Deni Avdija

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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Original Article published on the Jewish News Syndicate

Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks started Wednesday’s pre-game media session with great news for Israel’s Deni Avdija. The 6-foot-9-inch Israeli forward, drafted No. 9 by the Wizards in the recent NBA draft, would be in the starting lineup in the Wizards’ first regular-season game against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Deni has done a great job throughout camp. He has shown us a lot,” said Brooks. “I know he is only 19, but he plays with a passion and determination that I like. I like his toughness. It wasn’t a given. He really earned it.”

Avdija was likely a mix of energy and excitement before the game, telling his coach that “it doesn’t seem like a regular game with no fans.” Unlike last season, which took place in the NBA bubble in Florida, teams will play this season in arenas across the country, mostly without a live audience.

Avdija saw a lot of action in his NBA debut. He played 28 minutes and hit two three-point shots for a total of seven points and four rebounds, and made many passes to teammates in his NBA debut. The Wizards held on to a narrow lead throughout most of the game, but the nail-biter turned sour for them. The game was tied at 103 with 1:28 left. Even three-point-shot master Avdija couldn’t turn the game around when he entered for the final time with 42 seconds left on the clock. The Sixers closed out the season opener 113-107.

Brooks was disappointed with the loss though thrilled with Avdija’s performance. “We slipped up in the fourth quarter and gave up 40 points. We turned the ball over so many times—20 turnovers are a lot.” But he’s quick to point out about his rookie, “I thought he was fantastic,” despite some nervousness. “There were some butterflies. He cares, he is passionate, and he wants to do good. I think he played well. He makes winning plays and he cares about winning.”

Avdija denied the butterflies, reporting he “didn’t have any nerves. It is great playing in my first NBA game, regardless of the loss. To complete is a dream come true.”

He told media in a post-game press conference: “I am glad I came from Israel and the whole country is behind me.” He also thanked Israeli fans for staying up until the middle of the night to watch the game, and in Hebrew said, “Thank you, I love you!”

Avdija is already beloved by his teammates; stars Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal have taken him under their wings. Brooks reports, “Brad and Russell coach him a lot.”

And they certainly seem happy with what they see. Westbrook told reporters that “Deni’s going to be good. My job is to constantly stay on him and challenge him to be great!” Beal has reassured Avdija that he will have “good, bad and in-between games,” before adding, “I like his competitive spirit. He doesn’t back down.”

Avdija on the court, December 2020. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Wizards.

‘Opportunity to give back to the community’

Westbrook is also looking after Avdija’s education off the court. Avdija, who has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, spent this past Monday after team practice delivering Christmas presents in the local community. Brooks playfully told reporters how Westbrook told Avdija and fellow rookie Cassius Winston: “Take a shower, and let’s go! You guys are coming with me.”

Westbrook notes that “when you get in this league, you need to understand how the community supports the team and how important it is to be able to give back in the difficult times we are in. They are rookies, so it is their first round of community events. I wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to do something and give back to the community.”

Coach Scott Brooks during a Washington Wizards game versus the Charlotte Hornets, Dec. 14, 2016. Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.

Avdija spoke with reporters in a car while en route to deliver Christmas presents. He spoke candidly about his time in D.C., as well as his teammates. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, coupled with his personality, has made it difficult to experience his new hometown.

“I am not a party guy and am not going out a lot, but I enjoy having fun,” he relates. “I’m not experiencing it much right now because of COVID. The city is kind of closed. Hopefully, things will go back to normal.”

Still, Avdija is finding ways to experience American culture nonetheless. His first meal in the United States was at Chipotle, and in a playful series of Tweets, the Wizards acknowledged, “Yes, Deni was on Chick-fil-A duty,” purchasing food for his teammates. He is also getting practice driving, though he admits to not yet feeling confident behind the wheel.

And he’s enjoying getting to know his teammates. “Everybody’s good with me,” he says, a bit reluctant to name players he is closest to. When pressed, he added, “I can say two guys came from the same situation as me, Cassius Winston and Anthony Gill. Cassius came from college, and Anthony came from Europe. We need to be there for each other and support each other. I think we’re going to be great friends throughout the season.”

Avdija has so far sung “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew to a teammate and publicly lit Hanukkah candles. He acknowledges “talking a lot about the great things about Israel,” though feels he hasn’t yet “brought my culture” to the fore. He says he hopes to share “food, songs and habits” of Israel with his teammates soon.

For now, the hardworking player will return to practice. As he told Brooks and Westbrook before the recent Christmas event, “I have things to do. I want to do more shooting!”

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Read the original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The Brooklyn Nets have opened the National Basketball Association season at the Barclays Center (capacity: 17,732) in front of no fans. In contrast, Amar’e Stoudemire – the Nets’ new player development assistant and former NBA, Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv star – performed in front of 2,000 fans on Monday night, December 21. The crowd assembled on Zoom for a UJA Federation New York-sponsored discussion, “Amar’e Stoudemire: His Practice On and Off the Court.”

