Milken Community High School head coach Mike Whiting (center) leads a huddle with his team during the final minutes of play against West High School in Torrance. Photo by Ryan Torok.

Milken laments end of historic season after loss in state basketball playoffs

After suffering a loss in the first round of a statewide playoff tournament on the night of March 8, Milken Community High School’s basketball coach Mike Whiting said his biggest disappointment was not the defeat but that the game would mark his last with the current squad.

“I’m just sad I won’t have the pleasure of coaching those young men again,” he said after the Wildcats were defeated by the Torrance West High School Warriors, 70-57, in the California Interscholastic Federation State Boys Basketball Championships — Division 4 tournament. “It’s a very special group of people, and they accomplished something nobody ever has at Milken.”

The game at West High School in Torrance ended Milken’s unprecedented season, which included winning a sectional championship on March 1 against Shalhevet High School and going further than any Milken sports team had gone before.

On March 8, it looked as if Milken’s journey might continue as the team played a strong first half, led by captain Aaron Harouni knocking down three three-pointers.

In the second quarter, Milken enjoyed its largest lead of the night, 26-23, behind Amitai Afenjar, the team’s 6-foot-4 junior forward, whose 18 points led the Wildcats last week against Shalhevet. He had six points in the second quarter against West.

But West closed the quarter with three unanswered buckets and led 29-26 at halftime.

Still, hopes were high.

“All I heard is how good these guys are,” Rabbi Menachem Weiss, director of the Israel Center, told the Journal, referring to the West High players at halftime. “Meanwhile we’re only one shot away.”

Afenjar and Kian Zar made consecutive baskets to open the third quarter, but that was the team’s high point for the rest of the game. West went on a run, outscored Milken by six in the quarter and ran a full-court defensive press that forced turnovers and gave the Wildcats trouble getting the ball inside to Afenjar.

Trailing in the fourth quarter, Milken fought on as guard Idan Yohanan sank a three-pointer that brought Milken within nine, at 59-50. But West maintained its edge the rest of the way, challenging Milken with a steady stream of field goals and forcing Milken to intentionally foul to stop the clock. The West players converted most of their free throws.

Milken students, alumni, parents and faculty endured heavy rush-hour traffic to Torrance to cheer on the team.

Many Milken fans, including Sam Schiff, a junior who wore a Kanye West T-shirt, arrived still in high spirits from Milken’s two-point victory over Shalhevet the previous week. Watching Milken junior Doron Matian, Schiff described him as “the legend, the half-court hitter,” a reference to Matian’s Hail Mary three-point shot to close the first half against Shalhevet.

Barbara Iverson, upper school athletic director at Milken, said the bond among the team’s 13 players elevated them above the competition this year.

“In all my years at Milken, I’ve never seen a group of boys so tight,” she said before the game. “The chemistry the team has is unbelievable, like no other team I’ve ever seen.”

Polly Kim, a science research teacher at Milken and former teacher at Wise School, a feeder school for Milken, said watching the boys play this season was nostalgic.

“It’s great to see them all grown up, and play basketball,” she said.

Yohanan’s three-pointer in the fourth quarter would be his last basket as a member of a team that, according to his mother, Einat, ought to be proud of its success.

“His dream was to bring a championship to Milken,” she said, watching from the stands.

Like Coach Whiting, Harouni, a junior, is sorry he won’t be playing next year with Yohanan, one of the team’s eight graduating seniors.

“Aaron was saying he is sorry it’s over,” Eddie Harouni, the team captain’s father, said in a phone interview. “He’s not sorry they lost, but he’s sorry it’s over as far as playing with the seniors, the team.”

Milken's Kian Zar goes in for the lay up. Photo by Ezra Fax

Milken basketball falls in state tournament

After suffering a loss in the first round of a statewide playoff tournament on Wednesday night, Milken Community High School’s basketball coach Mike Whiting said his biggest disappointment was not the defeat but that the game would mark his last with the current squad.

“I’m just sad I won’t have the pleasure of coaching those young men again,” he said after the Wildcats were defeated by the West High School Warriors, 70-57, in the CIF State Boys Basketball Championships – Division 4 tournament. “It’s a very special group of people, and they accomplished something nobody ever has at Milken.”

The game at West High School in Torrance ended Milken’s unprecedented season, which included winning a sectional championship on March 1 against Shalhevet High School and going further than any Milken sports team had gone before.

On Wednesday, it looked as if Milken’s journey would continue as the team played a strong first half, led by the captain, Aaron Harouni, knocking down three three-pointers.

In the second quarter, Milken enjoyed its largest lead of the night, 26-23, behind Amitai Afenjar, the team’s 6-foot-4 junior forward, whose 18 points led the Wildcats last week against Shalhevet. He had six points in the second quarter against West.

But West closed the quarter with three unanswered buckets and led 29-26 at halftime.

Still, hopes were high.

“All I heard is how good these guys are,” Rabbi Menachem Weiss, director of the Israel Center, told the Journal, at halftime. “Meanwhile we’re only one shot away.”

Afenjar and Kian Zar scored consecutive baskets to open the third quarter, but that was the team’s highpoint. West went on a run, outscored Milken by six in the quarter and ran a full-court, defensive press that forced turnovers and gave the Wildcats trouble getting the ball inside to Afenjar, their best player.

Trailing in the fourth quarter, Milken fought on as guard Idan Yohanan sunk a three-pointer that brought Milken within nine, at 59-50. But West maintained its edge the rest of the way, challenging Milken with a steady stream of field goals and forcing Milken to intentionally foul to save time on the clock. West players converted most of their free throws.

Milken students, alumni, parents and faculty endured heavy rush-hour traffic to Torrance to cheer the team on.

“Brian, he’s probably my best friend,” Milken senior Josh Berenbaum said of center Brian Pearlman.

Many Milken fans, including Sam Schiff, a junior who wore a Kanye West T-shirt, arrived, still in high spirits from Milken’s two-point victory over Shalhevet last week. Watching Milken junior Doron Matian, Schiff described him as “the legend, the half court hitter,” a reference to Matian’s Hail-Mary three point shot to close the second half against Shalhevet.

Barbara Iverson, upper school athletic director at Milken, said the bond among the team’s 13 players elevated them above the competition this year.

“In all my years at Milken, I’ve never seen a group of boys so tight,” she said before the game. “The chemistry the team has is unbelievable, like no other team I’ve ever seen.”

Polly Kim, a science research teacher at Milken and former teacher at Stephen Wise Temple, a feeder school for Milken, said watching the boys play this season was nostalgic.

“It’s great to see them all grown up, and play basketball,” she said.

Yohanan hit a three-pointer in the fourth quarter that became his last basket as a member of a team that, according to his mother, Einat, ought to be proud of its success.

“His dream was to bring a championship to Milken,” she said, watching from the stands.

Like Coach Whiting, Harouni, a junior, is sorry he won’t be playing next year with Yohanan, one of the team’s eight graduating seniors.

“Aaron was saying he is sorry it’s over,” Dr. Eddie Harouni, his father, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “He’s not sorry they lost, but he’s sorry it’s over as far as playing with the seniors, the team.”

His shot at helping Israel’s team put them ‘On the Map’

In the summer of 1965, a lightning quick point guard out of the University of Illinois was selected 12th overall in the NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets (known today as the Washington Wizards).

Named Tal Brody, the Jewish New Jersey native impressed coaches early on in training camp. A roster spot and a career in the NBA beckoned. 

Then, just when his boyhood dream was on the verge of being realized, a higher calling intervened — a phone call from the Holy Land.  

With the blessing of Bullets management, Brody accepted an offer to compete in that summer’s 1965 Maccabiah Games (sometimes called the Jewish Olympics) to be held in Israel. In his first trip outside the U.S., Brody led Team USA to a gold medal. 

Brody’s stellar play in that competition caught the attention of the Israeli basketball club Maccabi Tel Aviv. In an all-too-Israeli display of persuasion tactics, the club enlisted Moshe Dayan — the country’s iconic eye-patch-wearing general, politician and avid basketball fan — to convince Brody to stay and play for Maccabi for at least one season. 

“For me it was a challenge. But I never thought I would be in Israel for more than one season,” said Brody, now 73, dressed in an athletic black tracksuit with matching jet-black hair. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Dani Menkin’s new documentary chronicles the improbable journey of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 European Cup victory, captained by Brody. Through the conduit of sports, “On the Map” presents a layered story of Israel and the Jewish people at the height of the Cold War when many were still recovering from the Munich Olympics massacre and the Yom Kippur War. 

“Here comes a team that took the country of out of mourning, put smiles on people’s faces and made everyone proud,” Brody said.

After attending screenings in Boston, Chicago and New York, Brody was in Los Angeles Nov. 17 for a screening in Beverly Hills as part of the Israel Film Festival and another at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 19. 

Brody’s plan to spend just one year in Israel was derailed once he recognized the off-the-court impact he could have in a Maccabi jersey — something the NBA insignia couldn’t offer. While traveling to play anywhere in the Eastern European bloc behind the Iron Curtain, Brody remembers the lift his team’s visit would provide to oppressed Jews there. 

“After what I saw, the meaning of what was going on in Israel was greater than any desire I had to play in the NBA,” he said. “I saw what it meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Jews suffering from anti-Semitism. When our team came in, I saw how important it was for them. It affected me.”

