Hoop dreams: Shafir helps Rockets make historyWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Lady Rockets were the toast of Toledo April 2. The basketball team defeated USC 76-68 in front of a packed house at Savage Arena to capture the 2011 Women’s National Invitational Tournament title, the first postseason tournament championship in school history.
The city was captivated by the improbable run Toledo made to win the WNIT, and by the dazzling play of junior guard Naama Shafir, who shredded the Trojans’ defense with a career-high 40 points in the final game. The victory was indicative of how far the Rockets have come under head coach Tricia Cullop, and how far Shafir has come on her journey from a small-town girl in northern Israel who loved basketball to a collegiate star in Northwest Ohio.
“I remember that I was looking for schools, and I knew, I had confidence that I’m good enough at basketball to play in this level,” Shafir said. “I just didn’t know how people were going to take my religion, if they would be able to help me and to let me practice my religion and still be part of the team. I remember after we heard from Toledo and Coach Cullop, they heard about me and we said, ‘OK.’ I was like, ‘I’m interested, but there’s some things that we need to talk about.’”
An Orthodox Jew, Shafir and her family told the Rockets about her Jewish faith, about the T-shirt she had to wear underneath her jersey, about the kosher food she had to eat and the stipulations surrounding games on Saturdays, which is part of the Shabbat observation in Judaism.
“They said, ‘Oh, that’s not a problem,” Shafir said. “I was like, ‘Oh, really!?’ So I was definitely happy, and it was good to know that people will respect my religion.”
Shafir said when she arrived on the Toledo campus, her new teammates were immediately supportive and respectful of her beliefs, making her feel comfortable.
“I can’t even imagine how it would be without their support,” Shafir said.
It didn’t take long for Shafir’s opponents to respect her. She earned Mid-American Conference All-Freshman Team honors and was honorable mention All-MAC in her first year at Toledo, averaging 11.7 points, 4.5 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. As a sophomore, those averages jumped to 14.3 points, 6.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals as Shafir earned Second-Team All-MAC and Academic All-MAC honors.
This year, Shafir progressed and had arguably her best season yet. Shafir averaged 15.3 points, 5.1 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game in 2010-11, receiving First-Team All-MAC honors as she helped the Rockets capture the MAC regular season title and No. 1 overall seed in the MAC Tournament. After a disappointing 61-55 loss to Eastern Michigan in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament March 11, Cullop made sure her team didn’t dwell on the defeat.
“She just said, ‘OK. We have another opportunity to do something big,’” Shafir said. “It took us like two days to recover from that loss and start to think about the NIT, but she said, ‘We can still do something special.’”
Shafir and her teammates delivered, taking out Delaware, Auburn, Alabama, Syracuse, Charlotte and USC en route to the WNIT title. Shafir averaged 19.5 points, 4.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game in the WNIT to garner MVP honors, saving her best for last against the Trojans.
“We all knew that we were going to give everything that we have,” Shafir said. “I just tried to help the team and do whatever it takes. I didn’t feel like I had 40 points. I actually felt like I’m missing a lot of layups and free throws.”
A native of Hoshaya, Israel — a small town of about 350 families roughly 30 minutes north of Nazareth — Shafir has made significant strides in her growth as a basketball player and a person while in the United States, all the while bringing more attention to her family back home.
“I just talked to my parents and they said, ‘Oh, my God. We feel like we’re celebrities because everybody is calling us and saying congrats and good job and tell Naama that,’ so it’s fun. It’s fun to have a lot of people who support you.”
This August, the team will accompany Shafir on a trip to Hoshaya.
“That’s amazing,” Shafir said. “I can’t wait, and I’m sure they’ll have lots of fun. They might think it’s a little bit different because it is different. That’s how I felt when I came here, but again, I’m happy they have the chance to meet my family, to see where I’m from and learn a little bit more about where I’m from.”
With a bright future on the horizon for Toledo, Shafir’s story and the Rockets’ success is a constant reminder to take a chance on the unknown and always dare to dream.