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Published: Monday, 3/4/2013

COMMENTARY

Toledo holds special spot in Naama’s story

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The saga of Naama Shafir always seems to return to one place, Grand Forks, North Dakota, where winds beat the temperature down to minus-40, icicles-in-your-nostrils type stuff, where the Toledo basketball player had a 30-minute walk from the hotel to the gym.

But that’s not where the story started.

That was in Hoshaya, a religious communal settlement in northern Israel. That was in Estonia, where an international tournament would include games on a Saturday. That was in a phone conversation between an English-speaking coach and a Hebrew-speaking athlete where perhaps only six words — basketball, university, Toledo, Ohio, United, States — were mutually understood. And there is Congregation Etz Chayim too.

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Of course, it began for all to see on Dec. 6, 2008, when Naama Shafir played her first game at Savage Arena.

On Wednesday, she’ll play her final regular-season game in that venue. There were 2,300 on hand for the opener, and it will be double that, or more, for her finale. Coincidence? Not likely.

She has backers, certainly, but Shafir will not go down as the greatest women’s basketball player in UT lore. That history is too deep and the field too crowded with names like Knuth, Drew, Drake, Olson, Sekulski, Janicki, Savage, and Harris.

How about most popular?

“Everybody would have their own list, but Naama would have to be on all of them,” said Kelly Savage, the star of the late 1980s and herself a candidate. “She just plays so hard and is so humble. She’s a true leader. She really appreciates the fans and loves Toledo. Everything about her is genuine.”

We don’t always find that among those who are the most talented, do we?

“It’s rare to find that kind of humility in that good a player,” said UT coach Tricia Cullop. “I definitely think because of that she has developed a strong bond with our fans. There are a lot of people who come to our games who might not have been basketball fans, but they were Naama fans. I hope they’ve become basketball fans, but either way they’re still Naama fans.

“Her character and ability to stand for what she believes in, to be steadfast in her beliefs, well, her whole story has inspired a lot of people.”

Her whole story. Where do we begin?

Naama, as you might know after all this time, is an Orthodox Jew. By definition, her faith is the most observant in Judaism, the branch that follows the most literal interpretation of the Bible. To an Orthodox Jew, few things are more sacred than Shabbat, the Sabbath, which lasts for 24 hours starting a few minutes before sunset on Fridays.

That includes most of Saturday, a big day in college basketball. Contrary to the oft-repeated story, Naama, one of nine children, did not receive eeeeeeeeeeeedispensation from her rabbi to play on Saturdays at UT. It happened before that.

“I was younger, 15, and I was playing for the Under-16 national team and we traveled to Estonia for a tournament,” Shafir recalled. “There were games on Saturday. My dad went to the rabbi in our town and explained the whole thing. He said, ‘yes, she can do it.’”

Not that it would necessarily be easy at UT. Her food must be kosher and she must avoid modern amenities. She can’t travel by automobile, and she can’t employ electricity, whether it’s turning on or off a light switch, riding in an elevator, or inserting a key card into a hotel door lock.

It means she often has to travel separately from the team to arrive at road destinations before sundown on Fridays. A teammate and/or staff member travels with her to flip the light switches, for example. She walks to and from arenas on game day.

On that frigid January, 2010, day in North Dakota, even the rabbi probably would have jumped on the team bus, but Naama did not. She walked for 10 minutes, ducked into a restaurant to warm up, walked another 10 minutes, ducked into another building, and then completed the trip. And then made 7-of-10 shots, scored 16 points, and dished off nine assists.

“The times I’m not staying with the team or not traveling with them, that’s my least favorite thing,” Naama said. “But even the walks, except for the one in North Dakota, have been fun. That one was sort of like a mission. Otherwise, it’s not a big deal. It’s what I need to do.”

Before the start of the 2008-09 season, the first at UT for both Cullop and Shafir, the coach invited a motivational speaker to conduct a team-building workshop. Every player was asked to share something about family, and when it was Shafir’s turn, she broke into tears and could say nothing.

Not long after, she was asked to speak at an event at Congregation Etz Chayim, the most Orthodox of three synagogues in the Toledo area. During a question-answer session, someone asked if it was hard to be so far from home.

