Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

From Tel Aviv to the Space Needle, by Way of Slovenia (With Stops in Treviso, Miami and Salt Lake City)

Published in Play, The New York Times Sports Magazine
October 29, 2006

1. Ripping Their Hearts Out -- or Not -- at the Reebok Eurocamp, Treviso

When Yotam Halperin was 12 years old, tall and already skilled, the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club decided that he had outgrown its recreational program in his suburb north of the city. So each afternoon, a taxicab was dispatched to his school to transport Halperin to Maccabi’s main training site. By his mid-teens, he was known throughout basketball-crazed Israel as a top prospect, and people told him: Yotam, you will be the first. The first Israeli in the National Basketball Association.

He spent many hours watching N.B.A. playoff games, which in Israel are televised live in the middle of the night. “I would look at each player about my size and say, ‘Can I guard that guy? Yeah, I can guard that one. How about him? Yeah, probably that one, too.’ If Kobe Bryant was playing, I’d say, ‘No, I cannot guard him, but that’s O.K., because nobody can guard Kobe Bryant.”’

At 17, Halperin was promoted to Maccabi’s top team, a perennial power in European professional basketball that played its home games in the Yad Eliyahu arena, where the crowd noise is said to be as deafening as it is in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. “Teenage sensation Yotam Halperin” is how The Jerusalem Post referred to him. He then spent three years as an understudy to three older point guards, non-Israelis, all of whom went on to play in the N.B.A. Along the way, Halperin fulfilled most of the three-year active-duty stint in the military that Israelis must complete after they turn 18, although his service has been less active than it is for most. (He hands out sports equipment and supervises soldiers in fitness tests.)

I first met Halperin, now 22 years old, last spring in Treviso, Italy, north of Venice, just as his N.B.A. dream was nearing a critical moment. He was playing in the Reebok Eurocamp, a showcase tournament for 44 players from more than two dozen nations. The bleacher seats at La Ghirada, the training site for the professional team Benetton Treviso, were filled with coaches, executives and scouts representing all 30 N.B.A. teams. Agents from various countries, including one young Russian who looked barely out of his teens, moved throughout the gymnasium, working on deals.

The whole scene felt like a global basketball bazaar. Professional basketball is now played nearly everywhere in the world: all over Europe, in China, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, South America and the Middle East, including Iran. Some leagues pay players a couple thousand dollars a month and are the equivalent of Class A minor league baseball in the United States, but the best European teams compete at about the level of lower-tier N.B.A. teams. This tournament in Treviso was part of a sorting-out process, with everyone trying to see who would be ready for pro ball in the United States and who would be left on the world market.

Halperin had a basketball résumé as impressive as any player in camp. Playing for Israel at the 2005 Under-21 World Championships in Argentina, he led all scorers, with an average of 23.5 points a game. And just days before the Reebok tournament began, he led his professional team in Slovenia -- to which Maccabi had loaned him for the season, a deal common in Europe -- to a Game 5 victory (in a best-of-five series) and the Slovenian championship. It was in Slovenia, playing for Zmago Sagadin, a coach known as the European Bobby Knight, that he had grown from a national fantasy (wouldn’t it be great if an Israeli could crack the N.B.A.?) into a legitimate prospect.

At Treviso, everything, even the players’ anatomical measurements, seemed magnified in importance. “Good news,” Jason Levien, Halperin’s Miami-based agent, told me as we waited for his client’s first game to begin. “They measured Yotam at 6-foot-5 in socks. Sometimes, he measures 6-4, but 6-5 just sounds better, don’t you think?”

Levien, who is 35, was not wearing actual pants -- his luggage had been lost, so for several days he wore a pair of Halperin’s spare basketball shorts -- but he did have his two BlackBerries with him, one gripped in each hand. A New York City native, a former small-college basketball player and a law-school graduate, Levien clerked for a federal judge and worked briefly in the Clinton administration, but he was a hoops fanatic at heart as well as an extreme Type A personality. “When I was practicing law, it didn’t keep me up until 4 a.m., like this does,” he said, which I took to mean that he was the rare person who liked a job that robbed him of a decent night’s sleep.

The invitees to Treviso were divided into six teams for four days of games. Halperin’s Israeli agent, Arik Krayn, took a seat next to Levien as Halperin’s game tipped off. Within minutes, the agents had the sickened expressions of men who feared they were witnessing both the start and the immediate implosion of a cherished project.

