Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

American-Israeli basketball influencer making an impact on courts and screens all over the world.

NEW YORK – Mike Kaufman may be the most popular Israeli basketball player you never heard of.

The American-born 28-year-old Kaufman played professional basketball for two years in Israel, is a well-known basketball teacher, coach, sports journalist/videographer and social media influencer. He has accompanied NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to Greece, shot around with Dwyane Wade, taught literally millions of aspiring young players to make complex shots, and recently did a feature video story on Israel’s two recent NBA draftees – Deni Avdija and Yam Madar.

These days, Kaufman consistently outscores all Israeli basketball players on social media combined by a long shot. The very gregarious Kaufman described himself this week to The Jerusalem Post as a “late basketball bloomer.” He was born into a Jewish family in New York, moved to Florida at age seven, and eventually made his high school basketball team as a junior.

“I fell in love with Cambridge and Boston,” said Kaufman, who went on to play at Division III Lesley University, where he studied business management and psychology and served as captain for two years. Kaufman set two school records – most three-pointers made in a single game and best single season three-point percentage at 44.5%. He was also a semifinalist in the 2014 ESPN college dunk contest.

During his college years, Kaufman met Berdugo, who currently serves as head skill development coach for all of Israel’s national basketball teams.
Kaufman was impressive enough to catch the attention of recruiters from a number of colleges in the United States.

In considering his next basketball move, Kaufman consulted with Laine Selwyn, an old mentor and coach from his early days at what Kaufman refers to as “the Marv Kessler Basketball Camp.”

Kessler was a well-known coach and instructor throughout the basketball world; he was best known as an instructor from the mid-1960s to the 1990s at the prominent Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, PA.

“Laine knew me from when I was a little kid!” reported Kaufman.
She went on to be a basketball star at University of Pittsburgh, as well as in the WNBA, with several European teams and with Maccabi Ashdod. She played in Israel for 10 years and encouraged Kaufman to consider joining her there.

“[Laine] said ‘should think about aliyah and playing basketball in Israel.’ So, after graduation, I went for it!”
Berdugo was again a big help.

“Yogev introduced me to Israel,” noted Kaufman, who met various Israeli players and coaches through the basketball camp. “He introduced me to Matan Siman-Tov, who became my agent.”
Siman-Tov is currently Avdija’s Israel agent.

“He tried to get me a deal, but they said they needed to see me play in real life,” noted Kaufman.

In 2014, Kaufman participated in a Birthright Israel trip.
“I had a great Birthright experience.”

He decided to stay in Israel to shop around his basketball skills. He practiced with a team in Ramat Hasharon, caught the attention of several Israel team owners, and the then-22-year-old was offered a contract for the 2014/15 season by Maccabi Hod Hasharon of the Israel National League.

“I made aliyah and bought a one-way flight! I had to have the mentality that I was not coming back [to the US].”

In Israel, Kaufman lived with his childhood friend from Florida, Nicolas “Nico” Olsak, a midfielder for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. Kaufman did not see much playing time that season which he notes “had its fair share of ups and downs.” The shooting guard acknowledges the style of play was different from what he was used to in the US and that he “needed time to adjust.”

Kaufman did not receive any offers at the end of the season to continue playing in Israel – “I didn’t want to go out like that,” – he recalls – and tried out with Elizur Ashkelon, where he received an offer to play for the 2015/16 season. However, the team experienced financial problems, and Kafuman’s playing career in Israel came to somewhat of an abrupt end.
Kaufman is very honest as he reflects on his Israel basketball careers.
“It was shaky. I did not have a lot of closure. It drove me to keep pursuing basketball somewhere else.”

Still, Kaufman loved the opportunity to play professional basketball and to play in Israel.

“Playing pro ball was a lifelong dream. Playing in Israel was super special. Tel Aviv is my favorite city in the world!”
While Kaufman hasn’t played professionally since then, he has creatively carved out an impressive niche and presence in every part of the basketball world – from the NBA to youth basketball.
At 23, he returned to Florida and began coaching a third-grade travel team. After five months in Boca Raton, he realized that coaching “wasn’t for me – I’ll coach my own kids one day!”