Naama admitted missing her homeland, said it had taken a great leap of faith to travel so far, and then, with her eyes getting wet, said the hardest thing was having no family at UT’s games.

“We adopted her, so to speak, right then and there,” said Sharon Ravin, a member of the congregation. “A lot of people started coming to games, probably a couple dozen who had never been to one before. It has been our thing ever since.”

Ravin went the extra mile. She purchased an Israeli flag and, yes, she’s the lady standing near the corner of the court during warm-ups at most UT home games waving that flag. When Cullop organized a team trip to Israel during the summer of 2011, Ravin and her husband, Beryl, were among a handful of Toledoans who accompanied the Rockets.

“A cross-section of our Jewish community from all three synagogues, I believe over 400 people, came together for a fund-raiser at The Temple, the synagogue in Sylvania,” Ravin said. “Around $30,000 was raised that night to fund the team’s trip, which was almost 25 percent of the cost.”

Throughout her five years in Toledo — her junior season was wiped out by a knee injury and surgery — Naama has become well known at Etz Chayim and within the Jewish community. Of course, she’s become known everywhere in town. Not to get carried away, but like Cher and Pele and Elvis, no last name is necessary, at least in Toledo. She is Naama.

“My teammates and I are always motivated by the fans,” Shafir said. “A couple days after we won the WNIT two years ago a few of us went into a restaurant and people stood up and applauded. People stop me and ask for an autograph or to pose in a picture. I’m still not used to that after five years. I get embarrassed sometimes. I mean, why me?”

Why her? Shafir said she “didn’t realize there were so many Jewish people in Toledo,” but in truth the number is little more than 3,000, according to Ravin. Of course, Hoshaya is just half that size.

Ravin, a teacher at Start High School, calls Naama a “community builder,” but makes it clear she’s talking about far more than the Jewish community.

“I think she has connected our community with others, and vice versa,” Ravin said. “I’ve had people come up to me at games and tell me they had never met, or at least known, anybody who is Jewish. And they’ve gained so much respect for this young lady for holding true to her religious convictions while playing basketball.

“Because of her whole package — the talent, the humility, the way kids flock to her, the religious perspective, the novelty of her heritage — I think she’s developed a cross-cultural interest. She has made people aware of Judaism and what it is and what it means.”

Ask Shafir about that and she falls back on the “I’m just a basketball player” refrain.

“I’m not doing anything special,” Naama said. “I’m an athlete. I’m from Israel. I’m Jewish. Some people have heard me tell my story. A lot of people don’t know about other cultures. A city is like a team, so diverse. If that has brought people together, made a difference in the community, that’s great, because for five years it has been my community, too, and if I’ve opened people up to something new, well, they’ve opened me to a lot, too.”

The love affair between the community and UT’s women has been somewhat staggering. Check out the attendance figures.

“I think it has been a perfect storm of Tricia and Naama, one of the finest coaches in the game and one of our best players ever and a true leader, arriving in a new arena at the same time,” Savage said. “She’s the star, but she’s part of a team, and the team is Toledo’s. She’s part of the success, but the success is Toledo’s. I’m not sure how to put ‘it’ into words, but Naama gets it.”

Soon, she will leave it, heading home to Israel, to her large family, to a future that is something of a question mark, although she is sure it will include basketball.

Wednesday will be Senior Night, and five UT players will be saluted. Shafir will be uncomfortable with the spotlight we’re shining here, but, hey, we are talking about the most popular women’s player in UT history, are we not?

“You’re asking me? That’s an awkward question,” Naama said. “It would be a lie to say I didn’t like that. It’s fun to know people appreciate the way I play, that I’m doing some good things. But a lot of people make it happen, not just me. I’m part of a team, a great team. And I’ll miss my team. I’ll miss the fans so much.

“It will be sad. But I’m going home to family and friends and a special place. That will be happy. But, yes, when this ends it will be hard. I hope this makes sense, but to go home I’ll be leaving my second home.”

First, though, one final introduction at Savage Arena, the lights dimmed, the video board focused on her, the sound system on tilt, Sharon Ravin waving the flag. Shafir will be last off the bench. “At guard, from Hoshaya, Israel, No. 4, Naaaaaah-maaah …”

The last name will be drowned out. That’s OK. It’s not necessary.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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