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Former Duke guard Jon Scheyer, who has signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv, is joined by Tal Brody, who led the team to Israel’s first European Cup Basketball Championship in 1977.
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Jordan Farmar, a two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and current New Jersey Nets player, has joined Maccabi Tel Aviv following the NBA lockout.

A Home Court: The Story of American Basketball Players in Israel

Israel has long been a basketball powerhouse in Europe. Its top club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, is one of the most successful on the continent, having been crowned Euroleague champions five times and runners-up in the most recent 2010-2011 season. Israel thus attracts players from the United States, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who want to advance their careers and try their luck outside the National Basketball Association (NBA). For Jewish athletes, playing in Israel also provides an opportunity to explore their heritage.

Locked out of the NBA

On July 1, the NBA went into its fourth lockout in history. The lockout, which went into effect after players and owners failed to reach a new contract, has put the 2011-2012 season scheduled to start on November 1 in jeopardy. Consequently, American players have set their sights elsewhere to continue playing through the season.

One such player is Jordan Farmar, a two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and current New Jersey Nets player. Farmar approached Maccabi Tel Aviv and asked to join the leading club in the Jewish state, which was quick to sign him. It was not only his high regard for Maccabi that motivated Farmar to contact the team, but also his Jewish background and connection to Israel: Farmar’s mother is Jewish and his stepfather is Israeli. He has also visited Israel several times in the past and had his bar mitzvah there.

“I must say that in all my years as a coach, Farmar is one of the more special players I have met,” said Maccabi coach David Blatt. “The most important thing is that Jordan has a strong connection with the country, having deep Jewish and Israeli roots, and we see him one day being a permanent and leading player at Maccabi.” Farmar arrived in Israel to a raucous welcome and said he was “just as excited as the fans” to join Maccabi. He will play with the Israeli champions as long as the NBA lockout continues.

In Tel Aviv, Farmar will play alongside another standout Jewish athlete, former Duke guard Jon Scheyer, who led his college team to a national championship in 2010. “It makes sense for me in every aspect,” said Scheyer after signing with Maccabi this summer. “Israel is such a unique place to go, even if you aren’t Jewish. For me, being Jewish, it’s even more special.”

Of course, Farmar and Scheyer are not the first Jewish American athletes to come play in Israel. Perhaps the most well-known among them is Tal Brody, who passed up an NBA career to play basketball with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Leading the team to Israel’s first European Cup Basketball Championship in 1977, Brody has become a national hero and is currently a goodwill ambassador for the Jewish state.

A Stepping Stone

European basketball clubs, including Maccabi Tel Aviv, are a primary destination for American players who want to maintain a high level of play and hone their skills. They may also serve as a stepping stone to an NBA career.

Anthony Parker, for example, had a short and rather unsuccessful stint with the NBA before moving to Israel and signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv. In his five seasons with Maccabi, Parker won five Israeli national championships, five national cups and three Euroleague titles, and he was voted Euroleague MVP two consecutive times. It was an exhibition game between Maccabi and the Toronto Raptors that convinced the NBA club to sign Parker. He helped the Raptors have their best regular season record in franchise history, clinching a division title and reaching the NBA playoffs in 2007.

Though Parker has not played in Israel since 2006, he is still well remembered and profoundly loved among Maccabi fans. The experience in Israel also left a very positive impression on Parker. When asked why he adopted a #18 jersey in the NBA, he explained: “The number 18, in Judaism, it means ‘chai’ … and it’s the symbol for life and good fortune in Judaism. And I thought that was something to take away from Israel and let them know I’m still representing them.”

Making Israel Home

Even more remarkable than stories like Parker’s are cases of Americans who came to play in Israel and ended up building their lives and homes there. When Maccabi signed Aulcie Perry in 1976, they could not have foreseen his monumental effect on the club and on basketball in Israel. The 1977 season, in which Perry helped the team clinch its first European championship, is still remembered by many as one of the highpoints of Israeli sports.

Perry has since converted to Judaism and gotten Israeli citizenship. He has become a celebrity in Israel, to the point where Aulcie Perry is a Hebrew nickname for a tall person. Perry currently sponsors a basketball camp for children and coaches one of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth teams.

Derrick Sharp has a similar story. Sharp married an Israeli during his first years in Israel while playing in the small town of Migdal Ha’emek. He then found his way to Maccabi Tel Aviv, where his agility on the court, leadership skills and true “Maccabi” spirit quickly propelled him to the role of team captain.

Following 18 years of play in Israel, 15 of which were with Maccabi, Sharp has recently retired. Among his achievements are 13 national championships, 11 national cups, 2 league cups and 3 European titles. As a citizen of Israel, he played for the national team for three years and finished his career seventh on the team’s all-time scoring list. Sharp has since made a smooth transition from superstar player to assistant head coach for Maccabi.

The relationship that American basketball players, whether Jewish or not, have forged with Israel echoes the bond that the two countries share in other arenas. Israel has welcomed these players with open arms, allowing them to develop their skills and advance professionally while benefiting from their talent. Having been embraced by their Israeli counterparts and revered as symbols of national pride by Israeli society, some have chosen to call the Jewish state home.

AIPAC Interns Jason Berger, Rebecca Gomby and Yoav Stein contributed to this report.