He moved to New York to work for Overtime, a startup described on its website as “a sports network for the next generation of fans. We bring you the content of the stars and personalities you want to see.”
Kaufman has worked his way up in four-and-a-half years with Overtime.
The work soon expanded from part time to full time and the company went from five workers to 100 workers with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Since the company started, it has raised $33 million dollars. NBA All-Stars, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony have invested in Overtime.
Kaufman currently serves as Senior Manager, Social Strategy and Distribution. He has media credentials for the New York Knicks, covers the NBA All Star Weekend, and regularly meets with such NBA stars as Zion Williamson, Wade, James Harden and Antetokounmpo.

Kaufman attended Williamson’s last high school game and the state championships, played basketball with Wade at Chelsea Piers in New York, hung out with Harden and was invited by Nike to accompany Antetokounmpo for the launch of his sneaker in his hometown in Greece.

“It was so cool. He is such a down-to-earth guy and I met his brothers, who also play in the NBA.”

While working with NBA stars is glamorous, Kaufman still feels a special connection to Israel.

“I went from playing in Israel and just five years later to working in sports media and doing a feature story on Deni and Yam Madar.
Everything really came full circle for me at that moment. The mini-documentaries I produced ended up getting picked up by Israeli News outlets like Sport5 on TV in Israel. This really brought exposure to them and helped them grow on social media before they got drafted to the NBA.”
The hard-working Kaufman has a “side gig,” known as Better Bounce, a concept he first envisioned while playing basketball in Israel.

“I always had teammates and other basketball players asking me how I increase my vert[ical leap] and what I do to become more athletic and jump higher. I finally decided to monetize this in an effective way. Having everything online has allowed me to scale my expertise around the world to help as many athletes as possible.”

Kaufman describes Better Bounce as “a basketball lifestyle brand that specializes in making workout programs to help athletes improve their vert, overall athleticism and give them what they need to be successful on the basketball court.”

His videos have a tremendous following. On some, NBA players perform complex moves as Kaufman breaks them down and narrates over them so young players can work on mastering the moves on their own. More playful videos feature Kaufman in the air himself, like the one where he is vaulting over a woman.

“My fiancée lets me jump over her. This is how we built trust!”
The incredible numbers of viewers show just how popular and influential Kaufman is. He has had four videos in the past six months with over a million views each. His “stats” include: 85,400 Instagram followers with 1.5 Million views in the past month; 358,700 followers on TikTok, with his videos having been “liked” 14.3 million times
(By comparison, other Israeli and Jewish basketball players – many with very successful careers – lag behind Kaufman in terms of Instagram followers: Gal Mekel: 23k, Jordan Farmar: 120k, Deni Avdija: 190k, Omri Casspi: 252k, Amar’e Stoudemire: 526k and Yam Madar: 37k.)
Kaufman is more than a basketball entrepreneur and influencer – he is a role model and a mensch, appreciated by both kids and adults. Kaufman personally replies to all questions submitted to him from kids.

“I want to be a resource so they can be better at basketball.”
He also cares about emotional well-being.

“I talk about mental health, post about how much sleep I get, nutrition, meditation and good habits.”
And colleagues value him.

Danny Herz, long time director of Six Points Sports Academy, notes, “Mike is a special human being. In addition to his massive talent and his unmatched work ethic and drive, he is a great human being that is kind to everyone, appreciative of others, and unselfish to his core. I was fortunate to coach Mike back in the day, and he always made every team he was on better because not only was he a good player, he was a great teammate.”

Herz uses Better Bounce at his camp and says that “one of my favorite days at Six Points Sports Academy was when Mike came to visit. He brought his energy, his enthusiasm, his infectious smile, and his ability to entertain that day when he performed a series of slam dunks for our campers. Hundreds and hundreds of Jewish athletes cheered for him as he put on a show – and then inspired every camper to be the best versions of themselves with hard work and making good decisions.”

Berdugo, his childhood friend who hired him to work at his sports camp and opened doors for Kaufman in Israel, agrees.
“Mike took a talent, honed and mastered it, and became a world known dunker. He followed his dream and helps others do the same!”
Kaufman takes this role very seriously.

“Growing up, I didn’t know too many Jewish athletes who became professional athletes. I’d love to inspire the young generation to work hard and chase their dreams.”

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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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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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Original Article Published On The Jewish News syndicate

The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder becomes the third Israeli, after Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, to play in the NBA.

Israeli basketball fans had to stay up very late or rise very early to witness the Washington Wizards taking 19-year-old Deni Avdija No. 9 overall in the NBA Draft 2020.