Halperin looked passive on the court. Timid. He dribbled the ball up the court, quickly gave it up, then stood on the perimeter as other players, eager to impress, either put up quick shots or tried to muscle the ball to the basket. Maybe he was fatigued from the just-completed playoffs in Slovenia, or disoriented by being thrown in with teammates playing solely for themselves.

Levien watched the game’s final minutes with his head in his hands, then, as it ended, bolted up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go. I’m gonna light a fire under Yotam.”

We sat down at a small round table in a canteen adjacent to the court. Levien pulled out a binder, his “draft book” -- listing the selection order for all the N.B.A. teams in the upcoming N.B.A. draft and what they might need -- and told his client how the draft process works. Then he said: “You’ve got to make at least one of these teams love you. You understand what I mean?” Halperin nodded. “O.K.,” Levien continued, “here’s what you have to do. Hold on to the ball longer. Dish and drive. Don’t wait for a screen. Just push the ball, like Steve Nash. Be a warrior. Make like you’re gonna rip their hearts out. I know you’re a nice guy, an unselfish guy. That’s fine -- off the court. But this is different.”

Halperin replied softly: “I understand. Now that I know how it is here, I can adjust.”

Levien said: “I want this for you, Yotam. I want it almost as much as you do.”

Halperin smiled. “I can see that,” he said.

Krayn, a big man with a shaved head and a gruff exterior, had been sitting quietly, but now sought to reinforce Levien’s point. “Next game, play alone,” he said in gravelly, heavily accented English. “Don’t pass it to nobody, O.K.?”

2. Hoops as Import-Export Business

Halperin was raised in Raanana, about 25 minutes north of Tel Aviv, by parents who are native-born Israelis. His father is a small contractor, his mother a travel agent. He has a good command of English and was, he said, a “decent” student even while daydreaming about basketball through much of his classes.

As we talked one day this summer, he showed me a picture on his cellphone. “This is my grandmother,” he said. “I’m not seeing her too much, so I have it here to remind me of her.” He scrolled through other pictures on his phone: his parents, his 15-year-old brother, his girlfriend, his dog. He had not been home in nine months because Sagadin rarely gave players days off (indeed, the coach frequently ran hard practices even on the mornings of game days). “This is my biggest dream ever,” he said, “so I was never saying to myself that it would be easy.”

In basketball, even at the highest levels, stereotypes reign -- in part because they often reflect reality. A typical top American basketball prospect, by the time he has reached his early 20’s, has spent hundreds of hours in the weight room. He is muscled like an N.F.L. defensive back and primed for a style of play that favors speed and thrust. Levien told me that the owner of a team in Europe once said to him: “I’m looking for a black guy, about 6-foot-5. Do you have any?” Levien didn’t need any translation: the owner wanted an aggressive player with quickness and leaping ability.

Few N.B.A. executives would be so politically incorrect as to say the same things openly, but they share the same kinds of suppositions: a white international player like Halperin, until he proves otherwise, is presumed to be a good shooter and passer but probably a step slow and perhaps a bit “soft.” Halperin is 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and his lean frame was well enough suited for a European style of play more reliant on skill and finesse. In the spring, one of the Web sites devoted to rating N.B.A. prospects described him as an “Awesome shooter . . . Incredibly smooth, very skilled.”

Last season, the Miami Heat won the N.B.A. championship without a significant contributor from outside the United States, but that was an aberration in the new N.B.A. The 2005 champion San Antonio Spurs sometimes put five foreign players on the court at the same time. The migration of such players to America is due, mostly, to the enhanced level of play in other parts of the world, but it is in no small part a corrective. Players from outside the United States play a different game and bring needed elements of skill and cleverness that have been all but beaten out of the American style.

Of course, prospects who are fierce and athletic, but also highly skilled at the fundamentals -- shooting, passing, ballhandling -- become lottery picks, instant millionaires with N.B.A. job security. Halperin was a celebrity in his country as well as a potential marketing vehicle in America because of his appeal to the league’s substantial number of Jewish fans. (Tom Shine, a Reebok vice president, took Levien aside in Treviso and told him, “Your guy, No. 8 in red -- we’d love to have him.”) In other ways, though, he was just like a couple hundred other N.B.A. supplicants: good enough, probably, to make it, to fly in the private jets, stay in the five-star hotels and earn the $5 million average salary that go with playing in the N.B.A., but not so obviously outstanding that the league couldn’t pass on him.

