ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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'I came to become a great player, and it's helping already'

Israel’s next NBA superstar? Yarin Hasson nets UConn spot to play in March Madness

The 18-year-old from central Israel says the widely televised tourney is even bigger than he imagined. Though not seeing much playing time in his rookie season, opportunity awaits

Connecticut's Yarin Hasson (30) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UNC Wilmington, November 18, 2022, in Storrs, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut's Yarin Hasson (30) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UNC Wilmington, November 18, 2022, in Storrs, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

ALBANY, New York — If, one day, Yarin Hasson realizes his dream of becoming one of the greatest basketball players Israel has ever produced, he’ll probably look back to a life-changing decision he made as a 17-year-old.

The safe and easy choice would have been to stay in Israel. The former standout high school player for Gimnasia Realit in Rishon Lezion and member of the U18 Israeli national team could have kept playing for Maccabi Rishon Lezion, the local club, and seen where his talents might take him.

But the 6-foot-9 forward, with a long-armed wingspan of over seven feet, felt compelled to go where he would be challenged to become the best player he could possibly be. That meant heading to the United States to play college basketball. In the fall, just before turning 18, he committed to the University of Connecticut Huskies — most commonly referred to as UConn — located in the town of Storrs. It’s one of the most successful, highest-profile basketball programs in the country. UConn also happens to have historical ties to Israeli basketball, having developed two of the country’s all-time greats — Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld.

“For sure, it’s very different here from the basketball in Israel,” said Hasson, who resides in the central Israeli town of Gan Yavne when he’s not stateside. “All of the money invested in college basketball is very different than in Israel. That’s the reason I came here — to become a better player, to become a great player. And I feel my decision is helping me already.”

Hasson has had to make a tough mental transition, from being a teenage star in Israel to barely getting playing time at UConn. At 205 pounds, he needs to get stronger physically to compete at the US collegiate level, so he follows a demanding weight room program each day. On the court, he takes advantage of the chance to practice with a deep and talented team that is among the best in the country. His expectation is that next season he will be playing a much bigger role.

“I have to get better in everything,” said Hasson, widely regarded as a versatile player who can shoot from the outside, drive hard to the basket, and make tough passes to set up teammates. “It’s shooting, dribbling, physicality — to jump higher, be faster, be stronger. Everything.”

Israeli basketball player Yarin Hasson on the court during a March Madness game against Iona University in Albany, New York, March 17, 2023. (Ed Klajman)

During the regular season, Hasson played in seven of the team’s 33 games, logging eight total minutes of playing time. He picked up one offensive rebound and had a blocked shot.

On Friday, in Albany, the team won its first postseason game easily over Iona, so Hasson was sent into the game for the final minute, giving him his first taste of playing in a famed “March Madness” NCAA tournament game. The NCAA tournament is one of the most highly anticipated and closely followed annual sports events in America. The top 64 teams participate in a single-elimination format until a champion is crowned.

In their second-round contest against St. Mary’s on Sunday, it was another blowout win for UConn, so Hanson was sent in for the last 36 seconds of the game. He spent the rest of the time on his feet applauding his teammates and giving them a pat on the back when they came off the floor for breaks.

As one of only 16 teams still alive, the Huskies now travel to Las Vegas for their next game on Thursday night, against the University of Arkansas.

Hasson has been struck by the magnitude of the NCAA tournament.

“Like I always say to my friends and my family, you can watch it from Israel, on TV or YouTube, but you never understand how huge is it until you come to the US and you see it. We watched the tournament from Israel and saw that it’s huge, but we didn’t understand how huge. It’s millions of fans, all the media, all the best players in one place. I can say it’s even bigger than I expected it to be.”

Israeli basketball player Yarin Hasson dunks the ball during warmups before a March Madness game against Iona University in Albany, New York, March 17, 2023. (Ed Klajman)

UConn has qualified for the NCAA tournament 36 times, been a “final four” (semifinalist) team five times, and has won the national championship four times, most recently in 2014. Henefeld was a key member of UConn’s 1989-1990 “dream team” that had a deep tournament run, while Sheffer is a legend at the school from his time there between 1993 and 1996. He is the only UConn player ever to have 1,000 points and 500 assists in three different seasons. Israelis Gilad Katz and Uri Cohen-Mintz also played at the school in the 1990s.

Hasson said that he has been in regular contact with both Henefeld and Sheffer. He understands that decades after them, he has a unique opportunity to write a new chapter of Israeli basketball history in Storrs. After that, he hopes to have a long tenure playing professionally and being a key part of the Israeli national team.

For the moment, though, Hasson plans to enjoy what he hopes will be a championship run by UConn. That will be followed by celebrating Passover. UConn has a large Jewish population and Hasson said he has really appreciated the support he has received from the university’s Chabad and Hillel organizations each time there is a Jewish holiday.

Then it’ll be time for the business student to focus on exams before he heads back to Israel for the month of May.

He said he can hardly wait for that. Not only has he found it difficult adjusting to the cold and snowy winter months of the northeast US, he dearly misses his friends and family — parents Malka and Eitan, and younger brothers Yahav and Shoham.

He also said that when he returns to Israel, he will be having discussions with Israeli authorities about a deferral on his mandatory military service, with the expectation that accommodations will be made for him, as happens commonly for other elite Israeli athletes such as basketball player Deni Avdija, who had his service deferred after being an NBA draft pick in 2020.

Then, after that cherished month in Israel, it’ll be straight back to UConn and devoting himself fully to pursuing his basketball ambitions.

“I have invested all of my life into basketball. I know at some point I am going to be on the big stage. So, when you are 18, and you come to this huge program, I feel very lucky to be here, but I also feel I deserve it too.”

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