By Howard Blas
Israel’s Deni Avdija recently moved from Israel to Washington, found an apartment and met with the media at a Washington Wizards press conference.
Avdija, the 19-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv phenom, was taken No. 9 overall by the Wizards in the recent NBA Draft. The 6-foot-9 inch, 225-pound forward is excited to play in the NBA and understands what it means to make it to the most elite league in the sport and to represent Israel. “I worked so hard to get here. I am here to show Israelis there is no limit.”
In a pre-season debut Dec. 13 at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY, he played a near-perfect game to the delight of fans — Israeli, Jewish and otherwise. The Wizards have also embraced Israel, where basketball is one of the nation’s top sports, and launched a Twitter account in Hebrew.
Avdija spoke with the media about the contrast between growing up and playing in Israel, and now playing being on a bigger stage in a much bigger country.
“I grew up in a comfortable environment where everyone knew me,” he says. “Now is a new beginning, a new career. It’s like starting over again. I am a tough kid who has been through a lot. I am ready!”
Once it is deemed safe in terms of the coronavirus, Avdija is looking forward to interacting with audiences. “Israeli fans are the best,” he exclaims. “There are Israeli and Jewish fans in the US, and I will have their support. I will represent Israel and the Jewish community the best as I can.”
A major chapter in the country’s basketball story
Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, appreciates both Avdija’s basketball skills and the educational prospects his playing in Washington have to offer.
“It will also be an opportunity for DC sports fans to get to know an Israeli athlete who reflects aspects of Israeli culture they may not be familiar with,” he said.
“Israeli society is about more than conflict and religion. The child of a Muslim father and Jewish mother who grew up on a kibbutz, Avdija may challenge some common misperceptions about Israel. He will certainly challenge those assigned to defend him on the court!”
Marc Stein, the NBA correspondent for The New York Times, notes a wonderful irony in Avdija, a Maccabi Tel Aviv star, who is now joining the Washington Wizards.
“People may not remember that the Wizards, then known as the Bullets, were the first NBA franchise to play Maccabi in the late 1970s, and now Deni goes to the nation’s capital as the first NBA lottery pick in Israeli history,” he writes.
“It’s a great opportunity for him because the Wizards wanted him badly and never thought he would slip to them at No. 9, and it’s obviously a major chapter in the country’s basketball story.”
An additional irony is that Avdija joins the team whose name was changed from Bullets, stemming directly from the sadness then team owner Abe Pollin felt when his dear friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a bullet in 1995.
While eager to start his NBA career, Avdija realizes that he will miss a lot of things about Israel, including friends and family. He quips that he will also miss good Israeli hummus, but adds that “hopefully, good guides will show me some.”
He also acknowledges he will miss Israel’s stunning shorelines. “I love to go to the beach, but it is not an option. I will find new hobbies for sure.”
The youthful Avdija playfully notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats — all the guys I played against when I was little . . . in video games!”