U.C. Berkeley basketball starter calls Tel Aviv home

Shahar Gordon managed to keep his cool when he stepped onto the basketball court this month as Cal's starting center against two of the nation's top teams — Stanford and UCLA.

But the 18-year-old freshman from Tel Aviv admits to going slightly bonkers after the buzzer.

"Afterwards, when I thought about it, I said, `Wow. I just played against Stanford and UCLA.' This is crazier than my wildest dreams when I was a kid," the 6-foot-10 Gordon said this week in an interview at a restaurant near U.C. Berkeley.

"Suddenly, I come here and I'm playing against the best teams in the country."

Still, basking in the limelight is not particularly new for Gordon.

Back home, his Maccabi Tel Aviv team won the Israeli national championships and he served as captain of Israel's junior national team, which placed sixth in Europe over the summer. His skills placed him on multiple teams and he found himself practicing up to 14 times per week.

"Back home, I was like the center of attention. The ball always went to me," he said. "I was so much bigger than everyone. I'd just turn and shoot."

The game's a bit quicker and the spotlight's a bit brighter here in the United States, he said.

"Here, I'm playing with 7-footers."

But it was just that extra challenge that prompted Gordon to pack his bags and leave his parents, 16-year-old sister and homeland for the United States.

"Basically, I accomplished everything I possibly could back home," he said. He felt he needed to leave to continue growing as a player.

He credits his parents for giving him the freedom to choose his own path. "They didn't want to stand between me and my dream."

The move has been especially difficult for his father, Zev, who used to regularly watch his son's games and practices in Israel.

"For me to leave the country was so hard for him," Gordon said.

Zev Gordon, who recently came to see his son play three games for Cal, is an attorney who emigrated from Russia as a child. His mother, a New Jersey native, is an educational researcher at the Open University in Tel Aviv. Gordon's sister plays professional basketball in Israel.

Gordon started playing basketball at the age of 5, but, ironically, quit because he was the smallest kid and was always getting pushed around by bigger players. He took it up again at age 12, when he stood 6 feet tall. This time, he didn't get pushed around — and he grew passionate about the game.

Despite the thrill of playing for a Pac-10 team and the dreamy lure of an NBA career, Gordon knows he'll eventually return to Israel to live.

"I don't think of myself as American," he said. "I'm an Israeli. Once basketball is over, I'll live back there." In Israel, "everyone is so full of life."

Gordon follows developments at home through newspapers, e-mail and phone calls. He considers the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a hero. The slain leader, who lived in Gordon's neighborhood, "was on the right track of getting us somewhere. It was so sad what happened to him."

Before coming to Berkeley, Gordon played his senior year of high school at St. Thomas More Academy in Connecticut and quickly began drawing offers from American universities.

His original plan was to attend the University of Connecticut. But after coming to Berkeley last April, he decided to head west.

"I liked the people, the coaches, the players, the academics," said Gordon, who has not yet declared a major. "After the visit, I decided this is the place I want to be. "

Coach Ben Braun said Gordon caught his eye with his play in prep school and again in the summer during the European championships.

"We were impressed with his abilities," Braun said, adding that as a Cal player, Gordon has been "a team guy. He dedicates himself to improvement."

Though Cal lost to Stanford on Feb. 3, Gordon scored four points, got four rebounds and received an ovation from fans at Oakland's New Arena. He saw less action Saturday against UCLA, but was ecstatic over Cal's 85-67 upset win.

"We have a great team — we proved it," he said. "When we play like a team, we are just unstoppable." Cal hopes to remain unstoppable enough in its remaining games to win a spot in next month's National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

As for his own talents, Gordon said he's committed to learning all he can while at Cal. He said the focus on individual training in the United States has been a big boost to his playing skills.

Just how long Gordon will stay in this country is about as uncertain as his team's post-season hopes.

Gordon has yet to serve in the Israeli army and isn't sure when he'll be called back home.

"It's not my decision; it's the army's decision," he said. "I hope I'll be able to stay here for at least two more years." In the meantime, "I'm just taking full advantage of this year."

Wearing a Giants baseball jacket and sporting a Walkman headset, he looked every bit like an American college student this week. But when asked if he was a Giants fan, Gordon shook his head.

"I just bought it because I like the colors."