LIRON MOLDOVAN Enlarge
For five years, people of Israel flocked to computers to watch Naama Shafir play basketball in the United States.
Shafir is now the fan staring into a screen.
The wildly popular point guard, now playing professionally in Israel, watched her former University of Toledo teammates tread through their first season without her. She even kept tabs on the men’s team in their rise to a Mid-American Conference title.
Those bustling home crowds at Savage Arena and those pregame fan tunnels are now nostalgic treasures to Toledo’s adopted daughter.
“There’s nothing like being a student-athlete,” Shafir said. “If I had the chance, I’d start all over again now.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate the life she’s living. Shafir can drive 45 minutes to see one of her siblings, and 25 to see another. If traffic cooperates, she can make it to her parents’ home in Hoshaya in less than two hours.
On the basketball court, not much has changed. Shafir is still competing for championships, still dishing out nifty passes, still creating scoring opportunities for teammates. On Monday, her team looks to take the final step in a remarkable season when it begins a best-of-five championship series in Israel’s top league.
Elitzur Ramla, one of the league’s most funded teams, finished the regular season 19-2, prevailing most nights by double digits. Shafir starts and averages 27 minutes.
“It’s really nice to be able to see my family, to play basketball, and to get paid for it,” Shafir said last week in a phone interview. “There are a lot of good and happy things about coming back and a lot of sad things.”
With two American-born teammates, Shafir still communicates in English, a language the Orthodox Jew practiced little of when she arrived at Toledo in 2008. Shafir, who left Toledo in May with a bachelor’s degree in business management, video chats with former teammates and coaches, separated by a computer screen and a seven-hour time difference.
A four-time All-MAC honoree, Shafir is not the offensive threat she was at Toledo where she sits fifth all-time in points scored. Her 7.4 points per game are sixth on her team, as Shafir fulfills a facilitating role for two of her teammates with WNBA experience. Shafir went two straight games in the league semifinals without scoring, a drought unfitting of a player who dropped 40 points on Southern California to win the Women’s National Invitation Tournament her junior year at Toledo.
Only once in college — in her junior year against North Dakota — did Shafir fail to score.
Twice, if you wish to consider the season-ending knee injury that sent her crumbling to the floor in the opening minute of a game the following year. (Shafir qualified for a medical redshirt and played a second senior season, leading the Rockets to the MAC regular season title)
Her recent swoon not withstanding, Shafir has been consistent, scoring anywhere from seven to 10 points most nights and shooting 84 percent from the free-throw line. She had six assists in Elitzur’s last game, an 82-68 pasting of Maccabi Ramart Hen that sent Elitzur to the championship series.
“I’m playing with really good players so I don’t need to score a lot,” said Shafir, who is second on her team with 4.0 assists.
Elitzur, looking to add a tournament title to the cup championship it won earlier in the year, faces Maccabi Ashdod in an anticipated final of the league’s top two teams from the regular season. Israelis will be glued to their TVs.
“Israel loves its women’s basketball,” said Toledo assistant coach Vicki Hall, who played five seasons in the country. “Two games on TV every week on Channel 5. People watching know who you are. When you walk down the street, they know.”
Hall, who played in the WNBA, said her paychecks in Israel were about three times bigger than those she collected in the WNBA (about $45,000 a season). Thus, it can be assumed Shafir is no longer living the life of a broke college kid.
Shafir’s contract expires after these playoffs and she doesn’t know if she’ll return to Elitzur. Although she finds the WNBA intriguing, she said “it’s not something that motivates me.”
Shafir does know where she’d like to be this summer — Toledo. After wrapping up her duties with Israel’s national team, she’d like to hop on a plane to see old friends.
“Nothing planned yet, but I really hope to make it,” she said.