War at home doesn’t affect UT player’s gameWritten by Ryan Fowler | | email@example.com
It’s a crutch quote coaches like to lean on during postgame press conferences. “Our opponent didn’t win the game; our team lost it.” At the moment, the women’s basketball programs at Boston College and Seton Hall are leaning like Pisa. I realize the Rockets have not played the Eagles or Pirates this season; however, Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop stole the win in the recruiting game last summer.
“Hey Naama, I got you vegetable lasagna for tomorrow’s game,” said Toledo assistant media relations director Brian DeBenedictis.
Rockets’ freshman point guard Naama Shafir smiled and thanked him. Her kosher diet is part of the package. It’s also part of the reason schools like BC and SH passed on the highly touted player from Israel.
“Their loss is our gain,” head coach Cullop said.
Shafir is believed to be the only Orthodox Jew playing Division I women’s college basketball. Her religion comes with restrictions. This includes the Shabbat, a period of time from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. The day of rest includes no use of automobiles, cell phones and fasting although, playing a basketball game is allowed.
According to Shafir, it was this aspect of her life that forced Boston College and Seton Hall to look elsewhere because they couldn’t work around her religion’s rules. When they passed, and in need of a backup point guard, coach Cullop swooped in.
“In talking to her, it seemed like a very small price to pay for a great player,” Cullop said.
Shafir’s athletic achievements at only 18 years old are astounding. She has already been honored by playing for the 16-under and 18-under Israeli national basketball teams. Growing up with eight other siblings, Shafir found her niche and is parlaying her abilities into a college education.
“I loved sports all the time,” Shafir said, four months into mastering the English language. “I played with the boys until eighth grade. I love it.”
Shafir explained that many Israeli girls don’t grow up playing sports, so her adolescent athletic adversaries and teammates were Israeli boys.
“I think I play now [in college] because I played with the boys all my life,” Shafir said. “So it’s made me better.”
Shafir’s transition to her new surroundings was extremely challenging following her summer schedule with the Israeli national team. She arrived at UT in September, nearly two weeks after classes began.
“The first month was very hard,” Shafir said. “My dad came with me the first two weeks. He helped me find kosher meals and a bank and a cell phone and stuff like that.”
Shafir admits the distance between Toledo and her home, a hemisphere away in Hoshaya, Israel, continues to be the toughest part of adapting to her new life in Toledo.
“It’s hard because it’s far from home and it’s hard because I’m a little different, you know because of my religion.”
Religion plays a huge role in the chaos three hours south of Shafir’s hometown.
The war between Israel and Gaza directly impacts her life.
“It’s scary,” Shafir said. “I don’t know what’s happening over there. I try to know what’s going on. I know people from my town that right now are in the army that are in Gaza. It’s scary.”
Despite the distraction, Shafir has emerged as a true team leader for the Rockets this season. Through the first 15 games, the true freshman currently leads the team in scoring, averaging nearly 13 points a game.
“Her skills were superior to what a normal incoming freshman has,” Cullop said, noting her humble demeanor will help her grow as a player.
“I think what makes her such a great player is that she doesn’t have that cocky chip on her shoulder, where she thinks she’s already arrived,” Cullop said.
Shafir has achieved so much in her first 18 years, I had to ask what her basketball future holds.
“I don’t think so much about the future,” Shafir said. “I try to focus on what’s going on right now.”
Look who’s leaning now.
Ryan Fowler is the weekend sports anchor at NBC 24. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.