NEW YORK — On a recent Monday evening, New York City’s Madison Square Garden was rocking. The sellout crowd of 19,812 at the newly renovated Manhattan landmark was on its feet cheering as the Knicks came from behind to tie the visiting Dallas Mavericks with seconds left on the clock.
But a buzzer beater by Dallas Mavericks’ 7 foot, 245-pound forward Dirk Nowitzki sent the Knicks down to defeatsville again, with a final score of 110-108.
A handsome Israeli in street slacks, button-down shirt and sports jacket sat the whole game on the Mavericks bench, smiling and cheering — and biding his time for his chance on court.
Currently in treatment for an injury, Gal Mekel, the well-dressed Israeli, was signed by the Dallas Mavericks in July 2013.
Only the second sabra in the National Basketball Association, the Petach Tikvah native is averaging 2.4 points in his 30 games played this season. Mekel, 26, is a 6 foot 3 inch guard — perhaps a skill learned on his seven siblings.
At age 17, Mekel won the Israel Youth League championship, then went on to play two years of college basketball for the Wichita State Shockers in the United States. Mekel says he still roots for his old team, which stalled in a close game during the Round of 32 in this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament.
Before joining the NBA, Mekel played professional basketball in Israel and Italy, adding Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Gilboa Galil, Maccabi Haifa and Benneton Treviso to his list of credits.
Now Mekel sports a #33 Dallas Mavericks uniform.
Mekel started his first NBA game on November 13, 2013, scoring six points with seven assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the Israeli has had a greater impact and shown more potential than his numbers may suggest.
Teammate Dirk Nowitzki praises him as a hard working team player who moved in while others were injured.
“He was thrown in to the water earlier in the season—playing when Jose (Calderon), Devin (Harris) and Shawn (Marion) were injured. He did a good job. He kept fighting. He is a great passer,” says Nowitzki, in his 15th year in the NBA.
Now, Mekel is battling back after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in a January 13 game and has been traveling with the team since the NBA All Star Break.
Mekel spoke with the Times of Israel in the Mavericks locker room following the Knicks/Mavs game on his way to spend a late evening with family members in New York City.
“I started feeling a little better after the All Star Break and started full practices with the team. Now, I’m a little sore and will be seeing the doctor when we are back in Dallas,” says Mekel. (Mekel has subsequently had his knee drained and will be out until early April.)
Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle is impressed with Mekel and in a post-game interview says, “We like him and are glad that he is part of our organization… He has gotten better as a player, and he is ahead of schedule with his recovery from knee surgery.”
Mekel is working at returning and remains upbeat and optimistic. “It is not easy — but that’s life in athletics.”
Mekel speaks affectionately of his teammates — especially those who came to the NBA from other countries — who have been especially supportive and helpful as Mekel transitions to life in the NBA. Mekel singles out Jose Calderon, the 6 foot 3 inch guard from Spain and Nowitzki from Germany.
Calderon notes, “I was in a similar situation when I got here nine years ago. Gal asks questions, he listens, he is a great worker — he is doing great!”
The NBA reports a record-breaking 92 international players from 39 countries and territories for opening-night rosters for the 2013-14 NBA season. The previous opening-night record was set in the 2010-11 season with 84 players from 38 countries and territories.
Twenty-seven of the 30 NBA teams feature at least one international player. France is the most represented country with ten players, and Canada follows with eight. Australia and Spain each have five players on team rosters, with Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Russia, and Turkey each having four. Four countries have their strongest representation ever – Australia (five), Israel (two), Italy (four), and Russia (four), with Macedonia making a first appearance on the list.
Mekel appreciates the support of Calderon, Nowitzki and the other international players in the league.
“They went through the same stuff I’m going through as a non-American rookie. It is good to learn from them,” says Mekel.
Fellow Israeli NBA player Omri Casspi, traded last year from Cleveland Cavaliers to the Houston Rockets, has also been a big support.
“I have played against Omri four times this year if you include the pre-season and the season. We talk and we are good friends,” says Mekel.
Mekel isn’t bothered by the observations of some skeptics who note that he hasn’t received the same support and enthusiasm on the part of Jewish and Israeli fans who came out en masse for Casspi during his first seasons in the NBA.
“There has been a great reception in each city we play and there are lots of Israeli flags,” notes Mekel, who praises the Dallas Jewish community.
“The community loves him and anything Israeli. He is a great guy, he has a great heart, and he is great for the community. We are just waiting for him to get over his knee issue,” says long-time Dallas resident, Martin Golman.
Despite the warmth and support of both the Dallas players and the Jewish community, Mekel admits, “I miss my family, friends and food. I love my country.”
But the road to rehabilitation and remaining in Dallas is filled with detours and obstacles. On March 4, Mekel was assigned to the D-League Texas Legends for several games.
“It’s time for him to get some game minutes to continue with his rehab,” says coach Rick Carlisle. “I just want to be clear that this is an opportunity for him to continue his rehab and conditioning, and he’s done very well with that.”
Despite Mekel’s travels back and forth from Dallas to the D-League, he can look forward to a guaranteed minimum of three years with the Mavericks. Mekel remains upbeat and has modest goals— “to get healthy, help the team before the end of the season, be a good player in the league and establish myself. I see that I belong.”
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