Making the cut on Israeli courts Talented exports: Eighty American basketball players -- many at the end of NBA careers -- are stars anew on teams in Israel.

February 13, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The teen-ager gaped at the 6-foot-7 fellow sitting in an adjoining booth, then tentatively asked the Israeli basketball star for an autograph.

"Jesus loves you," wrote Billy Thompson on the slip of paper.

An odd autograph to be giving Jewish fans. But then Mr. Thompson, an American from Camden, N.J., is accustomed to sticking out.

He is one of 80 Americans playing on Israel's basketball teams. The players are a part of one of America's more unique exports: basketball talent.

Americans are on teams throughout Europe, switching teams and countries with the scribble of a signature on a contract. They are instant stars in leagues of lesser players.

"There isn't a team in Europe that doesn't have American players," says Mike Karnon, an official of the Basketball Association of Israel, the regulatory body here. "They are considered the best in the world."

These tall, well-paid migrant workers must adapt to their temporary homes. But in Israel, a society preoccupied with its self-identity, the adjustments can be bumpy.

In Mr. Thompson's case, for example, an ultra-orthodox Jewish city official demanded his ouster from the country for "proselytizing" for Christianity.

"I'm not a missionary. I'm not proselytizing. All I do is just witness my faith," says Mr. Thompson, 32, who says he became a born-again Christian after a bout with drugs at the University of Louisville in 1986.

Many of the American players drifting around the European leagues are those at the end of successful pro careers in the United States, or younger players who didn't make it -- yet -- in the National Basketball Association.

A solid player with NBA experience can get $1 million in some European leagues. Dominique Wilkins, a former Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics star who signed a two-year contract last year with the Panathinaikos team of Greece for $7 million, is an exception.

Israel is not so rich. The highest paid American player here -- former Utah Jazz forward Tom Chambers -- is said to earn about $500,000 playing for Maccabee Tel Aviv. But most get less: Mr. Thompson, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, gets about $170,000, according to his coach.

"Most of the American players try to go to Italy, Turkey, Greece and Spain before they go to Israel. They can earn more money there," says Pini Gershon, coach of the Hapoel Jerusalem team for which Mr. Thompson plays. "We have to look for second-level players."

Israel has unique attractions for some. Mr. Thompson says a prophecy brought him to the Holy Land from the Jesus People Ministry in Miami, where he was preaching after his last stint for the Miami Heat.

"I knew God wanted me to be here," he says.

Others have more earthly motivations. Israel can be a comfortable place to live, with many trappings of daily life borrowed from America -- from McDonald's to Blockbuster Video. English is spoken widely. And for most of the American players who are black, there are minimal racial tensions.

"Blacks don't have the problems in Israel that they may have in the United States or in Europe," says Ron Koffman, deputy sports editor of the Ha'aretz newspaper. "Israel is very mixed. We have Ethiopians, Yemenites, North Africans -- all look dark. And it's not a problem."

A black teammate of Mr. Thompson's on the Jerusalem squad, Hubert Roberts, chuckled, "About the worst thing that has been said to me is someone called me the tallest Ethiopian they had ever seen.

"I have kids. The atmosphere for child rearing is better here than in 85 percent of the places in the States for blacks," says Mr. Roberts, who has played for 10 years in Israel.

Israeli fans seem to love the polished play of the Americans. But their presence on the teams is not without controversy.

"The younger Israeli players resent it, because it's harder for them to get on the team," says Mr. Karnon.

European Federation rules, which Israel follows, allow only two "foreigners" on each team. Of the 12 Israeli teams in the Division 1, there are 22 Americans and two Yugoslav players.

But some of the "Israeli" players seem suspiciously American. The Jerusalem Post once dubbed these psuedonatives "circumstantial circumcisions."

"There are players who marry Israeli girls. And there are players who cheat -- they say they convert, but they don't really convert. They just go to the right rabbi," says coach Gershon.

"You could see an Israeli team with five American players," says Yehuda Shikma, secretary-general of the Basketball Association of Israel.

Mr. Roberts was hotly prized by an Israeli recruiter in 1983 when they learned the San Diego University player's long-deceased mother was of Jewish descent, which automatically entitled him to Israeli citizenship. He goes to an evangelical Christian church. He shrugs at the irony.

"God gave me parents, just like he gave me basketball talent. I use them both," he says.

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