change, beginning this week, with 19-year-old Deni Avdija starting his NBA career with the Washington Wizards.
The 6 ft 9 in small forward was chosen ninth overall in the November draft, the highest-ever slot for an Israeli-born player.
Avdija, born on the Beit Zera kibbutz in northern Israel, will not be the first Israeli-born player in the NBA.
That was Omri Casspi, who debuted for the Sacramento Kings in 2009 and had a middling career, averaging 7.9 points per game over 10 seasons.
But many basketball experts believe Avdija offers Israel’s first legitimate shot at NBA stardom.
Former NBA coach and executive Brad Greenberg, who now coaches Israel’s Nes Ziona club, described Avdija as “one of the best players in his age group outside the US, which these days means you are on par with the very best players even in the US.”
Greenberg, who as the Philadelphia 76ers general manager drafted legendary point guard Allen Iverson in 1996, told AFP that Avdija “has the potential to play at a very high level.”
“Deni is special,” said Oded Kattash, one of Israel’s most accomplished players who now coaches Hapoel Jerusalem of Israel’s Premier League.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if he grew up in Serbia, Croatia, Germany, the US or Israel: he would make it,” added Kattash, who was on track to be Israel’s first NBA player until a 1998-99 lockdown derailed his opportunity with the New York Knicks.
But Kattash stressed that Avdija’s rise is at least partly attributable to improvements in Israel’s talent development system.
“Five six years ago, people would say that young Israeli players are spoiled and lazy,” Kattash told AFP.
“Things are much better now… A lot of clubs put more money and attention into the youth department.”
For Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin, who made a documentary about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 championship, there is a clear connection between that unlikely title and Avdija.
“That victory in 1977, it absolutely changed everything,” said Menkin, whose 2016 film “On the Map” argued that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s championship invigorated a young nation still recovering from the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
While Maccabi beat Italian club Mobilgirgi Varese in the final, the semifinal win over Soviet powerhouse CSKA Moscow was even more profound, as Israel shocked a geopolitical rival which had supported its Arab rivals in the war.
Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who moved to Israel in 1986, recalled in the film that he considered taunting his KGB captors after Maccabi’s victory.
Menkin told AFP that Maccabi’s development into a major international club after 1977 bonded a new generation of Israelis to basketball.
The key change, he said, is that in the 1970s Maccabi was dominated by players imported from the United States.
“Now, we are exporting players to the NBA. It’s fantastic,” he said.
As with any young NBA talent, the trajectory of Avdija’s career is tricky to predict.
He was in the starting five when Washington began its season on Wednesday, playing 28 minutes and scoring seven points in a 113-107 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Equally unclear is whether more young Israelis are poised to follow Avdija’s path.
Yam Madar was selected 47th overall but the Boston Celtics in the 2020 draft, but his NBA prospects are less promising.
Kattash voiced confidence that more young Israelis will take up basketball if Avdija succeeds in the NBA.
“We saw the influence that Yao Ming had on Chinese basketball,” he said, recalling the Shanghai-born seven-footer who starred for the Houston Rockets and ignited a wave of basketball passion in China.
“I really see a bright future for Israeli basketball,” Kattash said.
“We will never be the tallest, we will never be the strongest, but we have good basketball talents here.”