By 1977, after 10 years with Maccabi, Brody had made the club respectable, but EuroLeague glory against the likes of Soviet Union powerhouse CSKA Moscow still eluded him. But that season had a different feel. A roster featuring four Jewish-American players following in Brody’s footsteps as well as the team’s two allowable foreign non-Jewish imports — Aulcie Perry, an African-American from Newark and Jim Boatwright, a Mormon from Idaho — had Tel Aviv abuzz every Thursday, the night EuroLeague games were held at the time. 

“During that period of time, every Thursday we were the main show,” Brody said. “People didn’t plan bar mitzvahs, weddings or Knesset meetings on Thursdays.” 

The film recalls that high-ranking government officials frequently attended Maccabi games. Dayan, who Brody called a “great friend” of the team, was often on court prior to tipoff shaking hands with Maccabi players. The interest shown by prominent Israeli figures like Dayan gave Brody and his teammates a sense of duty and mission. 

“All of the players felt it,” Brody said. “It gave them importance, a sense of significance and added a confidence to the team. It gave us the kind of confidence that helped us to go up against the best teams in Europe.”  

Still, prior to Brody’s arrival in 1965, Maccabi had yet to advance past the first round of the EuroLeague Championships. And in the decade that followed, they still hadn’t made a deep run into the later rounds. 

That changed in 1977, despite being matched up against a Goliath of an opponent in the form of CSKA Moscow. The heavily favored Soviet team matched up against Maccabi in the 1977 semifinal. 

With Israel an ally of the United States and the Soviet Union backing the Jewish state’s Arab enemies at the time, the Kremlin made a bold political statement, refusing to allow CSKA Moscow to travel to Tel Aviv and not allowing the Israeli team into the Soviet Union. As a result, the legendary game was played in the small, “neutral” town of Virton, Belgium. 

“At the time, Jews weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union,” Brody said. “We really thought, all of a sudden, this victory would give hope to the Jewish people in the Soviet Union and everywhere behind the Iron

One section of the film interweaves footage of the storied game with members of the Israeli team watching it decades later, commenting on plays and critiquing one another, reliving the on-court action as if they didn’t know the outcome. 

Interviews with NBA icon Bill Walton, a friend of Brody’s, and David Stern, the Jewish, longtime former commissioner of the NBA, add gravitas. Michael B. Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., dubbed the victory Israel’s “Miracle on Hardwood” in the film, comparing the event to Team USA’s 1980 victory over the Soviet Union in hockey, widely known as the “Miracle on Ice.”

Following the win, in a moment of candor fueled by the adrenaline of the moment, Brody famously remarked to a television crew at the game, “Israel is on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.” The film’s title is a nod to Brody’s bold declaration that quickly found its way into the pop culture zeitgeist of Israel and has remained there. Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin phoned Brody afterward and told him the statement brought tears to his eyes. 

“It just came out of my heart,” Brody remarks in the film. 

The team’s center, Perry, called it a “prophetic statement.” 

Roughly 40 years later, Brody reflected on the broader reverberations of that final result against the Soviets. 

“People saw that Israelis and Jews could play ball,” Brody said. “The fact that we could win against the Soviets was even greater for the spirit of these people affected by anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain.” 

The power of sport is a prominent theme in the film — not just in the sense of sport’s inherent drama, but also in how it can enact social and political change. Natan Sharansky, a Jewish refusenik, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, is interviewed in the film and speaks about how events like Maccabi’s 91-79 victory over CSKA Moscow inspired and emboldened him and those like him living under oppressive regimes across Eastern Europe. 

“Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg and our director Dani Menkin did a great job relating world events and intertwining the meaning of our basketball team to the country and Jews everywhere,” Brody said. 

Tel Aviv has been home for Brody since he first arrived as a gangly college graduate. He officially retired from basketball in 1980, though he has since remained close to the game and its development in the Jewish state. In 1985, Brody helped build a basketball school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, which continues to provide training and clinics for thousands of kids every year. Brody
has also been on Maccabi’s board of directors for decades and helps arrange and promote his former club’s preseason games against NBA teams. 

Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the former basketball player Israeli Goodwill Ambassador in 2010, he has been touring college campuses across North America speaking on the topic of pro-Israel advocacy. The man who’s still recognized
on the streets of Tel Aviv and whose American-accented Hebrew has been good naturedly mocked on “Eretz Nehederet” (Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live”) sees the film as another teaching tool for
reaching young people and educating them about Israel. 

“I hope this allows audiences to see a face of Israel that they don’t normally see,” he said. “It’s not the Israel you see on the news media. All of a sudden people are seeing something that they don’t even realize is a part of our cultural life. This victory in 1977 was never forgotten. It’s a part of Israel’s history and Israel’s miracles.” 

“On the Map” opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 25. 

With Amar’e Stoudemire’s help, Jerusalem looks to overtake Tel Aviv as Israel’s basketball capital

Jerusalem basketball fans know that when the owner of their team tweets a smiley face, the signing of a new player is about to be announced.

The day before Amar’e Stoudemire made the surprise announcement that he would be leaving the NBA to play for Hapoel Jerusalem, Ori Allon tweeted a video of an active volcano that appears to be smiling. Rap music plays in the background: “Nothing can stop me. I’m all the way up.”

The signing of Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star and the biggest name to ever play for the Israeli Basketball Premier League, instantly makes Hapoel Jerusalem the team to beat. It could also mean that Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv and its powerful Maccabi Tel Aviv team, will soon be the face of Israeli basketball worldwide.

“Amar’e Stoudemire can be the guy who overturns the pecking order of Israeli basketball,” Eran Soroka, an NBA analyst for Sport5 television channel and chief editor at the Nana10 news website, told JTA. “The increased competitiveness and exposure will make Hapoel Jerusalem, not Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s team for the first time in decades. Stoudemire just has to perform.”

Stoudemire, who claims Hebrew roots and has visited Israel many times, told reporters at his basketball camp for Jewish and Arab kids in Jerusalem on Monday that he had turned down offers from at least three NBA teams. He said he felt his best chance to win his first championship was in Israel.

“To be able to continue to play the game of basketball in Jerusalem is an opportunity that can only happen once in someone’s lifetime and, for me and my family, we want to take advantage of this opportunity while I still have good health,” he said. “The most important thing for me right now is to try and create a winning atmosphere around Hapoel Jerusalem.”

In 14 seasons in the NBA, during which he battled injuries, Stoudemire averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He was drafted in the first round by the Phoenix Suns and later played for the New York Knicks for several years before finishing his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. At 33 years old, the 6-foot-10 forward is thought to have some basketball left in him.

Stoudemire and his wife, Alexis, are shopping for a home and looking at schools for their four children.

Omri Casspi posing for photos with kids at Amare Stoudemire’s basketball camp in Jerusalem, Aug. 8, 2016.

The signing of Stoudemire will bring increased attention to the team and the league, but it won’t have a “dramatic” financial impact, according to a source in the Hapoel organization who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters. The key will be success on the court, the source said.

“When we travel abroad, I assume the local media is going to be much more interested than it used to be,” the source said. “At the end of the day, if we win basketball games and we win titles and were able to create on-the-court success behind Stoudemire, then the signing will have been a good move.” (Stoudemire’s salary was not disclosed.)

Though the source said Hapoel Jerusalem is not trying to “dethrone” Maccabi Tel Aviv, he acknowledged the team wants what its competitor has.

Maccabi Tel Aviv has been the undisputed king of Israeli basketball for decades. Between 1976 and 2008, it won all but one Israeli Basketball Premier League championship, and has won four of eight since. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the only Israeli team that plays in the EuroLeague, Europe’s top basketball division — which it has won six times, including three times between 2001 and 2005. David Blatt guided Maccabi to an improbable league title in 2014 before becoming the first coach to leap from the EuroLeague to an NBA head coaching position, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, later in the year.

Long a middling team, Hapoel Jerusalem has been on the rise since Allon, an Israeli high-tech magnate, took over ahead of the 2013 season. He led a group of investors, including Stoudemire, in buying the team after its previous owner, the American oil tycoon Guma Aguiar, disappeared in 2012 and his unoccupied boat landed off the coast of Florida. Stoudemire gave up his stake in the team as part of his signing.

In 2014, Hapoel Jerusalem moved into the new Jerusalem Payis Arena, just down the street from its previous home court, where Stoudemire’s basketball camp was held. The upgrade from about 2,500 to 12,000 seats meant the fan base — and revenue stream — could be expanded. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena, which opened in 1963, holds about 11,000 fans.

At the end of the 2014-15 season, Hapoel Jerusalem won its first Israeli championship. Last year it lost in the finals to Maccabi Rishon Lezion, which edged Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals. Hapoel Jerusalem will compete this year in the EuroCup, Europe’s second division.

In the three seasons since Allon took over, Hapoel Jerusalem has seen its annual budget rise from less than $4 million to approximately $10 million — still well below Maccabi Tel Aviv’s budget of around $25 million, according to Israeli basketball league spokesman Shlomi Peri. In addition to Stoudemire, the team has signed several other former NBA players, though none warranting volcanic smiley face tweets.

Where Maccabi Tel Aviv has an entrenched advantage is in Europe. The team is among the 11 members of the European league that this year renewed 10-year contracts that guarantee a spot regardless of performance. This provides an edge in terms of attracting talent, exposure and revenue.

“I would imagine that just by participating in the EuroLeague you get a 4 million-5 million euro advantage,” the Hapoel source said. “We think we deserve a spot based on our performance over the past three years.”