“After the top 10 or 15 guys each year, they’re all commodities,” David Thorpe, a private coach who prepares some of Levien’s clients for the draft, told me. “You’re 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, you can handle the ball a little and shoot it from three. Big deal. Nobody cares. You have to make yourself special in some way.”

The initial plan was for Halperin to fly to Florida immediately after his European season ended and begin training with Thorpe and the two other members of Levien’s draft class of 2006: Guillermo Diaz, from the University of Miami, and Alexander Johnson, from Florida State, both undergraduates who had decided to leave school for the N.B.A. Thorpe put Diaz and Johnson through a typical routine for N.B.A. hopefuls: six weeks of intense workouts to enhance their basketball skills, with consultations from a strength coach and nutritionist to harden their bodies. “Be a beast” is Thorpe’s mantra. When his players flew off for private workouts with N.B.A. teams, he instructed them to never just lay the ball in off the backboard, even in drills. “Hammer-dunk it,” he told them.

Hype and buzz are no small part of the run-up to the N.B.A. draft. Levien invited ESPN.com draft expert Chad Ford to one of Thorpe’s workouts, which took place in a steamy gym, without air conditioning, near Tampa. Johnson, who had battled weight problems in college, made sure to follow his agent’s advice and play without a shirt. Ford duly reported that his “strict diet and training regimen” had produced “astonishing” results and that even after a grueling workout, he looked like he could have kept on going. Both Johnson and Diaz, he wrote, had elevated themselves from second-round picks to potential first rounders.

3. The Talent Evaluator (and Blogger)

Halperin’s season in Slovenia lasted so long that Thorpe did not have a chance to sculpt him. Halperin did not, however, miss out on being seen by Chad Ford. As he took the court for his second game in Treviso, there was the ESPN analyst, in shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, sitting in a folding chair right at courtside.

Ford has a law degree from Georgetown University and is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, where he teaches courses in conflict resolution. But even treating his draft research as a sort of side job, he has become the basketball equivalent of Mel Kiper Jr., the ubiquitous N.F.L. draft guru. N.B.A. talent scouts do not share their thoughts with other teams or let competitors into their private workouts. But they do talk to Ford, who posts his observations on his ESPN.com blog and assembles the consensus opinion. Even in Treviso, where everyone was seeing the same thing at the same time, Ford moved through the gym and the lobby of the tournament hotel, seeking and synthesizing judgments on various players.

Halperin redeemed himself in his second game. Time after time, he dribbled past his defenders, drove into the interior of the defense and passed to open teammates. His court vision was at times startling: he spotted open players that I didn’t see from several rows up in the bleachers. In 20 minutes of play, he passed for 11 assists and could have had at least a half-dozen more if teammates hadn’t missed easy shots. He shot sparingly but well: four of seven from behind the 3-point line.

After two more games in Treviso, Halperin earned a glowing endorsement from Chad Ford. “He proved to be a legit 6-foot-5 and more athletic than we thought, showing excellent decision-making skills at point guard,” he wrote. “Look for him to go anywhere from the late first round to early second. He has too much talent to slip much further.”

4. One-on-One and Two-on-Two in Washington, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Detroit, Portland, Dallas, Seattle and Miami

Before this year, Halperin had visited the United States just once, at the age of 13. The trip to New York and Disney World was a bar mitzvah present. His family won the airfare after being entered in a contest for switching their cable TV service. Halperin landed in the U.S. for the second time, directly from Treviso, two weeks before the 2006 N.B.A. draft, in late June. The next morning, he was on the practice court at the Verizon Center in Washington, to begin a lightning round of auditions with N.B.A. teams.

These predraft private auditions are Darwinian in nature: players are put through rigorous physical drills, then fast-paced shooting sessions to see if their stroke holds up when they are tired, and, finally, they are set against each other in one-on-one and two-on-two games. (The league limits workouts to no more than four players.) “You want to exhaust them,” Milt Newton, the Washington Wizards’ vice president of player personnel, told me. “Keep in mind that these are guys we’re thinking of writing big checks to, so you have to know which ones will keep on going.”

Halperin’s shooting stroke really held up. I watched as he connected on 17 consecutive shots from beyond the 3-point line, an eye-opening display. In the games, he was matched mostly against Rashad Anderson, a guard from the University of Connecticut, and he dominated him with a series of clever head fakes and spin moves. He and Anderson were the same age, and the UConn guard had competed at the highest level of collegiate basketball, but Halperin seemed older. “You can tell he’s used to playing against men,” Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards’ president, said afterward. “He’s a pro already.”

