Hoop dreams in the Holy Land

Three US basketball players talk about life on and off the court, and waiting for the NBA

Hapoel Jerusalem during a recent game (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Hapoel Jerusalem during a recent game (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

For basketball players, the ultimate hoop dream is dribbling for the National Basketball Association. But those who don’t get picked for the premier American basketball league are forced to look elsewhere to play, and these days, they’re as apt to end up in the Holy Land as they are in Europe.

American athletes Cory Carr, Craig Smith and Zack Rosen are three of those players, each at different points of their careers and all currently living in Israel. Not surprisingly, it’s not where they thought they would end up when they started their careers.

Cory Carr has bounced around several Israeli and European basketball teams, but is currently playing for Maccabi Haifa (Courtesy Maccabi Haifa)
Cory Carr has bounced around several Israeli and European basketball teams, but is currently playing for Maccabi Haifa (Courtesy Maccabi Haifa)

“Never in a million years did I think I would play professionally in Israel,” said 37-year-old Carr, a former Arkansan who plays guard for Maccabi Haifa. “I didn’t fathom it but I’m very blessed.”

For Carr, Israel has become home, both professionally and emotionally. Carr was in Israel playing for Maccabi Ra’anana when he met his Israeli wife, a physical therapist who helped treat him after an injury. Since she was born to American parents and studied in the United States, her familiarity with his homeland made their relationship easier, said Carr, who prefers to protect the privacy of his wife and their 12-year-old daughter. After five years of trying to get Israeli citizenship Carr was finally granted it in 2009, and, for now, is declaring Israel home.

He’s not the first American basketball player to establish his domicile in Israel; others have done the same, some even making aliya in order to become full-fledged Israeli players and circumvent the new regulations of Ligat HaAl — the 12-team Israeli Basketball Super League also known as the Winner Sal League (for its sponsor, lottery company Toto Winner, and sal, the Hebrew word for basket) — over one-third of which is American.

As of 2011, after years of Israeli teams importing foreign players, the rules were changed to allow only four non-Israelis per team. Carr, along with some American Jewish players who were immediately eligible for Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, is now counted as one of the Israelis.

Standing 6’3, relatively short in stature for a basketball player, Carr is a garrulous, friendly sort who has an easy manner both on and off the court.

He’s playful with his teammates, joking around and imitating them during drills in between instructions from Coach Brad Greenberg. Despite his mostly English conversation, Carr’s humor isn’t lost on his colleagues.

“My Hebrew is chetzi chetzi,” he said, nailing the Hebrew phrase for 50-50. “Ani mevin ani lo tovah!”

Cory Carr and Times of Israel intern Joel Moss (Courtesy Joel Moss)
Cory Carr and Times of Israel intern Joel Moss (Courtesy Joel Moss)

Carr’s charisma is infectious, both on and off the court. At the end of the team’s training session, he’s swamped by dozens of fans waiting to meet him, and he devotes time to autographs and snapshots with each person. There’s no doubt Carr enjoys the attention, but there’s also a palpable energy and kindness to him that make it difficult not to take an instant liking to him.

It wasn’t always easy to be so far away from friends and family, as well as the more familiar environs of the US, said Carr, but Israel has embraced him and that has made him feel at home.

“I got used to it very quickly,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to come to a country that just put an umbrella over me and made me feel at home.”

Cory Carr, #21, during a recent Maccabi Haifa game (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Cory Carr, #21, during a recent Maccabi Haifa game (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Born in Fordyce, Arkansas, Carr was one of the four all-time highest scorers on his alma mater’s squad, the Red Raiders of Texas Tech University. He seemed slated for a career in the NBA after being selected in the 1998 draft to play for the championship-winning Chicago Bulls.

Carr joined up as the team was entering a new period loaded with seven rookie players, including Carr. He ended up playing only one lockout-shortened season with the Bulls, a period he called a “deer in headlights” experience. His brief NBA career ended after that and he left the US in 2000 to play for Maccabi Ra’anana. He then went on to play for several European teams before getting a one-year offer in 2006 to play for Israel’s Ironi Nahariya team, which was then competing in the premier league (Ironi Nahariya is currently in the second division after being relegated to that position three years ago). From Nahariya, he moved to Elitzur Ashkelon and then Maccabi Givat Shmuel. In March 2011, he returned to Ironi Ashkelon before heading to Hapoel Tel Aviv, and then signed with Maccabi Haifa B.C. in 2012.

“If I were to go back and do it again, obviously I would do some things differently,” he said of his time spent in the NBA.

Craig Smith on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Courtesy Craig Smith Facebook)
Craig Smith on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Courtesy Craig Smith Facebook)

It’s been a similar experience for Craig Smith, currently signed on for one year with Hapoel Jerusalem. The 28-year-old Smith passed up several NBA offers this season, after playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trailblazers. Smith, possessing a brute strength evidenced in his powerful dunks, never earned a regular role in his six NBA seasons.

“The last six years has just been up and down in the league,” said Smith, referring to the repeated contract lockouts in the NBA. “Last year I felt like I played really good and they stopped playing me and the reasons were unclear. I know it was based on politics and that’s out of my control.”

At 6’7, Smith is undersized playing as a forward, but he isn’t afraid to slam his 120-kilo body into opponents. Now with greater playing time on the Hapoel team, Smith is averaging a solid 14 points and 6 rebounds a game this season.

