Jewish Community Rallies To Support Israeli Basketball Team At Exhibition Game

Wearing warmup t-shirts with the faces of kidnapped Israelis on the front, and jerseys that say “Stand With Israel,” the basketball players of Maccabi Ra’anana took the court at Target Center on Tuesday night. It was the final stop on their three-game tour of NBA preseason games, and as their stay in the U.S. has gone on, a degree of the reality of what has sunk in since they’ve been in the country. 

“We’re a very small country so everyone knows someone who got killed or kidnapped or is at war right now,” said guard Ori Hai. “It’s a really hard time for us. But we try to do our best.”

Ra’anana has been in the United States for two weeks, and their first game was in Brooklyn against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 12. The game took place four days after the killing of a good friend of coach Yehu Orland.

On Tuesday night, the pregame featured a moment of silence for those who have been killed in Israel, a stirring rendition of “Ha’Tikvah” by Temple of Aaron’s Cantor Joshua Fineblum. The game itself featured a Timberwolves squad largely of players that are bound for their development team in Iowa or sparse minutes at the end of the bench. Ra’anana has five Israelis, eight Americans, and a Brazilian as part of their roster. Ra’anana led after the first quarter but went on to lose 138-111. It was the closest score in the six games the team has played in the U.S. over the last two seasons. 

“There are some players who joined us like Dwayne Bacon, and [Quindndary] Witherspoon, and Bruno Caboclo and Mamadi [Diakite] who have NBA experience, so besides showcasing themselves, they get nothing out of it,” Orland said after the game. “We as a team have the opportunity to compete at a high level and to get the experience of that. You have to respect that and I will take the experience from that to our local league.”

They were ready to head home as soon as possible. But they have no idea what they are returning home to – or even if they’ll be able to – all the while trying to concentrate on their jobs as best as they can.  

“You can’t do it fully,” said Ori Hai, a guard in his first season with Ra’anana. “We’ve tried to show some mental strength but you can’t really ignore what’s going on. We’ve tried to do our best.”

Orland said that he has been trying to keep the team focused on the basketball while on tour. 

Dwayne Bacon (left) of Maccabi Ra'anana takes a shot over the Timberwolves Josh Minott. (Photo by Lev Gringauz/TC Jewfolk)

Dwayne Bacon (left) of Maccabi Ra’anana takes a shot over the Timberwolves Josh Minott. (Photo by Lev Gringauz/TC Jewfolk)

“I told him the players ‘You chose this profession. You chose to be a basketball player, you chose to be an athlete. And you are here, not in the situation back home, and you have to perform. “ Orland said. “If you’re [in Israel], it’s another story: You’re with your families, you want to protect them or whatever. But if you’re here, you have to perform.”

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said in his pregame comments that Ra’anana continuing on their tour shows courage.

“It’s incredibly heartbreaking,” he said. “One thing I’ve always known about all the teams (from Israel) that we’ve always played is that they’ve tried to, to carry on and play as normal. I think that’s very important for them, and the strength in the psyche of their country. 

“I tried to put myself in their position, and maybe in a small way, this can be a little bit of a distraction for them. But in no way is it anything super meaningful in the larger context of what’s going on.”

Orland said the team appreciated the support from the Minnesota Jewish community. Fineblum had organized a block of tickets and said that more than 200 were sold. 

“It means a lot because we need all the support that we can get,” he said. “The desperation and the sadness is very deep. But when you have the support, it’s happier.”

The t-shirt journey

Steve Leventhal was on the phone Monday afternoon when he started getting a barrage of phone calls from Israel: Could he make 28 t-shirts. And fast. 

Simple one-sided, one-color shirts were easy. Full-color photos on the front and printing on the back? 

Yonatan Atias wears a shirt with the face of one of the Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. (Photo by Lev Gringauz/TC Jewfolk).

Yonatan Atias wears a shirt with the face of one of the Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. (Photo by Lev Gringauz/TC Jewfolk).

“I open up a Google Doc and it’s 28 different photos. And it’s five o’clock Monday night,” said Leventhal, who owns Wholesale Imprints and Promotions. “I stock all the shirts. So normally, it’s not a problem, but I’m telling my art department, you can’t go home. Because we’ve got to do this.”

Leventhal needs to make 56 different setups for the shirts. At 2 a.m., ready to start printing, he gets a call from his contact in Israel.

“She said ‘have you done Tamor?’” said Leventhal. “I had; I’d been looking at his face for the last five minutes. She said ‘They found him dead. We need to get you a new name.’

“It’s sad they found him dead, and it’s sad they had more names they could get me.”

Leventhal delivered the end product to the team at the arena at 4 p.m. Different shirts with the photos of kidnapped Israelis on the front with the #bringthemhomenow, and names and ages on the back. 

Hai said that everyone on the team was wearing the shirts even though it wasn’t mandatory. 

“I love to be part of Jewish community,” Leventhal said. “[The team] wants to bring awareness, and I don’t know how viral this is going to go, but they want this to go all over the world.”