But signing foreign players often involves more complications than selecting American kids out of school. Halperin, who made $160,000 last season, was still under contract with Maccabi for one more year. Any N.B.A. team that wanted him would have to pay a $500,000 buyout (to which Halperin could also be asked to contribute).

He moved on from his audition with Washington to Phoenix, Indianapolis, Detroit, Portland, Dallas, Seattle and Miami, flying back and forth to the West Coast twice. On the Suns’ practice court in Phoenix, he found himself in the same workout session as fellow Levien client Alexander Johnson. They met for the first time at the hotel the night before and had dinner. “A.J. is the greatest guy,” Halperin told me. “A good person. You can just tell.” In a two-on-two game the next morning, Johnson flew by him and hammer-dunked, which he punctuated by hanging on the rim and letting out a primal scream. “That was A.J.’s way of saying, ‘Welcome to the family,”’ Thorpe explained.

As he traveled between N.B.A. cities, Halperin often seemed full of confidence. “I killed him,” he reported after working out against Mike Gansey, a guard from West Virginia University whom some of the draft blogs had rated higher. Halperin was a natural at talking to the N.B.A. coaches and executives. I watched as he met with Grunfeld for 15 minutes, smiling and laughing as if they were old friends. But he also complained that his legs were “dead” and that he was utterly exhausted. “But I’ll keep going,” he told Levien in one phone call. “They could chop my head off and I wouldn’t stop.”

5. The Big Night Is Here

Levien decided that his clients should watch the telecast of the N.B.A. draft at his condo in South Beach, on the 23rd floor of a luxury building called the Flamingo. I had never been to a gathering at which the guests of honor might become instant millionaires. I brought a bottle of good champagne and discreetly tucked it in the refrigerator, still in its paper bag, so as not to spoil anyone’s luck.

The condo had the lightly occupied look of a place lived in by a well-off single guy who travels a lot. A black leather sectional sofa and a big-screen TV dominated the living room. The kitchen felt abandoned. Levien claimed to have never prepared a meal in it, not in two years. (His fiancée, Meredith Kopit, said she remembered once seeing a dirty pot soaking in the sink, but he had no recollection of that.) Pizza had been delivered. The refrigerator was stocked with beer. A bottle of Ketel One vodka, a special request from David Thorpe, was set out on a counter.

Levien is not in the first tier of N.B.A. agents, but he’s well established. His most prominent client is Udonis Haslem, of the N.B.A. champion Miami Heat, who signed a five-year, $33 million contract in 2005. (N.B.A. agents earn 4 percent of a contract, so Levien’s share is about $1.3 million, paid out over the length of Haslem’s deal.) “The money can be good, but I get very close to these guys,” he told me. “I feel like their big brother, like I’m responsible for what happens to them.”

On Levien’s balcony, Guillermo Diaz stood by himself, looking out toward Biscayne Bay. With his broad shoulders, smooth cocoa complexion and strong features, Diaz is notably handsome but also quiet, bordering on diffident. He had to be reminded to look coaches in the eye at his N.B.A. auditions. In Diaz’s view were the harbor where the big cruise ships dock, downtown Miami and the American Airlines Arena, home of the Heat. Straight ahead was the exclusive Star Island, with Shaquille O’Neal’s big house in clear view.

Inside the condo, Diaz’s girlfriend, Katie Hayek, stood in the living room with her father, Bill (who busily snapped pictures to document the milestone evening), and Art Alvarez, a Miami-area basketball coach whom Diaz considered his surrogate father. Yotam Halperin was in the kitchen, drinking a Bud Light.

Levien, an N.B.A. agent for seven years, usually watched the draft with his clients at the hotel where they live while training with Thorpe. He was nervous about having something that felt like a party because this was such a tense, high-stakes evening. First-round N.B.A. picks are guaranteed roster spots and about $1.5 million, over two years. (That goes to the last pick in the first round; the first pick earns $9.3 million.) Second-round picks are guaranteed nothing. They have to claw their way on to a team. If they make it, most earn the N.B.A. annual minimum of $412,000, which is not a bad entry-level salary, of course.