At the moment, Hapoel Jerusalem can only qualify for the EuroLeague by winning the EuroCup. That’s a tall order given all the well-funded European squads in the way. But the team expects an opportunity to arise in the future, the source said, and until then it will keep building.

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s digital media manager, Omer Geva, said his team would not comment on the record about a competitor’s acquisition except to say that Stoudemire’s arrival was good for the league. Maccabi Tel Aviv has signed several former NBA players this offseason.

Soroka, the analyst, said Stoudemire could help bring more attention to the league and perhaps attract a few more NBA players. The success of Israeli Omri Casspi, the Sacramento Kings forward, and former NBA slam dunk artist Nate Robinson’s stint last season with Hapoel Tel Aviv also seem to have raised the country’s profile.

Casspi, Israel’s first player in the National Basketball Association, joined Stoudemire at Monday’s camp along with fellow NBAers Rudy Gay, Chris Copeland and Beno Udrih, who were on a mission for Casspi’s nonprofit foundation to promote Israel’s image internationally.

Well over a third of the players in the Israeli basketball league come from the United States. Many have either played in the NBA or hope to. The league caps the number of foreign players a team can have on its roster at eight, and requires that two Israeli players be on the court during games.

Though the Israeli league is average by European basketball standards as far as competitiveness and salary, the lifestyle and friendliness to Americans help attract NBA players despite the security problems, Soroka said.

“We have the beaches, we have the good-looking girls, we have the bars,” he said. “People speak English, people are very warm and welcoming. A lot of people consider Israel the 51st state for a reason.”

But the main factors for most players are money and competition — in other words, the quality of the league, Soroka said. What impact Stoudemire has on that remains to be seen.

Stoudemire says he turned down ‘a lot of money’ to play in Israel

Amar’e Stoudemire, the former NBA star whose two-year deal with the Israeli team Hapoel Jerusalem was announced last week, said he could have stayed in the NBA, but elected to play in the Jewish state instead.

“I turned down a lot of money in the NBA to play for Israel, so it’s not about the money at all, it’s about winning championships,” Stoudemire said in an interview published on the Walla website and cited by the Times of Israel.

Stoudemire arrived in Israel on Friday and headed immediately for Dimona, the southern city home to a large community of African Hebrew Israelites, African-American immigrants to Israel who believe they are descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. The former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks star has long touted a connection to Judaism and his “Hebrew roots.” He has traveled to Israel several times, including a 2013 trip as the assistant coach of the Canadian basketball squad competing in the Maccabiah Games, and has a Star of David tattoo.

Stoudemire told Israeli media he would play for the national team if he received Israeli citizenship.

Players have hoop dream to win money for Jerusalem hospital

Former USC basketball standout and Maccabi Tel Aviv star David Blu is headlining a team competing on behalf of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center in a $2 million, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament that kicks off on Saturday. 

“Israel is like a second home for me, so, for me, once again, I am playing for Israel,” the Los Angeles native told the Journal in April, while seated on bleachers and applying ice packs to his knees after a team practice at Animo Venice Charter High School gymnasium. Sweat was covering the face of the 36-year-old, who wore a USC T-shirt and swapped his basketball sneakers for flip-flops. 

The 6-foot-7 Blu made aliyah after not being selected in the 2002 NBA draft and joined Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he went on to win two European championships. Now, he is captain of team Shaare Zedek in the TBT (The Basketball Tournament) five-on-five hoops event featuring 64 teams. 

Shaare Zedek’s first-round game is slated for July 9 at the Eagles Nest arena at Cal State Los Angeles (tickets are available at The championship game will take place Aug. 2 in New York City.

Blu’s team was convened by Adam King, community campaign director for the western region of American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center (ACSZ), the U.S.-based fundraising arm of the Jerusalem-based hospital. 

King, a Pico-Robertson resident with a flair for the bold and ambitious — he ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Congresswoman Karen Bass in 2014 because he believed Bass wasn’t pro-Israel enough — attempted to turn the team’s practices themselves into community-building events that increase awareness about the work of Shaare Zedek Medical Center. He invited supporters and potential supporters of the hospital to the practices to watch the team play from the sidelines, and he spoke about the work of the hospital to the team’s members, many of whom were unfamiliar with the hospital before joining the team. 

“The whole thing circles around the hospital,” King said. “It’s about giving back to the hospital.”

Shaare Zedek is a hospital in Jerusalem that operates the country’s largest maternity ward, treats 70 percent of the country’s victims of terrorist attacks and maintains a partnership focused on emergency preparedness with the Israel Defense Forces.

Paul Jeser, national director of major gifts at ACSZ, is excited about the potential of this tournament to increase exposure of the work of the Israeli hospital, especially since ESPN will broadcast the championship game. 

“If we make it to the round that’s televised, it’s a way to tell our story we couldn’t tell otherwise,” he said.

The team’s players include Cory Reader, a 7-foot center originally from Australia who played collegiately at Brigham Young University and who appeared in NBA preseason games for the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers (he is currently a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley); Nigeria-native Chidi Ajufo, a power forward who played at UC Santa Barbara and in the British Basketball League, and who now works as an actor and stuntman; and shooting guard Bracin Skywalker, who played for American River College in Sacramento. 

“Basically, it’s a bunch of athletic basketball players all across the U.S. competing for $2 million … the idea for us, anyway, is to win $2 million for Adam’s charity,” Ajufo said.

For Skywalker, competing for charity was an easy decision: He “met the guys, the vibe was cool” and decided it was for a “good cause,” he said — after taking his driver’s license out of his wallet to prove to this reporter that his legal name is, in fact, Bracin Skywalker.

Not only are the players not playing for any money, members of the team contributed to the cost of renting the gym, King said. But, for Blu, having a place to play every week, in a city where it is difficult to find a good game of pickup basketball, is worth it. 

“It’s just a lot of fun to play pickup basketball,” he said. 

Give fired coach David Blatt a championship ring, Israeli lawmaker urges Cavs’ Jewish owner

An Israeli lawmaker reportedly has written to the Jewish owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers asking him to give a 2016 NBA championship ring to David Blatt, the team’s former head coach.

Nachman Shai of the Zionist Union party sent the letter Tuesday to Dan Gilbert, The Jerusalem Post reported, in his position as head of the Knesset caucus on U.S.-Israel relations as well as a caucus on strengthening the Jewish world. Blatt was fired in January.

“I want to wish you mazal tov on your success in bringing a long-awaited championship to the great city of Cleveland and its wonderful people,” Shai wrote. “We in Israel were proud of the achievements of one of our own, David Blatt, when you appointed him as the head coach of your team, and we of course, were sorry to see him go. Nevertheless, Israelis remain strong supporters of the Cavaliers, as do their many Jewish fans in Cleveland’s strong Jewish community.”

At the time of Blatt’s dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach.

Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games. On Sunday night, the Cavs defeated the Warriors in a finals rematch, taking Game 7 to become the first team in NBA history to win the title after trailing in the series 3-1.

Shai also wrote to Gilbert: “David played a key role in building the Cavaliers, guiding its players, and helping the team become championship-caliber. That is why I want to encourage you to give David the respect and credit he deserves by giving him a championship ring, as is customary for players who have left mid-season. I am sure he would cherish such a ring that would symbolize his part in your team’s success.”

In a season and a half at the helm, Blatt guided the Cavaliers to an 83-40 record; his .675 winning percentage was the best of any coach in franchise history.

Blatt sent a text message to the team to offer his congratulations, Sports Illustrated reported Monday.

“My Congratulations. An enormous accomplishment for the organization, a special and historic moment for Cleveland,” the text read, according to SI reporter David Pick.

Blatt interviewed with several NBA teams in recent months for head coaching positions without success. Earlier this month he signed on as head coach with a team in Turkey; his two-year deal reportedly does not allow him an out if an NBA team makes an offer.

David Blatt reportedly to sign with Turkish basketball team

American-Israeli basketball coach David Blatt reportedly is set to sign a deal with a Turkish team.

The former Cleveland Cavaliers coach, who had tried to stay in the NBA after being fired midway through the 2015-16 season, will sign with Istanbul-based Darussafaka, the Europe-based basketball reporter David Pick reported Tuesday.

Blatt’s deal is worth close to $2 million a year for an unspecified number of years, according to Pick.

Blatt had interviewed for open head coach positions with the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks in the past two months. He was also being considered for the Los Angeles Lakers coaching job. reported Saturday that current Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called Blatt’s firing “f—ed up” at the time. Before his firing, Blatt had led the team to a 30-11 record, the best in the Eastern Conference, following an NBA Finals appearance the previous season.

The Cavaliers have again advanced to the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday.

Darussafaka plays in the Turkish Basketball Super League.



Two time Academy Award nominee Rick Goldsmith was looking for his next project when he came across Chamique Holdsclaw in the newspaper.  After some conversations and moments of self-reflection, WNBA legend and Olympic Gold Medalist Chamique Holdsclaw agreed to allow Goldsmith to turn her life-story into a documentary.

The resulting project is MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET MIND OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW which addresses Holdsclaw’s difficult childhood as well as her struggles with bipolar disorder.

The documentary manages to transcend the typical sports crowd by making Holdsclaw’s life a tale of overcoming adversity.

Chamique Holdsclaw took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about what it was like watching such an intimate portrait of herself, her more memorable fan encounter and much more.

Take a look below for the full interview and when you’re through, leave me a message in the comments below to tell me if you plan on seeing the documentary!

