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Israel is a slam-dunk for US basketball players

Israel is a land of opportunity...and sometimes romance...for Jewish-American basketball stars

    Willy Workman
    Willy Workman

    There are currently more than 30 American Jewish basketball players in Israel's professional leagues.

    According to Israeli agent Raz Gal, who specialises in bringing US Jewish players to Israel, there are many more potential stars in the USA.

    "The problem is finding them," explains Gal.

    "We search the top colleges, but it is often difficult to know who is Jewish. The Jewish college players themselves realise they are not going to make the NBA and are thinking about pursuing other professions. They don't know how much they could earn in Israel playing the game they love."

    According to Gal, the top US Jewish players in Israel earn up to $140,000 net plus a free car and apartment and more than double if they make to Israel's two richest teams - Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem.

    For the past 50 years, US Jewish players have been making their mark in Israeli basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv captain Tal Brody, who in the 70s led the team to its first European title and David Blatt, who had a successful playing and coaching career in Israel before leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA playoff finals, are just the tip of the iceberg.

    The advantage for Israeli teams in signing Jewish players is that they can take on Israeli citizenship and enable the team to circumvent the limit of five foreign players in each squad. Long gone are the days of "basketball conversions" when players such as Aulcie Perrie in the 1970s were cynically converted to Judaism so that they could qualify for Israeli citizenship.

    Even so Perrie still lives in Israel and many other non-Jewish American players have converted to Judaism, often before marrying Israeli women.

    Gal currently has seven American players on his books, five of them Jewish, including Maccabi Tel Aviv shooting guard John DiBartolomeo, a former Rochester College player whose mother is a Russian Jewish immigrant to the US, and Maccabi Tel Aviv power forward Alex Tyus, who converted to Judaism when playing for the University of Florida.

    Amit Gal (left), his son Raz Gal (centre) and Raz's brother-in-law Willy Workman (right)
    Amit Gal (left), his son Raz Gal (centre) and Raz's brother-in-law Willy Workman (right)

    Another player that Gal represents is Maccabi Haifa captain Willy Workman, 27, who won the US national championship with Amherst College. Workman from Northampton, Massachusetts is currently in his fifth season in Israel.

    "I always knew that I wanted to devote myself professionally to basketball. My mother is a judge and I tried some legal internships, but I had no passion for law. I met a US agent who explored my ethnic background because it's easier to play abroad if you have citizenship. When he heard I was Jewish, we started looking into Israel.

    "I'd never been to Israel before I began playing here, but I've received so much love here, it's been great."

    In his first season, Workman met Gal who was general manager of his team Hapoel Galil Elyon. Gal left Hapoel to set up his own agency and an added bonus for him is that he met and married Workman's sister Rachael.

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