May 27, 2024

NEW YORK — Thursday night, Yehu Orland was standing on the sideline at Barclays Center, fulfilling his duties as coach of Maccabi Ra’Anana’s basketball team as it took on the Brooklyn Nets in a preseason game.

His heart, however, was several thousand miles away in his native Israel, where earlier Thursday funeral services were held for one of his best friends, Lt. Col. Eli Ginsburg, who died earlier this week fighting in Israel’s war with Hamas.

“I lost one of my best friends,” Orland said before his team’s 135-103 loss to the Nets. “For me, it’s a personal tragedy. But, for our country, it’s everybody’s tragedy.”

For Orland and his team, Thursday marked the beginning of a three-game tour through the United States, one that will continue with games against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday and Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday.

“I think depression and sadness, that’s the feeling in Israel right now. But there are children, there are babies, there are young people in Israel, and they need hope. So for me, I’m going with my head up, to create hope for those children, for those teenagers, for those young people, that need hope.”

Coach Yehu Orland, on why Maccabi Ra’Anana opted to tour U.S.

When the team arrived in the United States last Wednesday, it couldn’t have imagined what would begin taking place Saturday night, when Hamas launched its terror attack on Israel. More than a thousand Israelis have died, while dozens more have been taken hostage by Hamas inside Gaza.

According to its lead sponsor, Jeffrey Rosen, the team met as a group in the wake of the attacks and discussed whether the three-game tour should take place. But outside of one player who chose to return to Israel, the team otherwise agreed that the right thing to do was to continue with its plans to play.

“I think the shock of the war impacted everyone in unpredictable ways,” Rosen said. “I think everyone had personal challenges almost immediately. And yet we caucused as a group, as management and with the players, and I think we reached a conclusion pretty quickly that we felt it was in the best interest to continue the trip.”

Even Nets center Nic Claxton wondered if that was the right decision, saying at practice Wednesday that “there’s bigger things going on in the world than basketball.”

But for the team itself, playing the games was about sending a message of hope in the wake of unspeakable tragedy back home.

“I think depression and sadness, that’s the feeling in Israel right now,” Orland said. “But there are children, there are babies, there are young people in Israel, and they need hope. So for me, I’m going with my head up, to create hope for those children, for those teenagers, for those young people, that need hope.

“Because in a world after you get hit like that by terrible, terrible things that they did to us, your mood as a nation is going down, and we as adults need to create for them hope. If we are going to take our heads down, we’re not going to help them. We’re not going to create hope. I’m sitting here trying not to cry, because my heart is broken. But we have to create for those young people, children, hope that Israel is strong. That’s the reason I think everybody is here.”

Israeli singer Noa Kirel — who is from the city of Ra’Anana, which is about a 20-minute drive north of Tel Aviv — sang the national anthem with the country’s flag draped over her shoulders, while the Nets held a moment of silence in recognition of the lives lost in the conflict.

For Jonathan Mor, Ra’Anana’s starting power forward, the game provided a momentary respite from what has been an agonizing few days for he and his teammates.

“Around midnight we started getting these messages [about] something going down,” Mor said. “We picked our phone up and we didn’t know what’s going on, so we started watching the videos coming out of Hamas.

“I’m not gonna tell you the things that I’ve seen on video … I haven’t eaten in 30 hours after that. Didn’t sleep much for almost 48 hours. So, it’s been tough trying to get ready for this game. But we tried our best. It was tough going into this game for me personally, professionally. I’ve tried … [but] my head was not a 100% in the game.”

Mor, who was on a preseason trip to the United States four years ago, said that the first time he ever walked into a NBA arena he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Thursday, however, he said none of his Israeli teammates — all of whom were playing in an NBA building for the first time — had any reaction at all, as their minds were focused solely on what was going on.

As the game progressed, though, Mor said he began to see some smiles on his teammates’ faces — moments he said he appreciated, as it allowed them to think about something besides the horrors in their homeland.

And, Mor said, those smiles came because of the crowd — which was full of fans waving Israeli flags — and the atmosphere it provided, as well as playing on an NBA court for the first time.

“The Israeli flags, the atmosphere, them going on the court on an NBA court and actually playing, and even not thinking about what’s going down was enough I think for them to feel a little bit better,” Mor said. “Obviously it’s not a lot. But even for them to have a little bit of, a little bit of fun on this trip … it’s something.”

Mor said he’s been checking in on friends and family back home, and that so far everyone is doing OK.

For Orland, though, it was a day entirely spent thinking about the loss of one of his best friends. He said Ginsburg had served in the army for 23 years before retiring a month ago — only to re-enlist once the war began this past weekend.

“When you lose a friend, you keep asking yourself why,” Orland said. “I guess the answer I gave to myself is that is what he chose to do. He chose to be a soldier. He chose to protect Israel. He chose it for so many years, and even though he finished serving in the army, as soon as the war started, he packed his bag.

“[Thursday] was the funeral, a few hours ago. His wife talked about him and said as soon as they announced there is a war, he packed his stuff and went to help the soldiers.

“I’m super sad. But I’m proud of him. He’s a hero for me.”

Before the game, Orland said he expected to cry when Israel’s national anthem was performed. Afterward, he admitted that he did, and explained part of the reason why it was so emotional was because as the coach of Israel’s under-16 national team, he had Ginsburg come speak to his players about what true toughness looks like.

“[I wanted] to give them an idea of what toughness is,” Orland said. “Because the young players think it’s tough for them when they lose, or a coach is shouting at them, or they get injured. And he came and said, ‘Guys, this is nothing compared to the [pressure being in the] army, compared to the [difficulty being in the] army. Every time [during] the national anthem during the European championships, I thought about his words, and now it’s got another meaning.

“So for me, it was an emotional moment. Yeah, I cried a little bit. But that’s OK with me. I’m gonna be OKK. Crying is fine. And a broken heart, it’s also fine.

“But you’re going up with your head and if you step forward, you did the one step forward [toward] hope.”

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