Maxine Richardson, left, hands her daughter Yolanda, a member of the Toledo women's basketball team, her dog Parker after the team got home from an 11-day road trip to Israel.
Naama Shafir likens her life for the last five months to a movie, and the script couldn't have been written any better Thursday.
When the University of Toledo women's basketball team bus rolled to a stop near the front steps of the Sullivan Athletic Complex, the first person to disembark seconds later to cheers and applause was none other than Shafir.
About two dozen family and friends gathered outside Savage Arena to welcome back the Rockets from their 11-day trip to Israel, which among other things included a cookout one night at Shafir's home in Hoshaya with her parents and eight siblings.
UT coach Tricia Cullop made it clear again Thursday that Shafir was the primary reason for this trip, another sign of just how much she means to this program.
"[The trip] was an easy choice and an incredible opportunity for us to visit with Naama, spend time with her family and visit her home," Cullop said.
In April, Shafir was named the Women's National Invitation Tournament MVP following the Rockets' 76-68 win over Southern California in the championship game.
In June, Shafir was embroiled in controversy after FIBA Europe's decision to ban her from playing in the European women's championship due to her practice of wearing a T-shirt under her uniform according to her religious beliefs. FIBA Europe eventually relented and allowed Shafir to play after she agreed to wear skin-toned elastic sleeves that would cover her shoulders.
Thursday, Shafir returned to UT for the start of her senior year and was in a much more chipper mood than she normally is after the 12-hour flight from Israel.
"I feel like I'm in a movie," Shafir said. "From winning the WNIT to going back home and playing for the national team and then coming back with all my teammates to start my senior year, it's crazy.
"I can't believe it, but I'm happy. I can't complain."
Naama Shafir is the first player to bound off the bus.
Shafir has had a few teammates visit her in her native land since she started playing at Toledo, but the opportunity to host all of the Rockets at her home will be a long-lasting memory for her.
"It was special," Shafir said. "It was crazy for me to see my Toledo life and my life in Israel together in the same place. It was a good time."
Another highlight for Shafir was greeting the UT travel party at the airport in Tel Aviv upon their arrival in Israel. It was the first time she had seen her coaches and teammates since May and there were plenty of hugs to go around and lots of catching up to do.
"That was definitely one of the best parts of the whole trip for me," Shafir said.
The Rockets visited numerous historical and religious sites during their time in Israel, including stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Tiberias, and Bethlehem. They also got to swim in the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, and climb the Mount of Olives.
Oh, there was some basketball too, with the Rockets winning a pair of exhibition games against Israeli Select Team members.
"It was amazing," junior center and Start graduate Yolanda Richardson said. "We got to do a ton of different things on just this one trip, which I think made for an even better experience."
Richardson said the part of the trip that she'll remember most is the team's visit to the location of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
"The best day for the whole team, though, was visiting Naama's house," Richardson said.
"We came together as a whole team and just had a blast. Plus they fed us great, so we had a lot of fun."
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6084.
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