Just after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called his name at 9:02 Eastern Time from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., ESPN commentators highlighted the Maccabi Tel Aviv standout’s basketball IQ and his versatility, calling him “the steal of the draft.”

They noted his “tremendous versatility in the open court” and said he was “a fiery competitor.”

“It means a lot to me,” said Avdija when asked what it means to be the highest-drafted Israeli in history. “Israel is a small country and to represent Israel is amazing. I am super excited to get my game to the next level and to see what happens.”

The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder becomes the third Israeli to play in the NBA after Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel. “Omri has been in touch with me. We talked a lot about his route here, what I can do as a rookie, travel and more.”

The emotional Avdija thanked his friends and family for their support. “I truly love them. I love the support and will make you proud. I will work 100 percent!”

ESPN commentators playfully noted that Avdija, who addressed the media in fluent English, “gets by in two-and-a-half languages.” They noted that he learned English by “watching TV and playing ‘Call of Duty,’ ” the video game. “He is quite fluent in basketball, thanks to his Dad.”

His Muslim father, Zufer Avdija, was born in Yugoslavia and played for Yugoslavia’s national basketball team. The dual Serbian-Israeli citizen and sports coach also played for several Israeli professional basketball teams. “He played a big part in my journey,” said his son. “It was great to have another competitive sportsperson in the house. He taught me how to act on the court, small tricks, how to be a professional and how to have a good work ethic.”

His Jewish mother, Sharon Artzi, was a competitive track-and-field athlete. Avdija grew up in Beit Zera, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and currently lives in Herzliya. Soon, he’ll move to Washington, D.C.

“My American agent is from D.C., and he has said great things!” reported Avdija during the post-draft Zoom media conference, attended by more than 150 journalists from around the world. “Washington, D.C. is the capital—I heard it is a great place.”

Not only are the Wizards “a great organization,” he will play with such famed players as point guard John Wall.

Avdija doesn’t expect to have a difficult time making the transition from playing in Israel to playing in the NBA. “I am easy to adjust. I think it won’t be hard to adjust to the NBA style. I will be asking questions to get better every day and have the best environment around me to help me make sure I fit in and get better in the NBA.”

He will likely play small forward for the Wizards.

Avdija averaged 12.9 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 52.6 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from 3-point range in the Israeli league last season for Maccabi Tel Aviv. His stats were slightly less impressive in the more competitive Euroleague.

Yam Madar, a 6’3” point guard and fellow Israeli, is likely to be taken later in the NBA draft. Madar, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv, is a skilled playmaker and strong shooter.

Israeli NBA prospect Deni Avdija shoots a free throw for Israel at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in April 2018. Credit: Sven Mandel via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Show his stuff on the highest stage’

Israelis haven’t been this pumped about the NBA since fellow Maccabi Tel Aviv player Casspi was drafted  No. 23 by the Sacramento Kings in the 2009 draft. He played for several teams during his 10-year NBA career.

Aliza Haas, who lives in Jerusalem, is the mother of two boys who grew up playing in the Hapoel Youth League. “People here are so excited and proud that there are two outstanding Israeli players in the 2020 NBA draft. Sports has always been a place where people can bring hope and show that anything is possible if a person works hard enough and believes in themselves. I can’t wait to see Avdija or Madar wearing an NBA team jersey!”

David Wiseman, originally from Australia and who now lives in Israel, maintains the Facebook Group “Follow Team Israel.” While he didn’t stay up to watch the draft, he and his group have been following Avdija for a long time. “ ‘Follow Team Israel’ has been sharing his exploits for a while and can’t wait for the rest of the world to get to know him. As much as a champion he is on the court, he is off it as well. Given his obvious talent from a very young age, people have been waiting for this day for a long time. We are excited to see Deni show his stuff on the highest stage and also to see where he will end up.”

Yariv Amiram, 26, grew up playing at Maccabi Tel Aviv youth club and has been playing basketball professionally for the past nine years. He currently plays for Hapoel Hevel Modi’in. Amiram feels that Avdija’s basketball IQ is high and thinks he will “automatically become someone who will represent Israel.”

He adds, “I’m sure he will do it great!”

Amiram said he is delighted that Avdija will help “make kids believe more that they can make it so high and go far. And in the future, it will open more doors for everyone.”

The sports news brought a dose of optimism to the two countries amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And when travel finally resumes, Israelis will no doubt be off to Washington, D.C., to see their young up-and-coming superstar in action.

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