During the week leading up to the invasion of Gaza, when things looked like they might resolve without excessive tragedy, I met Ron on King George Street in central Tel Aviv.
He was wearing a No. 4 Spud Webb Hawks jersey. Sometimes it's important to wear symbols. We were in line to get a six-shekel (under $2) falafel. I was with my friend Noah. Noah was staying at a dorm provided by his Israeli internship, and, against the organization’s rules, I crashed in his dormitory apartment. Noah recognized a friend, Ryan, in line for a falafel. Ryan was Australian and a couple inches taller than me, maybe 6'5”. We eyed each other with tall-people distrust, like two lanky male peacocks during mating season. While Ryan and Noah caught up, I started talking basketball with Ron.
"You play ball?" I asked, pointing at his vintage NBA jersey.
"Yeah, when I can," Ron replied. Ron reminded me of my family physician. They both had similarly narrow faces with slightly sleepy eyes. They also seemed perpetually unenthused, Operating at one speed and tone no matter the subject.
"Where do the best players go?"
"You should check out the Sportek at Hayarkon Park. There are a bunch of courts and each one has varying levels of ability, but it's good."
Soon we started talking about Israel and politics. I told him about my basketball "odyssey" and what I hoped to do. I was gearing up to tell him that I would soon need a place to stay as Noah was leaving Israel in a couple of days.
"Well, if you need a place to stay, you can always sleep at my place."
I was relieved I didn't have to ask him. But maybe he sensed it coming and spared my unbecoming begging. We finished our falafels and parted, but not before we exchanged information.
The next day was Saturday, and Ron and I agreed to meet at the Sportek to play. What I didn't know was that in Tel Aviv, the most progressive and secular part of Israel, the city buses observe the Sabbath until the sun goes down. Google Maps was of no help and it would have taken more than an hour to walk to the park. Noah told me to take the sherut, the private (and blasphemous) bus service that takes over for the pious government transit. I walked to where the bus should be. I didn't know which side of the street to take so I asked the first person I saw. Fortunately, it was a beautiful girl. Her name was Stav. She was dark with a sharp nose, and her oil-colored hair was in a bun. She told me she would ask the bus driver. We got on the same taxi service. Maybe I've been playing it wrong all these years. Being a man in the United States is not asking for directions or help and only offering solicited advice. But by being lost and stupid and American, I was able to engage with a pretty girl in an honest and non-skeezy way. She gave me her number and a smile.
The bus driver dropped me off in front of an empty basketball court. I figured I was early. It was 5:30 and Ron wouldn't arrive for another half hour. I walked around the park. There was a little caged-in plot that resembled a zoo. They had goats and white-tailed deer and an emu. I stared at the emu for fifteen minutes. He'd look at me for a second and then slowly wrap his long neck around his body and preen his feathers. Ron called.
"Hey, where are you?"
"I am at the courts, but nobody's here."
"Are you sure you are at the right courts?"
I was not. After I walked a ways, I found the Sportek. There must have been 20 basketball courts within a mile radius at the Sportek during my walk. The main area consisted of two full courts that had four iterations of three-on-three. Each half-court was littered with electric bicycles and backpacks and had varying degrees of difficulty. Ron and I ventured to the second-best half and asked who had next. Ron warned me that he had already asked and our prospects didn't look bright.
I was incredulous. In New York, nobody denies me my next, so with Brooklyn bravado I walked over to the court and said, "Yo, who's got next?" In response, I received blank stares. I asked again. "Next. Who's got it?" The Israelis went about their business. I walked on court and finally someone said, "You've got next, next." Alright. That's better, I thought.
So I warmed up and observed. There was a level of goofiness to the play. Watching Israelis play is like listening to someone speak English as a second language. You can hear and understand them just fine, but certain things are just a little off. For many Israelis, basketball is a second sport. Soccer (football!) is what they played when they were younger. But Basketball is in a sort of renaissance in Israel right now. Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Los Angeles Lakers of the Middle East, won the Euroleague and their coach, David Blatt, just signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. You could see the American influence of basketball in the Israeli garb. Lots of Nike. All the teenage Israelis looked exactly like Chandler Parsons.
Turns out I am not in shape. The level of play in Jerusalem was poor, so I never exerted myself when I played there. Perhaps staying out drinking until 6 in the morning isn't the wisest decision before a day of athletics. I'd like to blame it on the shawarma, but I won't. Everything burned. I felt the acid in my throat. I was very hungover. I played horribly. I was embarrassed. My shots clung off the rim. I made my normal "ach!" sound, with a heavy emphasis on the CH when I missed the shot. One of the other Israeli players, Avi, said that was a very Jewish sound, though I never heard anyone else on the court make that sound when they were upset.
Everybody threw out English expressions during play, which was odd because Israel turns every word into Hebrew. This is unlike many other languages that will use the English word for many modern terms. But on the court I heard more English than any other place when Israelis were playing with other Israelis. “Pass! Pass! Rebound! No way! And one! And one!,” etc. But when I stepped onto the court, the English disappeared and it went back to Hebrew. I couldn't help but think this was on purpose. Nearly all Israelis speak English.
I started to find my rhythm when Ron and I were joined by the only shirtless player at Sportek, Raz. He was without a doubt the biggest jerk I've ever played basketball with, and I've played with some real gems. He wore short running shorts. He was very dark and muscular. His chest hair was a long stubble. He was a miserable human being. He never, ever passed the ball. He'd take ridiculous jumpers and call fouls nearly every possession. To his credit, he was very good and he made most of his shots. He had an unorthodox two-handed release. He yelled at me for everything. If I missed a shot. If my opponent scored. He was also violent. During a dispute over who last touched the ball, he ran up to the guy holding the basketball, swung down with all his might at the ball to knock it loose and ended up hitting the guy in the face instead. Psycho.
Eventually we lost. Raz moved to the other end of the court. I had to wait a few games until I got picked up again, so I decided to be a good little journalist and take pictures.
"Hey! What are you doing!?" Raz, from the other end of the court, yelled.
"Don't do that!"
What? I wasn't sure if he was talking to me.
"I observe shabbat! You taking pictures of me? Huh?"
I was still confused. I just put up my hands and shrugged. I certainly wasn't going to apologize to him. I also didn't know that you couldn't have your picture taken on shabbat. Maybe that would be a good time to rob a national bank as the cameras would be off. There was a group of older Israelis dancing some weird sabbath folk dance underneath a cloth pavilion adjacent to the basketball courts.
Ron had his bike with him, so when we were done he walked me to my bus stop. We talked NBA and Raz and made plans to hang out again. I waited for the 125.
Israeli girls are breathtaking. I thought NYC was crazy, but here it is something else. I don't know how to describe the general female aesthetic, but they aren't hot, which is a good thing. They don't seem to wear any makeup. Their features are long. They don't seem like the type to go to the gym everyday either. It's just a general beauty. I'm told it's because of the many different Jewish ethnicities that came to Israel and mixed: Morrocan, Iraqi, Persian, Russian, German, Tunisian, Ethiopian. It's the Brazil of the Middle East. And they are everywhere. You can't go five minutes without seeing an olive-skinned girl with green eyes. So it was especially unfortunate that I smelled horrible on the bus. I mean it was borderline rancid. The mixtures of my sweat and the sunscreen and the sweat of others from the court combined into something foul. I wanted to spare the other riders so I chose not to sit down and stood instead. But then I had to hold on to the railing that came down from the ceiling and this exposed my right armpit. I remembered an IDF soldier told me that they use baby wipes to shower while on duty. I should look into that.