When the Israeli professional basketball team Maccabi Ra’anana learned about the Hamas terror attacks on Oct. 7, they had just arrived in the United States for a preseason tour against several NBA teams. The horrific news caused shockwaves of grief throughout the team and put their trip in jeopardy.
But the team decided they were going to do their jobs and look to provide a measure of hope to the Israeli and American Jewish communities through the game of basketball. And by playing the games, the team found an unexpected benefit – the players and coaches themselves received some hope and inspiration as well.
Fans flooded the Barclays Center stands donned in blue and white and waving Israeli flags for the team’s Oct. 13 game against the Brooklyn Nets. Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence to commemorate the terrorist attacks and Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, was sung. Outside the arena, a group of fans gathered and sung songs in support of Israel.
According to Abe Kuhn, Maccabi Ra’anana’s assistant coach and a Bethesda native, the fans interacted with the players and showed them a sense of love and support that carried serious emotional weight for the players who were grappling with a range of emotions and concern in light of the current situation in Israel.
“The energy in Brooklyn was crazy … I think specifically for our players feeling that love really helped them get back to themselves … There’s a war happening in your home country. You can’t ever really relax, but I saw them ease up a little bit. Because they saw how special it was,” Kuhn said.
Initially, the players weren’t sure if they were going to be able to play, but they ended up taking time to grieve before deciding to proceed with the game and proudly represent their country at such a challenging time. It was an emotional and moral boost for them to see so many U.S. fans responding to the crisis with unity and support.
“We’re one of the only teams playing from Israel, and there’s just awful things happening in our home country and for the players to still go out there and do their jobs and represent their people and their country at a time like this, it was amazing,” Kuhn said.
The heightened amount of support extended after the game as well, with fans taking time to talk to and empathize with the players after the final buzzer.
“There were a bunch of fans that came down and interacted with our Israeli guys and you could see it was emotional for some of them. But also, you could just see how their faces lit up because they realized that all these people were there to support them,” Kuhn said.
That love continued throughout the rest of the team’s NBA tour in Cleveland and Minnesota, with the level of support they received far outweighing what the team would normally see from a preseason overseas tour.
“It was a unique feeling [the support]. You don’t get this feeling usually when you play overseas, especially in the preseason. Those games are not going to decide which place you’re going to finish in the league or if you’re going to be a good team,” said Yehu Orland, Maccabi Ra’anana’s head coach.
Orland said the entire trip felt that way, with the Jewish communities in the cities the Israeli club visited making sure that the team understood they stood in solidarity with them and the people of Israel.
But now with the NBA tour complete, the team is hoping to carry the impact of the trip back home with them to Israel, where they’re looking to come together and be able to do their jobs despite a reality at home that is far from normal.
The professional season in Israel has yet to begin, with a start date not yet determined, but that hasn’t stopped the team from being as prepared as possible, even though they’re missing some of their American players and dealing with the threat of more attacks.
“I know Hamas is shooting rockets at us. It’s impossible to play like that. We’re trying to practice every day in a safe place. That [practice facility] has to be close to a shelter because when the alarm comes you have to run to the shelter. It doesn’t make any sense as an athlete to deal with this situation, but that’s the reality right now. And we need to deal with it,” Orland said.
Orland said his players are worried about their families, loved ones, and the captured hostages, but they’re working through their emotions as best they can and looking to each other for unity and strength going forward.
Kuhn echoed that sentiment, saying that he’s seen the team and other individuals come together and become more confident, which he’s hoping will have a lasting impact and provide a better sense of unity and outward confidence.
“That’s the message I hope the people in Israel saw and are going to see, and that’s what I hope the people in my hometown see as well,” Kuhn said.