On Monday, December 30, the Dallas Mavericks came to Minnesota for a game against the Timberwolves. After the game TC Jewfolk got to sit down with Israeli basketball star, and Dallas Mavericks player Gal Mekel.
As a child growing up in Israel, Gal Mekel would stay up into the middle of the night watching NBA games, idolizing players like Michael Jordan and dreaming of one day playing the game at the highest level. Now he is living his dream as a member of the Dallas Mavericks after signing a contract in the summer that made him just the second Israeli player in NBA history.
As one might expect, Mekel’s path to the NBA from Israel was unusual. After high school, he moved to America and played college basketball for two years at Wichita State, before leaving the program and returning home to Israel. He spent the next several years playing in Israel and Europe, and began to attract the attention of the NBA with a breakout season last year, when he led Maccabi Haifa to their first-ever league title with an upset win over powerhouse Maccabi Tel-Aviv and was named Israeli Super League MVP. After conquering the Israeli league, Mekel made the decision to move to the NBA.
“In the beginning, [The NBA] wasn’t my goal,” Mekel said. “My goal was to be at the highest level in Europe and to win titles, and I was lucky enough to achieve it. After last year when I had a good season, I knew that some NBA teams were following me and I really wanted to give it a try, because that’s the dream of every basketball player.”
Mekel received interest from several NBA teams, including Milwaukee and Atlanta, but chose Dallas because they offered him the best deal – a three-year contract worth 2.3 million dollars guaranteed. After being an MVP in Israel, Mekel has spent much of this year struggling for playing time in the Mavericks’ crowded backcourt as he adjusts to a new level of play.
“The athleticism [in the NBA] is different,” Mekel said. “The speed. The length. Everything that is related to athleticism is at another level than Europe. The game is a little bit faster, but I think I adjust pretty good. The court is a little bit wider, so you’ll have more spacing and for a player I am – a point guard – that’s good.”
With three years in Dallas, Mekel is confident that he can make these adjustments and make a mark on the league, though he’s realistic about the possibilities.
“[I want] to establish my role, to prove that I can play in this league and have good games,” he said. “The goal is to be ready every game, be consistent in the minutes that I’m in, and build myself. Eventually, if I’m realistic, I want to be, in those three years, maybe the backup point guard. I just need to be patient.”
The other toughest adjustment for Mekel has been the schedule. At 82 games, an NBA season is over twice as long as a season in Europe, some of which are only around 35 games. And while European leagues have a professional product, they don’t match the spectacle of the NBA, where games are played in sold-out arenas in front of massive television audiences.
Those on-court changes would be enough, but Mekel has also had to adjust a new way of life as a professional athlete in America, particularly one who could be seen as representing his country on the court. He acknowledges that he’s different from other athletes, but doesn’t let it pressure him in any way.
“Even a regular person, an Israeli guy on vacation is representing Israel in some way,” Mekel said. “Of course I want to represent my country the best I can, and I know a lot of people are looking at me. Jewish communities and people in Israel are watching the games. So it’s not pressure, but it’s something – pride.”
Mekel has fit in well with the Mavericks, who have a couple other international players, including 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki of Germany. His Jewish identity doesn’t normally play a role with the team, though it can come up on rare occasions, like when the team is eating bacon for breakfast and Mekel, who keeps kosher, is not able to eat any. He also doesn’t need to sit out any games that take place on Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur, the one holiday he said he would not play in, does not fall during the NBA season.
The transition for Mekel has been made easier by Omri Casspi of the Houston Rockets, who became the first Israeli player in league history in 2009. The two grew up together, were teammates in Israel, and both currently play for teams in Texas, so they’ve been able to keep in touch and support each other in America. As the first Israeli NBA players, Mekel knows that he and Omri are setting an example for many young Israeli athletes.
“I don’t really think about [being a role model],” Mekel said. “But I know a lot of kids are dreaming of getting to the NBA like myself when I was a young kid, so I think both of us give an example and show that anything is possible.”
Josh Epstein is an aspiring writer and recent college graduate from Mendota Heights, Minnesota. He loves sports, writing, and writing about sports.
UPDATE: An earlier version said TCJ sat down before the game with Mekel. It has been changed to reflect that we talked to him after.