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

David Blatt to interview with Sacramento Kings for head coaching job

David Blatt, the Israeli American who was fired this season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly will interview with the Sacramento Kings for the same position.

The NBA team reportedly has interviewed several candidates with head coaching experience, ESPN reported Sunday in an article citing unnamed league sources who said Blatt would be interviewed early this week. The Kings recently fired George Karl after finishing 33-49 this season.

Blatt interviewed for the New York Knicks last month, though the team is said to be leaning toward interim coach Kurt Rambis, and also was considered by the Los Angeles Lakers before they hired Luke Walton last week.

Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, is coming off a strong season with the Kings. Casspi also played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which Blatt coached to the 2014 Euroleague championship.

At the time of his firing in January, Blatt said he wanted to remain in the NBA, as opposed to returning to coaching in Israel and the European leagues, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to five national titles and the Euroleague crown. He also guided the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the time of his dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach. Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.


Israeli-American basketball coach David Blatt in running for Knicks post

David Blatt, the Israeli American who was fired this season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly is under consideration to take the New York Knicks post.

Blatt is in the running for the job currently being filled on an interim basis by Kurt Rambis, ESPN reported Monday evening, citing unnamed league sources.

Blatt played at Princeton with the Knicks general manager, Steve Mills, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Several other coaches with NBA coaching experience are available, some with past ties to the Knicks.

Blatt said at the time of his firing in January that he wanted to remain in the NBA, as opposed to returning to coaching in Israel and the European leagues, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to five national titles and the 2014 Euroleague championship. He also guided the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the time of his dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach. Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

He reportedly also is being considered for head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Post reported. The team is owned by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who knows Blatt from his time as a coach in Moscow.

Los Angeles Lakers blowout Maccabi Haifa B.C., US-Israeli ties are strengthened

Israeli and Jewish pride was everywhere on the evening of Oct. 11, as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Israeli Premier League team Maccabi Haifa Basketball Club (Maccabi Haifa B.C.) competed in an NBA exhibition game at Staples Center. 

Maccabi Haifa B.C. players Renee Rougeau – a forward originally from Sacramento –  Jewish-American center Jeremiah Kreisberg and others lost to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in a blowout, 126-83. Tip-off at the sold-out, evening matchup was 6:30 p.m. ,and the game ended at approximately 9 p.m.

The game served both as an exhibition game for the Lakers and an opportunity for Maccabi Haifa B.C. to raise funds for American Friends of Rambam (AFORAM)/Rambam Health Care Campus, in Haifa. Maccabi Haifa B.C. has adopted the hospital and health center as its charity, and the players are there, when necessary.

“Sports are a great connector, and the L.A. Lakers are obviously a really great team, and this helps us reach out to the community in a fun way,” AFORAM Executive Director Michelle Segelnick, who was at the game, said in a later interview.

The hospital touts itself as the “official hospital for the Maccabi Haifa basketball team.” It is the largest hospital in the north of Israel, and it has been involved in responding to mass casualty events abroad, as well, including at the Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Israeli team’s game against the Lakers team was part of a multi-day trip to the United States, which also included a stop for a Q&A and lunch at Sephardic Temple on Oct. 10, as part of the team’s efforts to raise awareness for the hospital. The team also played an exhibition game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 8. The Grizzlies defeated Maccabi Haifa B.C. 97-84. 

In a phone interview before the two NBA games, Jeff Rosen, the United States-based owner of Maccabi Haifa B.C., said the Israeli team, in competing against teams like the Lakers, is preparing for its own season, which kicks off in late October.

“We’re pretty excited about it. We’ve been working the last five seasons on NBA pre-season tours…it’s been a huge branding opportunity, and, of course, it just gets our guys ready with the highest competition in the world for our upcoming season,” he said.

Maccabi Haifa B.C. is one of 12 teams in the Israeli Premier League. The team is one of the strongest in the league, with its biggest rival being Tel-Aviv’s team, Rosen said. 

“There is a highly competitive brand of basketball in Haifa. Today it would be an objective comment to say Haifa, along with Jerusalem and along with Tel-Aviv, are the three elite teams in the league,” he said. 

“Basketball in general is the second-largest most spectator sport [in Israel], with soccer first,” Rosen added. 

Ariella Steinreich, a spokesperson for AFORAM, said for the Israeli team to play against NBA teams reinforces U.S.-Israeli ties.

“It’s important for Israeli-American relations, to spread awareness about the game,” she said in a phone interview.

Her hopes came true at the Staples Center: an Israeli flag hung from the stadium ceiling, alongside an American and Canadian flags, a scoreboard displayed text messages from attendees during half-time, including, “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Oh Vey! Go Lakers!” and many in the crowd sported Magen Davidadorned garb. 

Attendees included Santa Monica resident and self-described “lifelong Lakers fan” David Leifer, who found himself rooting against his favorite team on Sunday.

Leifer was there with Daniel Rude, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor and Beth Jacob congregant who wore a fuzzy top hat with a Jewish Star of David emblazoned on it. The Lakers led 63-40 at halftime — Maccabi Haifa B.C., whose players wore green uniforms, trailed throughout the game, struggling to complete plays close to the basketball hoop — prompting Rude to say it would take more than a prayer for Maccabi Haifa B.C. to catch up to the Lakers.

“No, not unless the messiah comes,” said Rude, when asked if the Israeli squad had any chance of closing the gap. 

And while many in the crowd were rooting for the Israelis, Lakers star Bryant – as well as veteran Metta World Peace, who recently returned to the Lakers, and the young, upcoming guard Nick Young– garnered some of the loudest applause. This was L.A., after all.

And apparently, the excitement to see Bryant wasn’t only coming from the crowds.

“We’re totally pumped,” Rosen said last week over the phone of playing against the NBA legend. “I just hope the guys don’t get star struck getting Kobe Bryant’s autograph. I told them that after getting his autograph, they have to go back to practice. After that, I think we’ll do just fine.”  

Jordan Farmar returning to Maccabi Tel Aviv

Jordan Farmar, a Jewish NBA player who won two league championships as a member of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, is heading back to Israel to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Farmar, who is Jewish, played 16 games for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the NBA lockout of 2011. The 6-2 guard, a standout at UCLA, was on the Lakers for five seasons. He also has played for the New Jersey Nets and  Los Angeles Clippers, who released him in January. Farmer averaged 7.7 points and 2.9 assists over his NBA career.

“I’m very excited, happy to have received this opportunity and ready for the big challenge,” Farmar told the Maccabi website. “I can’t wait for the moment that I return to the place which is like a home to me — the State of Israel, the city of Tel Aviv and Maccabi.”

Maccabi’s head coach, Guy Goodes, told The Jerusalem Post that the club is “very happy” to have Farmer returning.

“We all know about his massive, massive talent, endless offensive capabilities and his great experience in the NBA,” Goodes said.

Meanwhile, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association, recently signed a two-year, $6 million contract to remain with the Sacramento Kings, the team that drafted him in 2009 and reacquired him for the 2014-15 season. Casspi averaged nearly 20 points per game during the last month of last season.

Why the NBA finals are a lose-lose for David Blatt

After the last game of an impressive series sweep of the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt talked with broadcaster Ernie Johnson in front of an arena of joyous hometown fans.

“So let’s be honest,” Johnson said. “This hasn’t always been easy this year, David. But to be standing here, going to the finals, just tell me how that feels to you tonight.”

“Well, we’re in Cleveland,” Blatt said with a smile. “Nothing is easy here.”

As candid as that sounds, it’s almost an understatement in terms of describing Blatt’s tumultuous first season as an NBA coach. Somehow, despite parlaying a stellar European coaching career into a trip to the NBA Finals in just one season, Blatt finds himself on the hot seat, with something to prove.

How does that happen?

The crazy ride started with Blatt, 56, a four-time Coach of the Year in Israel, leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to an improbable Euroleague title in 2014. Blatt, who played point guard at Princeton and professionally in Israel’s Super League, initially thought he’d transfer to the NBA as an assistant to new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr (whom he’ll now oppose in the finals) – but the Cavaliers took a chance and hired him as head coach in June 2014 to helm a team with modest expectations.

Quickly, however, things advanced to another level.

Just weeks after Blatt was hired, LeBron James – a northeastern Ohio native, a four-time MVP and one of the best players in NBA history – announced that he was leaving the Miami Heat (after two titles and four straight trips to the finals) to return to the Cavaliers, where he started his pro career as a teenager. Overnight, the Cavaliers were draped with championship-size expectations. The preseason acquisition of All-Star Kevin Love to join LeBron and Kyrie Irving, among the top point guards in the league, only added to the hype.

As the stars adjusted to playing together, the season started slowly – the club was 19-20 in January and lost its starting center to a year-ending injury. While the growing pains were predictable, Blatt’s job was rumored to be in jeopardy. Rumors that LeBron wanted Blatt fired swirled in the media, which seemed eager to pounce on the NBA newcomer.

After weathering the storm, Blatt acknowledged to JTA that he needed to make big adjustments in the NBA.

“I’ve gone through my own learning curve that I’ve obviously worked through,” Blatt told JTA in February after the Cavs started to turn around their season, winning 18 of their last 21 games. “Two-thirds through the regular season I’ve become a lot more comfortable, and a lot more cognizant of the things that are necessary to make a winning situation on an NBA team.”