“I try to tell them that the draft isn’t as big as they think it is,” Thorpe said. “What really matters is what happens the next day and all the days after that.” He liked to use the example of Haslem, who was overweight when he came out of college in 2002 and went undrafted. Levien got him a contract to play in France, where he lost weight, and after that season he came back and trained with Thorpe, where he got leaner and stronger. He signed with the Heat in 2003, and two years after that he became the $33 million man. “Compare Udonis with Kwame Brown,” Thorpe said, referring to a player who was the first pick in the 2001 draft but who has been a bust so far. “Who’s going to make more money and have a better career, Kwame or Udonis? You see, the draft is just one night.”

But it felt more like 10 nights. The telecast began at 7 p.m. and, with five minutes between picks in the first round (and two minutes in the second), stretched to four and a half hours. The TV commentators filled the time with endless speculation on who might be chosen next, video highlights and statistics, then more speculation.

Halperin and Diaz knew they would not be chosen among the first 20 picks. (Alexander Johnson, who was expected to be selected first among them -- as high as in the low 20’s -- had decided to watch the draft at home in Georgia.) Diaz announced that instead of sitting through the early picks, he would kill time by stepping out around the corner to go bowling. Then he changed his mind, shut himself in a spare bedroom and went to sleep.

Halperin watched the telecast closely. His anxiety, at first, was directed at Johnson’s plight. “What about A.J.?” he asked several times. Another pick flashed on the screen. “What the hell? What about A.J.?” With nowhere else to put his nervous energy, Halperin disappeared every 15 minutes or so and changed shirts: from a tank top with the name of his team in Slovenia, to a blue polo shirt, to a sleeveless shirt that read, “True to the Game.” When he ran out of clean shirts, he started back through the rotation again.

The picks advanced into the 30’s with all of Levien’s clients still waiting to hear their names called. The commentators, who had been speaking exclusively in superlatives, began to change tenor. “He’ll do you no harm,” one of them, Jay Bilas, said of pick No. 39, David Noel of the University of North Carolina.

Levien began to despair. “This is a disaster,” he muttered. He wondered if he had unrealistically heightened expectations. “Maybe the media believed me too much.”

Diaz had awakened and was back on the balcony looking out over the harbor. Halperin continued to stare, trancelike, at the TV. Pick No. 44 hit him like a kick in the gut. The Orlando Magic chose Lior Eliyahu, another Israeli and his Maccabi teammate, and immediately traded him to the Houston Rockets. Eliyahu was nearly two years younger and far less polished than Halperin, and everyone knew he planned to stay overseas at least two more years. That was a primary reason he was selected: the Rockets had no room on their roster and wanted a future prospect they could park somewhere. But still, it was an enormous blow to Halperin’s pride.

Normally not much of a drinker, he had already moved from beer to vodka. Now he was drinking Ketel One like it was Sprite. Levien looked at him from across the room. “Yotam’s drunk,” he observed.

A friend and former teammate of Halperin’s in Israel, Saar Bokstein, who was living in Miami, had joined the party. He took Halperin out to get fresh air.

Alexander Johnson was finally selected, with the 45th pick, and a muffled cheer went up in the room. Guillermo Diaz went at No. 52 to the Los Angeles Clippers. In the hubbub over that pick (someone had to find him on the balcony to tell him the news), no one immediately noticed that with the very next pick, No. 53, the Seattle SuperSonics selected Yotam Halperin.

Halperin certainly hadn’t noticed. Bokstein decided to drive him to his nearby apartment, and while they were driving, Halperin learned he was drafted via a text message from a friend in Israel. Then Levien called. When Halperin reached his friend’s apartment, he walked inside, lay down and quickly fell asleep.

6. What Went Wrong? A Family Wants to Know

It wasn’t a great night for Jason Levien. All three members of his draft class of 2006 had been selected by N.B.A. teams, but everyone felt deflated. Art Alvarez pulled him aside. He wanted to know what went wrong. It was a tense conversation, and Levien remembers pleading at one point, “Why don’t you just fire me?”

The next day, Alvarez and Diaz were back at Levien’s condo, along with Diaz’s mother, Ethel González, and his older brother, Carlos Escalera. They had flown in from Puerto Rico. Diaz’s mother sat on the couch next to Escalera, squeezing his hand. A visitor who did not know what had happened might have assumed a loved one had just died rather than slipped into the second round of the N.B.A. draft.

Alvarez interrogated Levien, translating his answers into Spanish for Diaz’s mother. Why hadn’t Guillermo gone to play in a predraft camp in Orlando, where N.B.A. scouts could have seen that he can play point guard? Why hadn’t the Heat made a play for him, especially considering the team had relayed word that he had performed well in his workout with them?

