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Israeli team begins NBA tour despite war at home

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Israeli team begins NBA tour despite war at home

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NEW YORK — Thursday night, Yehu Orland was standing on the sidelines at Barclays Center, fulfilling his duties as head coach of Maccabi Ra’Anana’s basketball team as it took on the Brooklyn Nets in a preseason game.

His heart, however, was several thousand miles away back in his native Israel, where earlier Thursday the funeral services were held for one of his best friends, Lt. Col. Eli Ginsburg, who died earlier this week fighting in Israel’s war with Hamas.

“I lost one of my best friends,” Orland said. “For me, it’s a personal tragedy. But, for our country, it’s everybody’s tragedy.”

For Orland and the rest of the Ra’Anana roster, Thursday marked the beginning of a three-game tour through the United States, one that will continue with games against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday and Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday.

When the team arrived in the United States last Wednesday, it couldn’t have imagined what began taking place Saturday night, when Hamas launched its terror attack on Israel. More than a thousand Israelis have died, while dozens more have been taken hostage by Hamas inside Gaza.

Before the game, Israeli singer Noa Kirel performed the country’s national anthem with its flag draped over her shoulders, while the Nets also held a moment of silence in recognition of the lives lost in the conflict.

According to the team’s lead sponsor, Jeffrey Rosen, the team met as a group in the wake of the attacks and discussed what they should do, and whether the three-game tour should continue.

But outside of one player who chose to return to Israel, they otherwise agreed that the right thing to do was to continue with its plans to play the tour.

“I think the shock of the war impacted everyone in unpredictable ways,” Rosen said. “I think everyone had personal challenges almost immediately. And yet we caucused as a group, as management and with the players, and I think we reached a conclusion pretty quickly that we felt it was in the best interest to continue the trip.”

Even Nets center Nic Claxton wondered if that was the right thing to do, saying at practice Wednesday that “there’s bigger things going on in the world than basketball.”

But for the team itself – with Nets coach Jacque Vaughn saying pregame that Ra’Anana repeatedly reiterated it wanted to play – playing the games was about sending exactly a message of hope in the wake of unspeakable tragedy to everyone back home.

“I think depression and sadness, that’s the feeling in Israel right now,” Orland said. “But there are children, there are babies, there are young people in Israel, and they need hope. So for me, I’m going with my head up, to create hope for those children, for those teenagers, for those young people, that need hope.

“Because in a world after you get hit like that by terrible, terrible things that they did to us, your mood as a nation is going down, and we as adults need to create for them hope. If we are going to take our heads down, we’re not going to help them. We’re not going to create hope. I’m sitting here trying not to cry, because my heart is broken. But we have to create for those young people, children, hope that Israel is strong. That’s the reason I think everybody is here.”

Orland, in particular, said he wanted to honor Ginsburg’s memory, who had served in the army for 23 years before retiring a month ago – only to re-enlist once the war began.

“When you lose a friend, you keep asking yourself why,” Orland said. “I guess the answer I gave to myself is that is what he chose to do. He chose to be a soldier. He chose to protect Israel. He chose it for so many years, and even though he finished serving in the army, as soon as the war started, he packed his bag.

“[Thursday] was the funeral, a few hours ago. His wife talked about him and said as soon as they announced there is a war, he packed his stuff and went to help the soldiers.

“I’m super sad. But I’m proud of him. He’s a hero for me.”

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