With the help of several crucial midseason acquisitions (J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov), Blatt’s team streaked into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s second seed and the league’s hottest team. The Cavs lost Love to injury amid their first-round sweep of the Boston Celtics, then rallied to beat the Chicago Bulls before dismantling the Hawks.

In the finals, which start Thursday, they’ll face a Warriors squad with the best record in the league and the MVP, Stephen Curry.

Despite the turnaround and march to the finals, the blows to Blatt’s reputation have only intensified, with LeBron’s dominance, game-winning shots and customary confidence stealing the show and getting most of the credit. Blatt didn’t help himself by nearly costing the Cavs a crucial victory in the tough series against the Bulls, calling a timeout the team didn’t have — one of his assistants pulled him back before the referees noticed. Making matters worse, moments later LeBron nailed a buzzer beater to win the game — and proceeded to tell the world that he had called the play, overruling Blatt in the process.

Looking back, LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland may have doomed Blatt’s NBA transition from the start by casting him as second fiddle to the game’s best player, with his outsized personality and extraordinary talent. That doesn’t take away anything from Blatt’s ability.

This week signals a potential shift in the dynamic, as Blatt’s players (including LeBron) have praised him more than they have in the past. And in theory, the finals offer a chance for some face-saving redemption. But in reality, the series is shaping up as a lose-lose situation for Blatt: If the Cavs win, it’s all about LeBron. If they lose – even though the Warriors have played at a historically high level all season – Blatt will be the obvious scapegoat.

At least Blatt has the support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told him recently that “all of Israel is behind the Cavaliers.”

Israel’s all in for NBA’s Cavaliers, Netanyahu tells coach David Blatt

Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted him to offer him Israel’s support in the NBA Finals.

“He said all of Israel is behind the Cavaliers,” Blatt said Sunday, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “That was great.

Blatt,  a dual U.S. and Israeli citizen, is in his first year guiding the Cavs, who will meet the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the best-of-7 championship series on Thursday in Oakland, California. LeBron James, a four-time Most Valuable Player who returned to his native Cleveland area following four seasons in Miami, leads Blatt’s club.

Blatt said he last spoke to Netanyahu last year after coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague basketball championship. Blatt said he spoke with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012 after guiding the Russian Olympic team to a bronze medal.

“[T]here’s nothing I would like better than to hear from [President Barack] Obama,” Blatt said. “That sort of covers all the bases, wouldn’t it?”

Blatt grew up in Framingham, Mass., and immigrated to Israel in 1981 to play professional basketball and later coach after a career-ending injury.

Meanwhile, the Israeli news website Ynet reported that the Cavaliers are expected to announce that they will play against Blatt’s former team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, in an exhibition game in October. The Cavs have said they will not make any plans for the future until the end of the championship series.

For Harvard’s Zach Yoshor, March Madness mixes with Shabbat-playing unease

Should Harvard upset North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Zach Yoshor will stay with the Crimson for their next game two days later – but the freshman guard acknowledges it won’t be easy.

The Ivy League champs would be playing the Arkansas-Wofford winner on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Raised in an observant home in Houston, Yoshor attended a Jewish school, the Robert Beren Academy, that doesn’t schedule games on Shabbat. Three years ago, during Yoshor’s junior year, Beren attracted national headlines when it nearly had to forfeit a state tournament semifinal originally set for a Saturday.

As a member of a non-Jewish travel team in those years, Yoshor walked to Saturday games. At Harvard, though, he had to choose; basketball won out.

“It was a really rough decision. I just decided it was something I wanted to do,” Yoshor explained by telephone on Monday. “I knew if I wanted to play, I’d have to travel on Shabbat.”

It’s a decision with which he remains uncomfortable, Yoshor admitted. For Harvard basketball games occurring on Shabbat, he keeps religious violations to the bare minimum by refraining from using his cellphone or writing. On team bus rides he reads books to pass the time.

“It does bother me,” he said.

Harvard punched its ticket to the NCAAs in dramatic fashion on Saturday: Steve Moundou-Missi drained a jump shot in the closing seconds to defeat rival Yale for the Ivy League title and the automatic bid.

Yoshor, sitting on the bench, leapt with joy.

“When Steve hit that shot, we all went crazy,” he said. “It was a very emotional experience.”

Harvard extended its streak to four consecutive years of reaching the NCAA tournament known as March Madness.

The Crimson, seeded 13th in the West Region, will play fourth-seeded North Carolina, a perennial power out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s remarkable, like a dream come true growing up and watching March Madness,” Yoshor said. “I always had this dream of playing in the Ivy League. I understood, as I grew up, that I’d have this opportunity.”

Yoshor is unlikely to see court time against the Tar Heels. He played in only nine games this season and scored 11 points, all in an easy victory over St. Rose.

Studying last year at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Yoshor stayed in game shape by working out and practicing with the Israeli professional team Ironi Ramat Gan, an arrangement first cleared with Harvard to assure that his eligibility for college basketball would remain intact.

As a standout at the Beren Academy, Yoshor first attracted the attention of Adam Cohen, an assistant coach at Rice University, also in Houston. The summer after graduation, the now 6-foot-6 Yoshor attended a basketball camp at Harvard, where Cohen had moved on to work.

“I saw Zach at his high school at practice and was impressed: He had good size and could shoot the ball,” said Cohen, who’s also heading to postseason play, in the National Invitation Tournament this week, with his new employer, Vanderbilt University.

Cohen said Yoshor “had the ability, as well as the grades” to play at Harvard, adding that Yoshor could crack the Crimson’s rotation as a sophomore if he continues to develop.

“He’s got a big summer ahead of him,” Cohen said.

Yoshor said his coaches and teammates were understanding about his missing practices for the High Holidays. A kosher observer, he makes do on road trips with tuna sandwiches and salads.

“It’s a point of curiosity,” he said. “They’ve been very respectful, very accommodating. If I ever ask for anything, they’re very quick to oblige.”

Harvard’s other demands took some adjustment for him.

“It was rough for me at first,” Yosher said. “Getting in Division I basketball shape and handling the rigors of academics has been a real challenge, but I felt good when I was able to balance my time at both ends.”

For his NCAA Tournament debut, one of Yoshor’s parents will be in Jacksonville. The other will head to New York to see Zach’s brother Ben, a Beren junior, play in Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament.

The family’s hardcourt prowess is hardly limited to the males. Their sister, Rebecca, graduated from Yeshiva University last year after leading the NCAA – all divisions – in rebounds per game as a senior.

Yoshor’s Beren classmates will be following the Harvard game in Jacksonville, too. No sooner did the Crimson qualify for the NCAAs than his cellphone lit up.

“There were lots of texts from friends about how cool it is,” he said.

Hoops guru David Thorpe connects with players on and off the court

Rodney Glasgow catches a pass, pivots, takes one dribble and lays the ball in the basket.

David Thorpe, Glasgow’s coach and trainer for a couple of weeks this summer, steps in to offer some pointers, instructing the former Virginia Military Institute guard to look up after making the catch and how to keep opponents from stealing the ball.

It’s what Thorpe has been doing for nearly three decades out of his Clearwater, Fla., base: identifying and correcting flaws in a basketball player’s game in preparation for a season and, hopefully, a pro career.

For some of his clients — the NBA roster includes Israelis Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, as well as Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer of the Minnesota Timberwolves — the relationship extends well beyond the court.

Thorpe, Martin says, is “my second father.”

“I get most of my pleasure by the maturing I see among the young men I’m helping, seeing them grow,” Thorpe says. “It nourishes my soul in a way that making a jump shot doesn’t.”

A stream of players flows each summer to Thorpe’s consultancy, Pro Training Center, usually through referrals by their agents or teams.

Mekel, of the Dallas Mavericks, is coming back from a knee injury suffered during his rookie season.

Glasgow has come with an eye toward landing a contract with a European team — which he would do, joining BBC Monthey based in Switzerland. It’s an achievement he credits Thorpe with having “a major part in.”

“He’s a great teacher and mentor,” Glasgow says. “He has this presence about him that is really outgoing. I could see that this person has high character. He got to know me and was really genuine.”

Thorpe, who also provides basketball analysis on the ESPN-owned website, coached at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, Fla. — a couple of  hours from his native Seminole — before starting out on his own in 1993.

“I really consider myself a basketball coach who just helps these guys get better,” he says.

After joining Maccabi Haifa two years ago, Mekel was directed to Thorpe by Casspi. Mekel, a guard, would lead the team that season to Israel’s national championship and secure league Most Valuable Player honors.

Shortly after the Sacramento Kings selected Casspi in the 2009 NBA draft — he’s now back with the team — a club official sent him to Florida, wanting Thorpe to help improve the forward’s three-point shooting.

Glasgow’s New Jersey-based agent, Justin Haynes, says Thorpe “is the best” at improving a player’s skills and providing “after-care.”

Haynes estimates that he’s sent eight players to train with Thorpe. With Glasgow signing in Switzerland, all have gone on to play professionally.

“Every high-level player wants to be trained by a highly skilled trainer,” Haynes says.

In one session, Thorpe corrects a problem with Glasgow’s shot — more precisely with his mechanics.

Thorpe “was telling me certain tricks so I’d have a higher percentage of making the shot,” in so doing “breaking the game down at a pro level [in a way] that I never received” from coaches in college, says Glasgow, a Washington-area resident.

“That right away did it for me. I knew I was in the right hands. It told me his IQ level was so high.”

By their second week together, the new habit was second nature and “I was shooting much better,” Glasgow says.