“It was a good workout,” Levien said.

“Not good -- great,” Alvarez countered.

Levien: “We weren’t there. What are they going to say, that he was no good?”

Diaz had left the University of Miami with a year of eligibility remaining. Now the big payday he had hoped for was not there, at least not in its immediate, guaranteed form. “Look, I would love for us all to get paid right now,” Levien said, explaining that much as he cares for his clients, he is also a businessman, so of course he would have done everything in his power for Diaz.

After nearly two hours, Ethel González seemed satisfied that Levien had served her son well, or at least well enough. Alvarez translated for her: “She says that you are the expert. It’s good we had this meeting. The trust is still there for you.”

7. Israel to Halperin: Get Out of Salt Lake City

Yotam Halperin was a little sheepish but otherwise fine after his bender the previous evening. “Yeah, I’m O.K. -- I’m doing good,” he said.

As in many places, the fall from hero status in Israel can be swift and steep. Even before the draft, Halperin and his family had been hearing rumblings. Whatever made him think he was good enough for the N.B.A. anyway? Why didn’t he just give up his crazy dream and come home and play for Maccabi -- or did he think he was too good for that?

“Is this still something you want to do?” Levien asked him.

“Yes, I’m sure. It’s what I want.”

A second-round pick needs to play in one of the N.B.A. summer leagues and impress his team enough to earn a roster spot. The Seattle SuperSonics were to begin play in mid-July in Salt Lake City. Halperin was staying with Levien and had about a week on his own. He figured he would go to the beach, maybe visit Disney World, and then finally spend a few days working out with David Thorpe. “It’s perfect. I’ll get my legs back, then go out there and kill everybody.”

But by the time he arrived in Salt Lake City, an unforeseen development had occurred: his country was at war, first in the Gaza Strip against Hamas and then along a wider and more violent front in Lebanon against the Hezbollah movement, which was lobbing missiles into northern Israel. “I know soldiers who are fighting,” Halperin said. “Of course. Lots of guys. In Israel, we are all soldiers.”

Arik Krayn, the Israeli agent, said he did not think the hostilities back home were distracting Halperin, “because in Israel, believe me, we are used to this.” But Halperin, at 22, may have been less used to it: he seemed more pensive and harder to read than I had seen. And there were other pressures bearing down on him.

Maccabi Tel Aviv had lost a couple of its American players to the N.B.A., and with Israel now looking like a less attractive place to play, it might not be easy to attract top foreign talent to replace them. Maccabi badly wanted Halperin back. Team executives flew to Salt Lake City and took him to lunch. They put him behind the wheel of their rented Hummer and let him take a spin around town, past the Mormon Temple and other landmarks.

The Israeli national team had a tournament coming up in Europe, and it wanted something from Halperin, too: to bolt from Salt Lake City and immediately report for practice. That set off an ugly public squabble between Levien and the national team’s coach, Tzvika Sherf, who was quoted in the Israeli press as saying that Halperin’s agent had lied to him and “murdered” him by having him play too much. Levien responded that Sherf, in not supporting Halperin’s historic opportunity, was a “disgrace to basketball.”

Late one night in Salt Lake City, Halperin sat in a restaurant after one of his games. He looked spent, totally washed out. The national team coach, he said, “tells me I’m fooling myself. He says Jason is lying to me. Nobody likes to hear these things.” His phone began vibrating. He looked at the number. It was Sherf. He put his head down on the table and looked like he might cry. He looked again at the phone. “I’m just going to let it ring. I talked to him once today already. I’ll call him back tomorrow.”

Levien wondered if he was doing the right thing. Maybe Halperin really did belong back in Israel. “But look,” Levien said, “I’m Jewish -- I had my bar mitzvah in Israel -- I feel really connected to this, and I’ve gotten so close to Yotam. So I ask myself sometimes, is this crazy somehow and I don’t see it? I’m so invested in this thing. Believe me, it’s not about the money.”

In Salt Lake City, Halperin played with and against mostly free agent hopefuls, an experience not that much different from the one in Treviso: he was brilliant in stretches, but had a tendency, when the action got fast and ragged, to recede and become too much of a spectator. “I’ll tell you what, he can shoot it, and we need shooters,” Bob Hill, the Seattle SuperSonics’ head coach, said part of the way through the week in Salt Lake City.

