Princeton basketball player scores spot on Israeli team

Jesse Rosenfeld joined 4,000 other athletes who traveled to Israel this summer for the Maccabiah Games.

Unlike the rest, he decided to stay.

A Manhattan-born basketball player and a Princeton graduate, Rosenfeld said it was his love of the sport rather than any spiritual attraction of Israel that drew him.

The 6-foot-9-inch power forward signed a two-year contract with Hapoel Jerusalem in July. The 23-year-old has set his sights on building a successful career in top-flight European basketball in the coming decade.

"It seems kind of strange," he said, "to be getting well paid for something I love to do."

Rosenfeld declines to reveal the size of his contract, but it is almost certainly around the $50,000-a-year mark.

And that figure could swell to $100,000 if Hapoel has a successful season and Rosenfeld fits in. Leading Israeli basketball stars can earn up to $500,000 a year, as well as more from sponsorship and endorsement deals and advertising contracts.

Rosenfeld graduated with a history degree from Princeton in the summer. After a training session for the U.S. Maccabiah basketball team in June, he was surprised when an agent approached him and suggested he try pro-basketball in Israel.

"Of course it was always my dream to play in the NBA," said Rosenfeld, who in his senior year at Princeton was the college team's first off-the-bench player.

"But you can only work very hard and do your best, and realistically I wasn't going to make it in America."

Rosenfeld quickly warmed up to Israeli basketball. During his first pre-season game at Malcha stadium in Jerusalem, the enthusiasm of the fans overwhelmed him.

"I suddenly realized that I'd made it in the big-time," he said.

Hapoel Jerusalem has emerged in recent years as Israel's second-best team after the perennial champions and former European champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

For the last two seasons Hapoel has beaten Maccabi to win the state cup and has finished runner-up to them in the league. As runner-up, Hapoel qualifies this year for the prestigious European Cup competition.

Rosenfeld is the archetypal all-American boy. But behind the fresh-faced looks, there clearly lies a complex intellect.

He is quick to stress that Ivy League Princeton does not make academic compromises in order to offer sporting scholarships. In fact, Rosenfeld added, he somewhat neglected his basketball during his senior year in order to ensure that his grades were good enough to graduate.

Rosenfeld grew up in the Soho section of Lower Manhattan in New York City. He describes his background as assimilated but at the same time very culturally Jewish, simply because most of the people in the neighborhood and at school were Jews.

He had never been to Israel until the Maccabiah Games. But he had always been curious to see Israel, which was why he decided to participate in the games.

However, the Maccabiah itself turned out to be a disaster. First, there was the bridge collapse, which claimed the lives of four Australian athletes. On the parquet, the U.S. basketball team, favorites to win the gold medal, crashed out in the semifinals with a shocking defeat to Britain.

"The Maccabiah was a very bittersweet occasion," he recalls. "But it was still very exhilarating to be part of a major event that brought so many Jews together from all corners of the world."

After several months in Israel, Rosenfeld admitted that he was acquiring a taste for the country as well as using his spare time to explore his Jewish roots and heritage.

He has enjoyed the warmth of the people, and as a history graduate — albeit in 20th century U.S. history — he has been fascinated by the beauty and archeological richness of Jerusalem in particular and Israel in general.

"I am not a religious person," he said, "but Jerusalem has had a strong spiritual effect on me."

Rosenfeld was not cowered by the recent suicide bombings in his new city.

"Of course terrorism is very scary," he said, "but I grew up in the heart of New York City so I guess I'm used to danger. The most terrible things happen in New York every day and I feel much safer walking around the streets of Jerusalem than Manhattan. It's not really dangerous at all here."

Rosenfeld participated in Hapoel Jerusalem's pre-season tour of Turkey.

Despite the fact that the team lost all its games, he enjoyed the experience and opportunity to play together with his new colleagues — a mix of native-born Israelis and foreign-born stars.

Each Israeli team is only allowed four foreign players in the squad, so Rosenfeld has taken Israeli citizenship in order not to count as a "foreigner."

"The pre-season tour of Turkey was a chance to identify team weaknesses," he said, "and hopefully to correct them by the time the season gets underway."

Rosenfeld scored an average of 12 points per game on the tour, which impressed his coach considering he spent much of his time on the bench.

"He's mobile and athletic," said Hapoel's coach Gadi Kedar, "and integrates well into the team. His passing is very strong and he plays intelligently. I think he will be an important addition to the squad."