He also watched Martin and Casspi working out simultaneously, ingesting “every little thing.”

“David would say it and Kevin would show it,” Glasgow says.

Martin, a guard who first trained with Thorpe as an incoming sophomore at Western Carolina University, is now a 10-year NBA veteran — and has returned every summer.

Thorpe immediately broke his tendency to settle for jump shots, stressing the importance of “getting to the hole and drawing contact,” Martin tells JTA while vacationing in Hawaii.

“I think he knew my calling card was going to be putting the ball in the basket,” says Martin, who has done just that, possessing a 17.9 points-per-game average in the NBA. “He believed in me and saw the traits I have to be successful.”

Thorpe’s work doesn’t end in the summer. In season, slumping players will contact him. After bad games, too.

“When you need me, when you have a bad game, you have to call me,” Thorpe says he tells them.

Thorpe and his assistant, Ryan Pannone, will review game film to hone in on mechanics and identify solutions.

“I tell the guys, ‘I’m just going to be a mirror, reflecting who you are. I’m not going to say you had a good day when you didn’t,’ ” Thorpe says.

He stays close to his charges personally, too. Mekel and Martin attended the recent bar mitzvah of Thorpe’s son Maxwell; Mekel received an aliyah during the Torah reading.

Martin says of Thorpe, “He’s just a guy I could trust. With David I felt the trust and loyalty would always be there.”

For ex-WNBA chief Donna Orender, NBA breakthrough for women a show of respect

As a former WNBA president who played in what is considered the first U.S. professional basketball league for women, Donna Orender has been eager for a trailblazing female to join the National Basketball Association in a prominent role.

So she was plenty pleased last week when the world champion San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon, a point guard with the WNBA’s Stars of the Texas city, as a paid assistant coach – a first in NBA history.

“Becky’s a special woman, a great player, a student of the game,” Orender said last week of the veteran backcourt ace. “I always thought that the real breakthrough would be a woman coaching in the NBA because it would indicate a real level of respect. I was always waiting for it.”

Waiting and helping to pave the way.

Orender, an All-America guard at Queens College, was one of the few to play all three seasons of the Women’s Professional Basketball League, from 1978 to 1981. She led the Women’s NBA from 2006 to 2011, enjoying “incredible respect amongst those of us in the business,” recently retired NBA Commissioner David Stern said.

Now with a nonprofit organization, Generation W, she is mentoring girls and young women, including by hosting an annual forum of experts in politics, philanthropy, business and self-improvement. The group also provides guidance on getting into college and making a difference in the world through voluntarism.

Orender, 57, herself serves on the boards of Maccabi USA and the V Foundation for Cancer Research (established in memory of collegiate basketball coach Jim Valvano), and was co-chair of the Sports for Youth committee of the UJA-Federation of New York.

During Orender’s eight-year tenure, Sports for Youth more than tripled its annual fundraising, to $450,000 annually, said its director, Danielle Zalaznick.

“She’s an amazing leader. She has very creative ideas,” Zalaznick said.

Orender puts those ideas to use now as the principal of Orender Unlimited, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm that conducts strategic planning and marketing for companies.

Sports, however, remain central to her life. It was in that arena that Orender made her professional mark, despite setting out to be a social worker or sociologist.

After doing research at ABC for such sportscasters as Jim Lampley and the venerable Jim McKay, Orender worked 17 years as an executive for the PGA Tour, the main organizer of professional golf tournaments primarily for men, before taking the reins of the WNBA. Established by the NBA nearly two decades ago, the WNBA remains the most prominent female sports league in the country.

It was her track record from the playing and financial sides that appealed to Stern when he hired Orender for the post.

Orender, he told JTA, understood basketball “from the ground up.”

“She was a great basketball player. She was an early player in a league back then and has a passion for the game,” Stern said. “She was a ranking person in the PGA who got to know everything about our sponsorship and our business, and had an understanding of production and production values.”

Ann Meyers Drysdale, a longtime friend with whom she starred in the backcourt of the WBL’s New Jersey Gems, says she and Orender still talk about the WNBA and its role in further advancing women’s athletics. Meyers Drysdale, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, is an executive with both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

For Orender, basketball also holds importance for her family and its Jewish identity through involvement in the Maccabi movement.

“I love the game,” she said. “It’s a passion of mine. It helps me stay close to youth, Judaism and also connect with my own kids.”

Orender accompanied her 17-year-old twins, Zachary and Jacob, and their Maccabi USA youth team on a nine-game, 12-day trip earlier this summer to play Maccabi and club teams in London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Their itinerary included Jewish heritage sites and a game against a Dutch team of wheelchair-using athletes, with the able-bodied Americans also using wheelchairs.

Basketball was a means of “spreading good will, developing relationships and meeting some of our Maccabi brethren overseas,” said Orender, who also has two stepchildren.

Last summer, the Orender twins played in Israel in the Maccabiah, a quadrennial international sports festival, just as their mother had in 1985. As they entered Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium for the opening ceremony, her sons grabbed Orender’s hand and said, “This must be a dream for you.”

“It absolutely is,” she responded.

Hammon, whose 15-year WNBA career will conclude this summer, was “one of my kids’ favorite players,” Orender said, and they saw Hammon in action numerous times when Orender led the WNBA.

Mother and sons often shoot baskets and break down game film. Orender concedes that “it’s very hard” to keep mum during games and let the boys’ coaches do their jobs.

She’ll offer help if they ask, and they do, often seeking tips on in-game strategy, shooting and making decisions on passing in the flow of a game, Orender said.

She seems to revel in the entire sports experience. Orender recalls an Indiana Fever home playoff game while serving as WNBA president when she climbed to the top rows and gazed upon the sold-out arena.

“It was a very proud moment that really showcased the fan passion, the ability to grow a business, the athletes,” she said.

Sinai Akiba wins basketball championship

Stacked at the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards is a five-story structure that houses a championship tradition not well known to the outside world. It is here that Sinai Akiba Academy has taken its athletics program, which was once almost kicked out of its league, to 28 league championship wins in the last 13 years.

Most of the Westside Conservative day school’s success has come in girls basketball, including its latest title. On Nov. 21, the varsity basketball team comprising six eighth-graders and three seventh-graders beat Holy Martyrs of Encino 41-39 to win the San Fernando Valley Private School League. Audrey Mokhtarzadeh scored the game-winning basket and was named the final’s MVP, according to coach Allen Foster.

In addition to eighth-grader Shaya Rosen, the team’s MVP, Sinai Akiba had height in the middle with 5-foot-9 Lauren Halimi, a fellow eighth-grader. She blocked shots, grabbed rebounds and started fast breaks. Seventh-grader Leeor Abutbul cracked the starting lineup because there wasn’t much she couldn’t do along the baseline, Foster said. It was her 15 third-quarter points in the semifinals against Faith Baptist of Canoga Park that got Sinai Akiba to the final.

“She’s like Larry Bird,” Foster said. “You need shots at the end of the game, she’s the one.”

Championships are common among this group. Halimi, Mokhtarzadeh, Rosen, Kiana Dadbin and Kaylen Mahboubian won as fifth- and sixth-graders, too. Foster credited their familiarity and their will to win as critical to this title.

Also on the latest title-winning team were eighth-grader Lauren Soroudi, plus seventh-graders Karin Harel and Brittany Moalemzadeh.

The story of the school’s success traces to the arrival of James Taylor as athletic director 13 years ago. Taylor, who is not Jewish, arrived after a successful stint at the former Hillcrest Christian in Granada Hills. He coached against Sinai Akiba teams, so he knew how the school handled sports: not so well. The gymnasiums weren’t padded, which was a liability. The school didn’t send a representative to league meetings, league fees weren’t getting paid, and the teams were noncompetitive. 

Taylor said that because league officials knew he was heading to Sinai Akiba, they put the program on probation. 

He met with administrators and asked what they wanted to accomplish with the school’s physical education and athletics programs. Officials told him they wanted to improve the facilities and maintain the sports program. Doing that, Taylor said, meant paying to pad the gyms. He also set out to change the mentality from one of entitlement (eighth-graders made the varsity team regardless) to one of merit (he instituted tryouts).

The school, which has 180 students at its middle school, deserves an assist, too, Taylor said. Because Sinai Akiba has no grassy areas and three different gyms — including one funded by comedian Don Rickles — basketball became the most readily available sport for kids to play. (The school also offers flag football, soccer and volleyball; the outdoor sports teams play home games at Balboa Park in Encino.) 

Within one year, the school was off probation. In 2001, a sixth-grade girls basketball team won the league title. Now, the walls are filled with championship banners.

Foster said most of these girls will continue playing for Milken Community High School, though some may end up at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. Regardless, he expects the kids to be successful wherever they go.

While Taylor predicts a down year next year — “We’re not the most dominant school in the league,” he said — he’s happy about where things stand.

“Sports is not [our] No. 1 [priority], but it’s a nice addition.”