The likable Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year with the Phoenix Suns in 2003, and a bronze medalist with the USA Olympic basketball team in 2004, recently returned to New York after many years living in Israel. Stoudemire is a co-owner of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team and he was the playoff MVP for Maccabi Tel Aviv as it secured the 2020 Israeli championship.

Stoudemire is also a proud Jew, deeply committed to combating antisemitism, and works to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities. He shared his intriguing journey to Judaism and Israel with the event attendees.
From a young age, Stoudemire’s mother said: “You should keep the laws of Moses. We are from the tribe of Israel, brought here [to the United States] as slaves.” Stoudemire admits that he “didn’t know what she meant by that.”

At age 14, he reported, “I started davening to the Torah.” He continued his Bible studies through high school and continued his studies when selected ninth overall in the NBA draft at the age of 18. When he was 24, he “began gravitating to Judaism. This is what I was searching for, but I was doing it on my own. Judaism gave me structure.

”Stoudemire first visited Israel in 2010.“I came to learn Torah and discover my Hebrew roots, to see what I was reading.”

Stoudemire was always intrigued by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

“I loved how they carried themselves and how they were righteous and wondered, ‘How do I get to that level?’ It was over for me. I was hooked.”

Stoudemire and family moved to Israel in 2015. Coming to Israel meant a drastic lifestyle change.

“It was a truly humbling experience. I went from traveling on an NBA private jet to using buses. I was an A-list celebrity who went to fashion shows, the Met Gala, Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman. I was living the dream!”

Stoudemire feels the move to the Middle East was worth it.

“I made the decision for the sake of Torah.”

Stoudemire signed a two-year deal with Hapoel Jerusalem in 2016 and helped the club win the Israeli Basketball League Cup that year. In June 2017, he helped the team win the 2016/17 Israeli Basketball Super League. He retired briefly in 2017, considered a return to the NBA in 2018, only to return again to Hapoel Jerusalem for the 2018/19 campaign, when he had a standout season.

In 2019, Stoudemire signed with the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese Basketball Association and played 11 games before returning to the US.

In January 2020, Stoudemire was back in Israel, and signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv with whom he won the championship. When asked about his preference for Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Stoudemire, who lived in Jerusalem for three years and Tel Aviv for one year, offered a thoughtful reply.

“Jerusalem is a great place. I was able to study and go to yeshiva on a consistent basis. And Shabbat is elevated 20 times in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv has a coastline with beaches, and beautiful places to hang out. And it is closer to basketball. I love both equally,” said Stoudemire diplomatically.

Stoudemire recently returned to the United States and was hired in October 2020 by Steve Nash, his former Suns teammate and the new head coach of the Nets.

Back in America, Stoudemire continues to be a proud, committed Jew and lover of Israel, and he is involved in combating antisemitism.

He reported that his Hebrew is “not bad,” noting that it is “a little rusty” but that “[I] can still carry my weight.”

He is founder of Diversity U, “an organization and educational platform I started based on eradicating antisemitism. It teaches the attributes of Torah.”

Before the start of the NBA season, he was living in Miami, where he is pursuing a master of business administration (MBA) degree at the University of Miami.

“I also learn Mishna and daven [pray] at the Miami Beach Kollel,” he reported.

Now in Brooklyn, he said he has “a couple of chavrusos [learning partners] in Flatbush, and I study Mishna online.”

In addition, he speaks fondly of his Zoom learning partners in Israel.

“They are hard-core – they stay up til 4 a.m. [Israel time] to learn with me.”

Stoudemire recently had the opportunity to see his old friend and teammate, Deni Avdija when the Nets and Washington Wizards faced each other at a December 13 NBA pre-season game. Israeli Avdija was recently drafted by the Washington Wizards in the ninth overall pick.

“My guy, Deni – we were both ninth picks – we share that. And we played together last year on the Maccabi Tel Aviv championship team. We have been close friends since then!”Avdija is fond of Stoudemire as well.

“Amar’e was a big part of me, a big part of my game. The amount of experience and knowledge he gave me is [through] the roof.”

Stoudemire is 38, old enough to be 19-year-old Avdija’s father.

“He was a professional. He always came first to the gym,” Avdija said. “We were always talking about things. I was always asking about the NBA and he always answered me, no matter what the time or no matter how tired he was or angry he was, he always sat with me and answered my questions.”

On Monday, Stoudemire was introduced to the UJA Zoom event by Ido Aharoni (Aronoff), Israel’s long-time consul-general in New York. Aharoni first met Stoudemire many years ago when he attended a New York Knicks game with Israel basketball legend Tal Brody.

The two became dear friends and Aharoni introduced Stoudemire to the late Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The Zoom crowd shared Aharoni’s positive feelings about Stoudemire. Aharoni described Stoudemire’s many professional, educational and charitable accomplishments in the US and Israel.

“He has a huge heart.”