Rick Stafford, a former pro in Europe who played against Halperin and was now a scout for a German team, watched from courtside. “In Europe, Yotam is an organizer,” he said. “A thinker. Lots of times, other guys make the plays and he knows where to be on the floor to get a pass and hit the shot, or make the next pass that leads to a basket. In the N.B.A., you can make millions of dollars doing that, but it’s got to be the right team.”

The Sonics’ director of player personnel, Dave Pendergraft, concluded that Halperin had “an unbelievable basketball I.Q. That’s the sexy thing about him.” When Halperin looked sluggish, Pendergraft tried to keep in mind that he was dead tired: “I’m not sure how much was left in his tank.”

Pendergraft breaks N.B.A. rosters into four categories of players: all-stars; starters; rotation players, meaning subs who play every game; and roster players, deep subs who rarely get into games. The roster players are recycled frequently and tend to have short careers. “Yotam can be in the league now,” Pendergraft said, “but is he someone who contributes right away and plays? I’m not sure.”

If Halperin opted to play overseas this season, the Sonics would retain his rights. If he chose to come to training camp and the Sonics cut him, he would be a free agent. “My preference would be that he slow down his basketball clock and stay in Europe one more year and get better,” Pendergraft told me. “But that’s out of my control and somewhat out of Yotam’s. Maccabi is holding all the cards.”

8. The Teams Get Their Men

In mid-July, before Alexander Johnson had even finished his summer-league schedule, the Memphis Grizzlies determined that they had seen enough. They signed him to a two-year contract, with a guaranteed first-season salary of $425,000. I saw Johnson the day he signed, in Long Beach, Calif., where he was competing for the Grizzlies’ summer league team. He swallowed up my hand in a ferocious handshake, and for a moment, I wasn’t sure it was coming back. “I’m going to buy my mama a house,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do that, and now I can.”

Guillermo Diaz adjusted to the fact that he was not going directly to the N.B.A. He agreed to a one-year, $250,000 contract to play for a professional team in Prague. The Clippers indicated they would sign him to a guaranteed two-year N.B.A. deal beginning in 2007.

Yotam Halperin’s situation was more complicated. Jason Levien arrived in Tel Aviv late in August to sort it out and, upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport, was besieged by television crews. The story of where the young Israeli basketball idol would play led the news in Israel -- the regular news, not the sports news. Reporters camped out at the home of his parents, and they followed Levien in the streets. “Don’t they have something they need to talk to the prime minister about?” Arik Krayn, Halperin’s Israel agent, wondered.

But the war may actually have heightened the focus on Halperin. His story was a welcome distraction, a gripping national drama but without the violence and loss of life.

“You can also talk to me about Yotam Halperin,” the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, said as he began an interview on Israeli Army Radio. “We miss him on Maccabi Tel Aviv.”

“But he will be ours on the Israeli national team,” the interviewer said.

“That is some consolation,” Hanegbi replied.

The privately owned Maccabi Tel Aviv club is sort of a combination of the New York Yankees and a national trust. It has won 46 domestic titles and five European championships, most recently in 2005. The team’s chairman, Shimon Mizrahi, a lawyer, comes from an old Jerusalem family and holds the rank of colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces reserves. “Home for Yotam is Maccabi,” Mizrahi told me. “We lent him to Slovenia for one season to get more experience and then come and give us the one year he owes us. And now we need him.”

Halperin, though, probably felt less warmly toward Maccabi than most Israelis. He had languished on its bench as a youngster, which several scouts told me delayed his development. For all the sophistication of his game, he was actually less experienced than some other players his age.

Levien met with Mizrahi twice in his book-lined law office. The Israeli would not budge; he wanted Halperin back. And Seattle seemed content to wait for him. In late September, Yotam Halperin was working out the details on a new contract with Maccabi that would make him a wealthy young man: $1.5 million for three years, with the team also paying his taxes -- more than he would have earned with the Sonics. And the contract should permit him to try the N.B.A. again next year, with easier buyout terms.

“When it’s the right moment, I’ll be in the N.B.A. -- I’m not having any doubts about that,” Halperin told me in October from Paris, where Maccabi was playing a preseason game against the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs. “Everything’s O.K. with Maccabi. It’s good. But next year, I’m coming back to try again. My contract situation will not make it as hard, and after another year with Maccabi, I’ll be a better player.”

Copyright © 2006 Michael Sokolove
 


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Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright © 2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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