The North Korea Dennis Rodman will never see

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a problem.
Seems he’s been taking a lot of heat lately for having Jang Song Thaek, his uncle and mentor, arrested, publicly humiliated in front of the country’s ruling elite, called out as a traitor, put on trial and executed – all with the lightening speed of an NBA All-Star fast-break. Suddenly, Kim’s carefully cultivated image of a youthful, vibrant Swiss-educated 21st leader took a beating. To make matters worse, Kim’s birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. 
How could the young tyrant rebound from the bad PR?
Enter friend Dennis Rodman, an ex-NBA defensive specialist, who these days specializes in helping to whitewash the brutal reality of the world’s most repressive regime.
When he landed at Pyongyang International Airport on December 21st, Rodman wasted no time in redirecting the media’s narrative. He confirmed that he was going to train North Korean basketball players for next month’s exhibition game with 12 as-of-yet unnamed former NBA players. The game will be played on Kim Jong Un’s birthday, January 8.  Rodman said to the Associated Press that if after the 12 former NBA players go home they say,  “some really, really nice things, some really cool things about this country,” then he has done his job.
“North Korea has given me the opportunity to bring these players and their families over here, so people can actually see, so these players can actually see, that this country is actually not as bad as people project it to be in the media,” Rodman added.
So here is a quick primer on the North Korea that Dennis Rodman and company will never see:
For decades, North Korea has been the world's most controlled society and its regime among the most repressive. Taking a page from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Pyongyang maintains a Gulag — a series of punitive forced labor camps. There,  as many as 200,000 “enemies of the state”  languish, accused of criminal activity or merely of having the wrong neighbor or parent. Inmates have virtually no rights, no knowledge of the outside world, and little hope of getting out. Nuclear families are difficult to maintain and some of the few escapees describe a system where the jailers choose which inmates can co-habitate and when or if they can have children who then also live in captivity.

There are also chilling parallels to Nazi Germany. As associate dean of an institution bearing the name of Simon Wiesenthal, an NGO devoted to imparting the lessons of the Holocaust, I was so shocked by reports that innocent people were being murdered in gas chambers anywhere in the world, on our watch, that I traveled to Seoul to personally debrief three North Korean defectors who reportedly admitted involvement in such activities.

The oldest of the three was more interested in touting his skills in forging nearly undetectable $100 U.S. bills. When I pressed him on the human guinea pigs killed in gas chambers, he showed zero remorse, and shrugged, matter-of-factly “…those (political) prisoners were as good as dead anyway.”
I will never forget the anguish of a second defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber. Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gasses. (Some of these gasses constituted Bashar Assad's arsenal which originally threatened Israel, but were ultimately deployed against his own civilian population). The youngest defector carefully described his team’s involvement in experiments carried out on live specimens – animal and human.
Against this background of hidden horrors and public executions, it is no surprise that Kim Jong Un, like his tyrannical father and grandfather before him, takes great pains to shape and control the image projected at home and abroad.
It is interesting to note the many photos of Kim Jong-un in the company of children that have appeared in the tightly controlled State media. They are eerily reminiscent of Hitler's carefully nurtured public image in the 1930s.
And North Korea’s old guard, including now deceased Uncle Jang, may have missed an ominous hint of things to come, when the official newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, published photos of Kim scolding senior officials, all of them old.

On his last birthday, Kim Jong Un reportedly gave out copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf . Other  sources asserted that Kim was heard saying that North Korea's Ministry of Public Security should be a force even stronger than the Korean People's Army, “similar to the Gestapo.”

Whether he uttered those exact words or not, no one should be fooled by the contrived Kodak moments Dennis Rodman provides for his friend Kim Jong Un. The missile-rattling, nuclear-armed novice in Pyongyang– with friends in high places in Tehran and Syria– should make any rational person in South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S., and Israel, very, very worried.

And Dennis Rodman must open his eyes.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Vice Chair of the North Korean Freedom Coalition and member of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

L.A. return is true Blu

In the 65 years since Israel’s independence, no sports team there has been more successful than Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club. Along with 50 Israeli championships and 40 national cups, Maccabi first made international history upon winning its inaugural European Championship back in 1977. It has since gone on to win four more European titles, with the dominance, from 2002 until 2012, of Los Angeles’ own David Blu.

Born David Bluthenthal in July 1980, the 6-foot-7 athlete played basketball for the University of Southern California before joining Maccabi for six nonconsecutive seasons until his summer 2012 departure, which caught fans by surprise. He was adored by Maccabi devotees, professionally celebrated when invited to play for the Israeli national team and became one of Europe’s most sought-after talents. 

Following his last season with Maccabi, Blu decided to go back home to Marina del Rey with wife Megan; daughter Bridget, 5; and son Baron, 18 months. (He has an older daughter Hailey, 12, from a previous relationship.) “I learned a lot living alongside Israelis; they are very loyal to one another and made sure I was part of them,” he said in an interview. “But once I came back to America, I felt free. Things are happening for me; I’m making connections, I went back to school, I’m smiling, my family’s happy. I lived in Europe, but this here is my home.”

The son of a Jewish mother, Suzanne, a nurse whom he lost to cancer when he was 14, and an African-American father, Ralph, who converted to Judaism, Blu’s first year off the basketball court saw him digging into his lineage as part of his bachelor’s degree studies in sociology at USC. While his original last name is believed to be derived from a 19th century Jewish-German slave owner on his mother’s side, Blu’s ancestry also includes financier Isaias Wolf Hellman, co-founder of USC, from which Blu, his great-great-great grandson, just graduated. 

Fascinated by his study of genealogy, Blu hopes to maintain a close connection to the Jewish community, the same bond that made his father send David, as a high schooler, to Israel to play with the American basketball team at the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997. 

“I studied my Jewish side and my African-American side, all the way from Arkansas to California,” he explained, “and it’s interesting to see how both integrated in American culture. I don’t know many people with a similar black-Jewish background.”

What follows is a recent interview with Blu:

Jewish Journal: Was your departure from Israel planned?

David Blu: During my final season, I played every game as if it were my last. I knew it was the end. I thought of maybe one or two more seasons, but it all changed with the birth of my son in November 2011. I used to take my daughter to the playgrounds in Tel Aviv and she couldn’t communicate with other kids in Hebrew. We figured we would be headed back to the U.S. eventually, so we didn’t enroll her in Hebrew kindergarten. And whenever she stared at me at the playground, it broke my heart.

JJ: What was the thought behind changing your last name?

DB: I grew up playing basketball, mostly with other black guys, and I used to get teased a lot for my name. It’s something that sticks with you for life, though it has nothing to do with my religion. I am a proud Jewish man. But I didn’t want my family to endure all that. I didn’t even want my wife to take my last name at first. So we decide to shorten the name four years ago when we were in New York. I live right around the corner from Hollywood, and one of my dreams is to someday be a sports commentator on ESPN. And let’s face it, David Blu sounds more Hollywood, right?

JJ: How do you see yourself involved in Israel in the future?

DB: One of my good friends is Elliot Steinmetz, who coaches back East at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and has been working with the USA Youth Men’s Basketball Team for the Maccabiah. [The 19th games concluded July 30.] He is giving me good advice about expanding my Jewish brand, and I’m very interested in contributing with my professional knowledge and experience to the community.

JJ: How is life away from the limelight in Israel?

DB: Back there, I’m a celebrity. No matter where I went I was instantly recognized, and I loved it. On the other hand, it feels great being surrounded by family and friends; I no longer miss out on those precious moments in life. I miss the day-to-day of playing basketball. There’s nothing like that feeling of getting the ball in at the buzzer. Maybe one day I’ll get to see my son do the same.

Stoudemire seeking Israeli citizenship

Amar’e Stoudemire, the New York Knicks star who claims Hebrew roots and is currently touring Israel, is seeking Israeli citizenship.

Stoudemire’s agent, Happy Walters, told New York magazine that the Knicks’ power forward is in the process of becoming an Israeli.

“He’s getting citizenship,” Walters said. ”He applied, and he’s there now.”

Stoudemire went to Israel for the Maccabiah Games as the assistant coach of the Canadian basketball squad. The games ended earlier this week.

Stoudemire’s Jewish connections have been the source of much media fascination in recent months. At hiswedding last year to Alexis Welch, Stoudemire donned a yarmulke and prayer shawl for the “Hebraic” ceremony. In July, he announced he had become a part owner in the Israeli basketball club Hapoel Jerusalem. And in an exclusive interview in Jerusalem last month with JTA, Stoudemire said he is in regular dialogue with New York rabbis, studies Torah and observes the High Holidays.

“I’m not a religious person, I’m more of a spiritual person, so I follow the rules of the Bible that coordinate with and connect with the Hebrew culture,” Stoudemire told JTA.

Knicks’ Stoudemire becomes part owner of Jerusalem basketball team

New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire has purchased a stake in the Israeli basketball team Hapoel Jerusalem.

Stoudemire said Friday on his Twitter feed that he joined an ownership group led by businessman Ori Allon that purchased the team, which participated this season in the Eurocup.

“Excited to join the partnership that is giving back to the city of Jerusalem by offering the Hapoel basketball team a fresh start,” Stoudemire tweeted.

“Proud to partner with @Amareisreal & others on building a promising future for the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club,” Allon tweeted.

Stoudemire is serving as an assistant coach for the Canadian basketball team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel that start Thursday.

Since finding out his mother is Jewish, Stoudemire has taken a high-profile trip to Israel in 2010 and expressed his Jewish roots.

ESPN: Israel’s Mekel to sign with NBA’s Mavericks

Israeli point guard Gal Mekel is poised to become the second Israeli to play in the NBA after giving a verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks.

Mekel, 25, informed the Mavs early Monday morning that he would sign a three-year contract with the 2011 champions at the end of the annual trade and signing moratorium on July 10, ESPN reported.