And that is an attribute that always plays well, on or off the basketball court.

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The Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Israeli basketball star notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

Israel’s Deni Avdija recently moved from Israel to Washington, found an apartment, met with the media at a Washington Wizards press conference and ate his first meal at Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I really liked the idea of Chipotle. I like to eat healthy. And it was kind of healthy!”

Avdija, the 19-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv phenom, was taken No. 9 overall by the Wizards in the recent NBA Draft. The 6-foot-9 inch, 225-pound forward is excited to play in the NBA and understands what it means to make it to the most elite league in the sport and to represent Israel. “I worked so hard to get here. I am here to show Israelis there is no limit.”

In a pre-season debut on Sunday night at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he played a near-perfect game to the delight of fans—Israeli, Jewish and otherwise. The Wizards have also embraced Israel, where basketball is one of the nation’s top sports, and launched a Twitter account in Hebrew.

Israeli-born Liron Fanan, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the director of player development for the Canton Charge of NBA’s G League (and a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers) stresses the importance of Avdija drafting so high and playing in the NBA for Israelis. “It is a great accomplishment for Israel to have another Israeli in the NBA. When Omri [Casspi] went, it made a huge impact. We see where Israel basketball has gone in the 11 years that he played. It got bigger and better, and pushed kids to believe it is possible and to give their all—not just to see basketball as a hobby, but they can dream about the NBA. Deni is a vivid example of it. He probably watched Omri at night and dreamed!”

She also points out that another Israeli was picked in the recent NBA Draft.

“Yam Madar is also a great player. I think Deni helped Yam as well since scouts were watching Israel basketball more,” she says. “This is huge for Israel basketball.”

Madar was drafted by the Boston Celtics and will remain with his current team, Hapoel Tel Aviv of Israeli’s Premier League, for at least one more season. “It puts Israel on the sports map in the world and gives kids reason to keep trying their best,” adds Fanan.

Avdija spoke with the media about the contrast between growing up and playing in Israel, and now playing being on a bigger stage in a much bigger country. “I grew up in a comfortable environment where everyone knew me,” he says. “Now is a new beginning, a new career. It’s like starting over again. I am a tough kid who has been through a lot. I am ready!”

And he will have the support of the local Jewish and Israeli communities. Casspi, his mentor and friend who played 11 years in the NBA, has helped prepare Avdija for the experience. Casspi is well-known for representing Israel and Judaism in a positive way, including speaking with and signing autographs for his many fans, and for bringing fellow NBA players to visit Israel—often with a visit to his parents’ home for a meal. Casspi has also participated in Basketball Without Borders, a program sponsored by the NBA and other organizations that brings together the top 60 or more boys and girls ages 17 and under from 22 countries. The group traveled to Israel in 2017.

Once it is deemed safe in terms of the coronavirus, Avdija is looking forward to interacting with audiences. “Israeli fans are the best,” he exclaims. “There are Israeli and Jewish fans in the United States, and I will have their support. I will represent Israel and the Jewish community the best as I can.”

‘A major chapter in the country’s basketball story’

Matthew Levitt, a Fromer-Wexler Fellow and the director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism & Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, appreciates both Avdija’s basketball skills and the educational prospects his playing in Washington have to offer. “It will also be an opportunity for D.C. sports fans to get to know an Israeli athlete who reflects aspects of Israeli culture they may not be familiar with,” he said. “Israeli society is about more than conflict and religion. The child of a Muslim father and Jewish mother who grew up on a kibbutz, Avdija may challenge some common misperceptions about Israel. He will certainly challenge those assigned to defend him on the court!”

Marc Stein, the NBA correspondent for The New York Times, notes a wonderful irony in Avdija, a Maccabi Tel Aviv star, who is now joining the Washington Wizards. “People may not remember that the Wizards, then known as the Bullets, were the first NBA franchise to play Maccabi in the late 1970s, and now Deni goes to the nation’s capital as the first NBA lottery pick in Israeli history,” he writes. “It’s a great opportunity for him because the Wizards wanted him badly and never thought he would slip to them at No. 9, and it’s obviously a major chapter in the country’s basketball story.”

An additional irony is that Avdija joins the team whose name was changed from Bullets, stemming directly from the sadness then team owner Abe Pollin felt when his dear friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a bullet in 1995.

While eager to start his NBA career, Avdija realizes that he will miss a lot of things about Israel, including friends and family. He quips that he will also miss good Israeli hummus, but adds that “hopefully, good guides will show me some.”

One reporter on the recent Zoom media session pointed out that there indeed is a restaurant that serves the iconic Middle Easter dish very close to the Capital One Arena. Avdija was pleased.

He also acknowledges he will miss Israel’s stunning shorelines. “I love to go to the beach, but it is not an option. I will find new hobbies for sure.”

The youthful Avdija playfully notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

In fact, he continues to be positive about all that awaits. After all, he declares: “You gotta do what you gotta do!”

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