2017-12-06 / Mideast

Why so many African-American pro basketball players love Israel

By GABE FRIEDMAN JTA


Stanley Brundy, who played for Maccabi Haifa and other Israeli teams, with his eldest son, Nadav, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. JTA photo courtesy of the Brundy family. Stanley Brundy, who played for Maccabi Haifa and other Israeli teams, with his eldest son, Nadav, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. JTA photo courtesy of the Brundy family. NEW YORK—Chris Watson played four standout years of basketball at Niagara University, where he became one of the upstate New York school’s all-time leading scorers. So when the 6-7 forward-center went undrafted by an NBA team in 1997, he set out to play on a professional level internationally.

He played two years in Uruguay, then his agent called and said, “You’re going to Israel.”

Watson, an African-American from suburban White Plains—who in his own words did not grow up “watching the news”—said at the time he knew “nothing at all” about the Jewish state.

That quickly changed, and Watson stayed in Israel for more than 15 years, playing for several teams. He also married an Israeli woman, became an Israeli citizen and converted to Judaism.

As David A. Goldstein details in his recent book “Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African- American Hoopsters in the Holy Land,” Watson is far from the only black basketball player to do these things.

Since the 1976 arrival of Aulcie Perry—a 6-10 native of Newark, New Jersey, who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to two unexpected EuroLeague championships—more than 800 African- American players have competed in the Israeli Premier League, which formed in 1954 and is composed of the country’s 12 best teams.

After researching the history of the league and interviewing dozens of former and current players over the span of 10 years, Goldstein found that most of them professed a deep, genuine love for Israel, despite having grown up without a connection to the country.

“Forty-something converted in the ’70s and ’80s…tens of players got citizenship,” Goldstein told JTA. “Hundreds are now kind of advocates or ambassadors [for Israel] in the U.S. or internationally.”

In the book, Goldstein explores how the black players adapted to Israel, why they formed an attachment to the Jewish state and how they impacted Israeli sport and society.

Prior to 1976, the use of foreign players was discouraged by a league rule dictating that only one non-Israeli could play at a time for an Israeli team, and only in games held on European soil. But Perry’s success ushered in the first of many rule changes: The lone foreign player could now play in games held in Israel, too. Over the decades, the league continued to adjust the rules, allowing teams to stack foreign players on their rosters.

As Goldstein completed his decade of research, the so-called “Russian rule”— named for the country where it originated— was the operating standard: Teams could sign as many foreign players as they wanted, but two Israeli citizens must be on the court at all times.

The teams tried to exploit the rule in the ’70s and ’80s, rushing foreign players through hasty conversions to Judaism in order to quickly turn them into citizens. But along the way, as Goldstein was surprised to discover, an unexpected number went through legitimate and meaningful Orthodox conversions. Perry, for instance—who was criticized by some for starting the fad—has remained Jewish. (He has also talked about how his mother does not fully accept his Jewishness).

Watson, 42, mainly converted to marry his wife and has not been very observant since they divorced. But, he said, he enjoyed learning about Jewish texts and history throughout his conversion process.

Despite the controversy fueled by the league’s rules, basketball teams in other countries have similar quotas for foreigners in order to help foster local talent. Watson, for one, understands the way the Israeli league works.

“The Jewish people have fought so much to get their country,” he said. “They want to see each other succeed, which is natural.”

As Goldstein writes, notwithstanding any of the public hoopla surrounding the quickie conversions, African-American players over the years have had little trouble adapting rapidly to life in Israel. Like many, players with a passing knowledge about Israel have typically expected it to be a war zone where the people wear religious garb.

But once they arrive, the players are surprised by how many Israelis speak English and how welcoming and passionate they are. 

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