He has agreed to sign a minimum salary contract, which according to ESPN’s Marc Stein helps his chances of being signed since the Mavs are looking to save money as they pursue star center Dwight Howard in free agency.

Mekel led Maccabi Haifa to its first Israeli championship and was the Super League MVP.

Shortly after winning the title, he arrived in the U.S., where he was also courted by five other NBA teams: Milwaukee, Toronto, Atlanta, Indiana and Memphis.

Mekel played in college for Wichita State from 2006 to 2008.

In other NBA news, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the league, became an unrestricted free agent on Sunday after the Cleveland Cavaliers opted not to extend his $3.3 million contract. He has played in Cleveland for the past two seasons.

David Stern getting booed at the NBA Draft: The Supercut

Last night’s NBA Draft was the last one for commissioner David Stern, who has been in the office since 1984.

Over the years, Stern’s strict on/off-court policies has given him the reputation of an almighty dictator among players, owners and fans.

Since the NBA Draft is usually the only way for the everyday fan to interact with Stern, the ritual of Stern announcing the first 30 picks of the NBA Draft usually involves a plethora of boos and curse words, and since the event is usually held in New York, and this year in Brooklyn, it really feels like watching a villain enter a WWE wrestling fight.

Last night was different. Since it was Stern’s final appearance as the draft announcer, he took it upon himself to acknowledge, and even enjoy, the warm welcome he received from local NBA fans. At one point he even took it upon himself to tease the fans and in a very nebechy way said, “I can’t hear you.”

Oh David, We’ll miss you, you evil yet adorable man.

Watch the supercut here:

Alleged flag ban in Hungary-Israel basketball match causes uproar

A Hungarian basketball team has apologized for “misunderstandings” around the alleged banning of the Hungarian flag during a match against Israeli players.

The Szolnoki Olaj KK club and the security company Védelem Holding of Feb. 25 expressed regret about the “real or assumed grievances” of fans who said they were forbidden from waving the Hungarian flag during match last week against the Israeli team Hapoel Holon in Szolnok, a city in eastern Hungary.

The club and the company said they did not stop fans from taking Hungarian or Székely flags into the stadium “but individual misunderstandings may have occurred.”

The apology followed protests by Jobbik, Hungary’s ultra-nationalist party, which has referred to Israel as an apartheid state and whose representatives have made repeated anti-Semitic statements.

Amid speculation that the flag was banned to dampen nationalistic sentiments and discourage anti-Semitic chants, Jobbik called on Ferenc Szalay, head of the Hungarian Basketball Federation and on Interior Minister Sándor Pintér to state the reason for the move, according to Hungary’s MTI news agency.

In August, chants about killing Jews, Auschwitz and the Holocaust by fans at a soccer match in Budapest between a Hungarian team and a team from Israel drew international condemnations.

Last month, FIFA, the international soccer association, punished Hungary’s national MLSZ squad for the August incident with a $43,000 fine and ruled it should play its next World Cup qualification home game on March 22 in an empty stadium.

The Hungarian Football Association on Feb. 25 filed a lawsuit with the Sports Court of Arbitration for Sport against the decision by FIFA.

Israeli basketball player suspended for calling rival ‘Nazi’

Guy Pnini of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team was suspended indefinitely and stripped of his captaincy after calling an opposing player a “Nazi.”

Pnini also was fined more than $26,000 for his trash talk directed at Jonathan Skjodebrand of rival Hapoel Tel Aviv during a game Sunday night.

Pnini was caught on camera shouting at Skjodebrand, a blond Israeli of Swedish descent, “You piece of garbage, bastard, German Nazi … cancer in your head, your father should die.” Skjodebrand did not respond.

After the game, Hapoel Tel Aviv filed a complaint with the Israel Basketball Association, which also will discipline Pnini.

Pnini apologized for his court behavior.

“I apologize to Jonathan and his family and to Maccabi Tel Aviv, my teammates and any sports fan who was offended by what I said,” he said. “I would also like to apologize to my family who are Holocaust survivors. I’m ashamed of myself and of the way I acted.”

Fans of the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team in March sang Holocaust songs during a match with Maccabi Tel Aviv, according to reports, and also have done so during basketball games.

Stern stepping down as NBA chief in ‘14, Silver tapped as successor

David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, said he will be retiring in 2014 after 30 years in the position.

Stern, 70, announced Thursday that he will retire on Feb. 1, 2014 — 30 years to the day since he was appointed to his post. Stern began working for the NBA in 1966 as outside counsel.

The league's Board of Governors on Thursday approved Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver as Stern's successor. Both Stern and Silver are Jewish.

Silver, who began working for the NBA in 1993 and has served as deputy commissioner since 2006, served with Stern as lead negotiator during the 2011 NBA lockout.

Obama, Romney and the Lakers

One of the reasons I love sports is that I can indulge my primal instinct for combat without feeling any guilt. I’m a huge Lakers fan, and I can easily spend hours poring through analyses of how the team will clobber the competition this year with the addition of two fearless warriors.

This thrill of competition will last all season — it is intense, strategic, unpredictable and utterly mindless.

Which is why I feel no guilt: Mindless means there are no stakes to speak of.

The Lakers can lose a big game, and it’ll make no difference to the conflict in the Middle East or to whether my kids get into a good school. Sure, if we win this year, I’ll celebrate like a wild man with my son, but little else will change.

Now, here’s the problem: What happens when this mindless thrill of competition starts to color how we view presidential campaigns, when the stakes are deadly serious?

This is precisely what I saw last week in the media’s reaction to the Obama-Romney debate. Instead of enlightened analyses about the candidates’ different visions for the country, we got “combat reports” that looked like they came right out of the sports pages:

Obama let him off the hook! He didn’t bring his A game! Romney was on fire! Romney won because he fought dirty! Obama didn’t fight back! He better wake up and take the gloves off next time! 

It could have been an NBA championship series with the underdog stealing the first game. Once the debate was over, everybody took their fighting positions: Romney fans started gloating and smelling blood; Obama fans started moaning and calling for blood.

Squeezed between these rabid fans are the tiny sliver of “undecided” voters who represent about 5 percent of the total and who will presumably determine the future of America.

How sad, if you ask me.

How sad that 95 percent of American voters had already made up their minds about which candidate to support without ever seeing the candidates face one another in real time.

How sad that most media and political pundits reacted to the debate the way rabid sports fans do on talk radio — with an obsession for winning and losing.

Take a look at Chris Mathews of MSNBC in the hours after the debate and tell me if he was any less apoplectic than any diehard Lakers fan would be after a big loss.

The “losing” side whined incessantly that Romney won because he misrepresented himself as a moderate — never mind the inconvenient fact that as governor of Massachusetts, he really was a moderate. No, as they saw it, he won because he lied and had swagger. Obama lost because he looked weak and didn’t fight back.  Case closed. Indicated action: Fight harder.

No wonder the battle cries went out for more “fact checking,” just like when coaches ask the referees to review a play. The man cheated! Don’t let him get away with it! He’s not really a moderate! He’s only promising the world so he can win more votes! How shocking!

As if candidate Obama never “promised the world” four years ago when he won. 

As Yuval Levin put it: “A Republican candidate stands before 60 million voters and commits to an agenda and his opponent responds that this isn’t really his agenda, and that voters should instead look to Democratic attack ads and liberal think-tank papers to learn what the Republican is proposing. That’s the strategy?” 

The point is, beyond all the attack ads and campaign strategies and partisan accusations, there’s a more important drama going on that we don’t hear enough about.

It’s the drama of two competing visions for the country.

Both candidates care about America’s future, but they have serious philosophical differences about how to address the nation’s chronic problems. 

Those philosophical differences are real — they’re not lies.

Of course, even visions can be described in partisan terms. To cite one example, Washington Post right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin writes, “The Republicans call it a dependency society vs. an opportunity society. But it is really a face-off between modern conservatism and unrepentant liberalism.”

Romney himself describes the two visions as “Trickle down government vs. prosperity through freedom.”

President Obama has contrasted “the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess” with “a new economic patriotism” that champions the middle class and ensures that everyone gets a “fair shot” at the American dream.

Partisan slogans aside, there are genuine and honest differences between the two visions on virtually every issue. It’s tempting to assume we understand them all — but do we?

As crazy as it may sound to some, there are compelling arguments to make for both sides.

In this national sport, when the stakes are so high, the definition of victory is when we all try to find out what those arguments are.

Reports that Allen Iverson will play for Maccabi Haifa are false

Reports that retired NBA star Allen Iverson will play for Israel's Maccabi Haifa basketball team in two upcoming exhibition games against NBA teams are false, a Maccabi representative told JTA.

“The local Israeli press completely made this up,” said Andrew Wilson, director of marketing for Triangle Financial Services, which is chaired by Maccabi Haifa owner Jeffrey Rosen. “We’ve had no contact with Allen Iverson so it’s a fabricated rumor.”

Rosen, who bought the team in 2007, was not available for comment.

Initial reports in the Israeli Sport5 website and later picked up by JTA said that Iverson, 37, will suit up for Haifa when it takes on the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves later this month in the United States. Sport5 had added that Maccabi Haifa officials were considering signing the perennial NBA All-Star guard to a longer contract if the experiment succeeded.

Haifa coach Brad Greenberg was part of the Philadelphia 76ers staff when Iverson starred for the team. Left without a team for this season, Iverson announced his retirement earlier this year. In 2011, Iverson played for the Turkish club Beshiktash. This year he declared bankruptcy.