It’s unclear if Smith will stay with Hapoel next year, as the general consensus holds that the team will look to rebuild after a mediocre performance this season and is unsure which players it will hold on to.

“I just wanna play,” said Smith. “I just want to show people that even though I play small minutes, I can still have an impact.”

He’s also found comfort in being a leader in his Israeli team, with NBA experience that’s valued by his teammates. Sounding like a wise basketball guru, Smith said part of his Israel experience is about sharing his love of the game around the world.

“If I have any type of knowledge that I can pass on to help, that’s what I do,” he said. “Not only do I play, but I’m kind of like a professor too. I can teach too because of how long I’ve been playing and the level I’ve been playing at.”

The older Carr has a similar attitude about making it work, learned way back when from his time playing on the same team as the inimitable Michael Jordan, the Bulls’ star MVP who showed him by example how to be a good teammate.

“Jordan taught me that,” said Carr. “It’s one of the reasons I have been a likable player in Israel and Europe throughout my career. I get a lot of compliments about being a good teammate because I am able to accept my teammates and support them no matter what.”

What has been more trying for both Carr and Smith is getting used to the typically aggressive Israeli mentality.

“I always said that Israelis are like working ants; they’re always going fast but not going very far,” joked Carr. “They always seem like they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, always in a hurry to do this, do that, do this. They always seem anxious to move to the next thing. Progression, that’s what I call it. That’s the biggest thing I see with the Israeli people. They’re very pushy, they don’t see anything! They just run into you, no ‘excuse me.’ Man, you know, this is the mentality. It’s nothing personal. I had to get used to it.”

Craig Smith battles for the basket (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Craig Smith battles for the basket (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

And while Israelis are aggressive, they’re welcoming, added Smith, who feels part of the close-knit Israeli society, getting “lots of invites” to Friday night Shabbat dinners.

“It’s a little bit more family-oriented here, which is really cool,” he said.

What has been a challenge for Smith is staying in touch with his fiancé, Claudia Cirillo, who lives in California. They have known each other since they were ten years old and she has visited Israel once since he’s been here.

“It’s hard but it’s easier with technology,” said Smith, who talks to Cirillo on Skype.

Still, it’s difficult to be living so far from the US, playing on a court that doesn’t always feel like home. Newcomer Zack Rosen, a promising 23-year-old point guard for Hapoel Holon who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, Wharton, is having a tougher time adjusting to Israel.

Rosen finds living in Israel “crazy different,” he said. “It’s a culture shock. The people are different. It’s different. Not that it’s good or bad, it’s just different. It’s upfront and aggressive.”

Playing in Israel isn’t a long-term part of Rosen’s game plan. The three-year captain of Penn’s Quakers basketball team signed a one-year deal with Hapoel Holon aiming to impress NBA scouts.

Newcomer Zack Rosen, Penn's Quakers star, playing for Holon (Courtesy Zack Rosen Facebook)
Newcomer Zack Rosen, Penn’s Quakers star, playing for Holon (Courtesy Zack Rosen Facebook)

It’s been a challenging time for the 6’1 guard. He is averaging fewer points and has been demoted from the starting lineup. Actually, it’s been a rough season overall for Hapoel Holon, which began strongly, winning three of their first four games before losing seven straight. They are now struggling in third to last place.

Rosen was an All-American and Ivy League player of the year in college, leading the league with 18.5 points per game. He is considered an incredibly gifted shooter with a special ability to hit three-pointers, inspiring comparisons to NBA sensation Jeremy Lin, who captured the world’s attention last year when he came off the bench to lead the struggling New York Knicks on an unexpected winning streak. Like Lin, Rosen is determined to make his mark on the NBA.

“I’d be lying if I said no,” said Rosen regarding his NBA dreams. “That’s everyone’s dream, I think. If it’s not, then it should be.”

Several Israeli players have been successfully exported to the NBA, including Omri Casspi, who was drafted in 2009 to the Sacramento Kings, and Oded Kattash, who agreed to play for the New York Knicks in 1998 but who never actually got to play because of the 1998-1999 NBA season lockout. Other American players have moved back to their home league from Ligat HaAl, including Will Bynum, Anthony Parker, Roger Mason Jr., Eugene Jeter and Carlos Arroyo.

But despite having competed at the Maccabiah games in Israel three years ago and learning Hebrew while at Penn — where he was dubbed Rosen’s Chosen at Quakers games — the New Jersey native is having trouble adjusting to Israeli culture and local court life. It isn’t easy being so far away from his parents, who were stalwart supporters back at Penn and attended every college game.

It’s clearly easier for someone like the older, more experienced Carr to take a broader view of the twists and turns in a player’s career. He’s a firm believer that sports are a vehicle for life lessons and talks about having used his gifts in playing basketball to understand the challenges he’s had thrown at him, particularly when considering the life he now leads in Israel.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said. “I grew up in a very poor family and all I’ve known is hard work and striving to be the best I can be. That mentality has carried me in sports and in life off the court. It’s something that is instilled in me and I’m proud to say that the hard times before prepared me for better times and hard times.”

Times are a little more uncertain for Rosen and Smith. While they both aim to play in the NBA, they don’t yet know what the next year holds for them.

“[In Jerusalem], it’s so far, so good in my eyes, but at the same time it’s not always up to me,” Smith said. “I know I will be playing somewhere next year. I know that.”

Here’s to their hoop dreams.

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