On and off The Court, Israel’s NBA Star Is Making The Grade

Original Article Published On The JNS

Cheering on the now 20-year-old: the Israeli embassy, former NBA player Omri Casspi, players from the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and National Team, and fans of Israel everywhere.

As Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards mark the halfway point of the season and celebrate his selection to the 2020-21 NBA Rising Stars World Team roster, 21-year-old Wizards super-fan Matan Karudo could not be happier. For Karudo, Avdija is a source of Jewish and Israeli pride; more than that, Avdija has even helped created special family bonding time in the Karudo household.

The resident of Long Island, N.Y., first learned about the 20-year-old Israeli basketball standout about a year ago. “It all really started when I was looking at Tankathon: The Draft Lotto Website and I saw ‘Israel’ on the board. This excited me, and I have been watching and learning anything I can about him.”

Karudo’s excitement continued when he learned there was a decent chance that Avdija would be drafted to an NBA team during Nov. 18 NBA draft.

“Fast-forward to draft night: I am sweating at the screen seeing the picks get close to Deni. I am sure you remember we all thought Deni was going to go early—early enough for the Knicks to miss the chance to get him—but as a New Yorker, I was gripping onto the slight chance that he will get to the Knicks. As we saw, we had a shocking draft where Deni dropped, and my excitement went up and up.

“When the Knicks were up,’ he continued, “I was pacing the room. This could be it! Deni in my home!! The Knicks foolishly chose Obi Toppin, but we were blessed to get picked by the Washington Wizards. Being relieved that he didn’t go to the Cavs, my whole Israeli and Jewish friends and family went and ordered the first jersey we could. That’s it; we made aliyah to the Washington Wizards!”

Karudo celebrated the three-and-a-half-month anniversary of his “aliyah” to Washington by wearing his Avdija jersey and cheering on the Wizards as they defeated the Los Angeles Clipper 119-117 in dramatic fashion on March 4 at Capital One Arena in the team’s first-half finale—an evening that just happened to coincide with Jewish Heritage Night.

Washington won the contest 119-117.

The virtual Jewish Heritage Night hosted by the Washington Wizards. Source: Screenshot.

The back-and-forth affair came down to the final seconds. With seven seconds in the game, Rui Hachimura, who joins Avdija on the Rising Stars World Team, put the Wizards up by two after making the first of two free throws. After missing the second shot, Paul Westbrook shot in from the baseline to deflect the ball toward Bradley Beal, who sealed the win the for the Wizards. Beal scored a game-high 33 points while Russell Westbrook totaled 27 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists. Avdija saw 25 minutes of playing time, scored four points, one block, one steal and seven rebounds.

Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points for the Clippers, while All-Star teammate Paul George did not play due to dizziness. The Wizards are now 1 and 1 versus the Clippers this season and snapped a two-game losing streak.

While fans are still not permitted in person in the arena, excitement for Deni and the Wizards was palpable and pervasive. More than 17,000 tuned in to the game on Wizards Virtual Gameday, presented by NBCSW. One fan featured prominently on-screen throughout the game dancing and cheering was … Karudo!

Prior to the game, Avdija addressed fans in both Hebrew and in perfect English, as video messages from the Israeli embassy, former NBA player Omri Casspi and players from the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and National Team were displayed throughout the game.

Then, on the March 7 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Team LeBron cruised to a 170-150 victory over Team Durant. Avdija’s Wizards teammate, Bradley Beal, led Team Durant in scoring with 26 points. The NBA schedule will resume on March 10 after the All-Star break.

‘Teamwork always wins’

Prior to the game, Israeli artist Kobi Aflalo sang the National Anthem of the United States, and fans were treated to video tributes to Avdija by such Israeli basketball players as Yam Madar and Omri Casspi. Madar, who plays for the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club of the Israeli Basketball Premier League, was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 2020 NBA draft and is affectionately referred to as a “draft-and-stash prospect.” He will likely be a guard with the Celtics next season.

Throughout the game, fans were treated to Avdija sharing “Get to Know Deni” facts (he enjoys soccer and golf, and plays piano, as well as enjoys the Netflix show “Fauda”).

Avdija says he is excited to play against all of the players he watched growing up and isn’t modeling his game after any one player. “I just want to be Deni, have my own game. I am going to work hard, and hopefully, one day a kid who is growing up will say, ‘I want to be like Deni!’ ”

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan spoke to the crowd about “being united and working together.” He noted that “teamwork always wins” and said to Avdija that “seeing you on court representing Israel is heartwarming.”

The Washington Wizards, and the Jewish and Israeli community, continue to take great pride in Avdija. And the team is expanding its footprint in Israel. In addition to the NBA’s first Israeli Instagram account, the Wizards have a team website in Hebrew and were the first to launch an Israeli Twitter account.

As for Karudo, he’s all smiles.

“Being a Deni fan is something amazing. First, the Washington Wizards Organization is so supportive and truly makes Deni one of their own … watching the NBA for a while now, the players have always felt distant. Deni, however, feels personal; he’s one of us,” he Karudo.

“For the first time, my Israeli parents want to watch games with me. Deni is a twinkle in Israel’s eyes. The whole country is cheering him on overseas. This also extends to Jews. I am so proud of him. In Hebrew, there’s a word that sums it up perfectly. זה מרגש. Deni makes me so proud!”

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