Meet these local basketball players who made their marks on the courts of Israel
Stuart Friedman still vividly remembers the day in April 1976 when a publicist for his college, the University of Rochester in upstate New York, approached him and said, “Congratulations, Stuart. You made second team Jewish All-American.”
Stuart, a 6-foot-5 forward who had just completed his junior season on Rochester’s NCAA Division III basketball team, assumed it was a joke.
“Because it was early April, I thought she was playing an April Fool’s joke on me,” says Stuart, who co-owns StarChild Academy in Lake Mary with wife Elena Friedman-Bello. “She said, ‘No, there really is a team, and you were selected.’ It was a nice compliment!”
Stuart assumes the Jewish All-America team was how scouts for Israeli professional basketball programs found out about him, and why, during the summer of 1977, they came to New York in search of him. They showed up at the East Hampton Tennis Club on Long Island one day – where Stuart had a summer job as a tennis instructor – and asked him if he’d like to play professional basketball in Israel.
The scouts took Stuart out for lunch, interviewed him, and offered a one-year contract with an option for a second year. Stuart went on to play two seasons (1977-1979) for the Hapoel Holon club in the Israeli Basketball Premier League before returning to the United States for graduate school and starting a career in the hospitality business.
“I never dreamed – playing Division III basketball for Rochester – I’d get to play professional basketball overseas,” says Stuart, now 64, who lives in Alaqua Lakes. “And I loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It wasn’t the NBA, but it was fabulous.”
Brian Yankelevitz also beams when he talks about his pro basketball experience in Israel. Brian, who lives in Lake Mary, overcame serious health problems during his college years, before playing in 1997-1998 for Israel’s Maccabi Ra’anana club.
“It was fantastic,” says Brian, a 6-8 power forward who played three seasons at Long Beach State in 1994-1997. “I was there for 10 months, and I just loved every minute of it. It’s such a spiritual place. I’m not really a religious or spiritual person, but over there, you can’t help but be.”
Brian grew up in Queens, New York, and starred at Bayside High School. In the summer of 1990, before his senior year, he was a member of the Bronx-Riverdale team that reached the championship game at the U.S. Maccabiah Games in Detroit, Michigan. After graduating from college and signing a three-year contract with the prestigious Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club, Brian went on to captain the USA team that competed in the 1997 World Maccabiah Games in Israel. Those Summer Games were tragically remembered as the year a pedestrian bridge collapsed as athletes were walking into the Opening Ceremonies.
Brian had some health issues during the World Maccabiah Games, causing Maccabi Tel Aviv to back out of its contract. Instead, he signed with Maccabi Ra’anana, a smaller club in Central Israel, just north of Tel Aviv. Brian still recalls his first Israeli pro basketball game, which was also his best game. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds against the team from Jerusalem in a televised “game of the week.” Before he got home, his fiancé called to tell him that about 100 children were standing outside their home, chanting his name, waiting for Brian to get home.
“It was really cool,” Brian says. “Everyone falls in love with the new guy, and I was the new guy. I absolutely loved being there. They’re so passionate about basketball. It was an unbelievable place to be.”
Brian returned home after just one year in Israel. He worked as an assistant college basketball coach for four years and now is a partner at a global recruiting and consulting firm in Maitland.
The Comeback Kid
Stuart actually did return to the basketball court in the summer of 2006, when he represented the United States in the 50+ Masters division at the Pan Pacific Maccabi Games in Sydney, Australia. He helped Team USA win the silver medal.
“I played eight games in seven days and didn’t die,” Stuart says, with a laugh.
And he’s not done competing. Stuart’s next goal is to get in shape for the Maccabiah Games Israel 2021... as a tennis player in the 65+ division. He played tennis for his high-school team in Scarsdale, New York, as well as in college.
“Some of the other American basketball players were always complaining, ‘I miss my McDonald’s, I miss my American TV shows.’ That wasn’t me at all,” Stuart says. “I loved the whole experience.”
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