Former Stanford hoopster adds firepower to Israeli team

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JERUSALEM — It's hard to stop Jamila Wideman, both on and off the court.

She skims the surface of the basketball court, darting between ends, as quick and nimble as a cat. If she pauses on the parquet, it's just to clap her hands and spit out, "Let's go, let's go" to her teammates.

In her off-season from the Women's National Basketball Association, where she plays for the Cleveland Rockers, Wideman has brought her pace, dynamism and go-get-'em attitude to Ramle since arriving here in September.

How does it feel to have swapped life in the fast lane for the sleepy back streets of Ramle?

"I feel very lucky to be here, even though my biggest outing is going to my teammates' [homes] for dinner," she said with a giggle. "But I'm not looking for bright lights and big stars — that's never been why I play. I love being able to recognize who's hollering in the second row; that's the kind of atmosphere I enjoy. A small place makes me able to focus more on the team."

Her arrival caps a two-year effort to bring Wideman to Israel, through contacts with Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi. She prefers not to reveal the terms of her contract, saying merely, "It was good enough to bring me here."

Elitzur Ramle team manager Nissim Ron submits his side of the deal: "All the WNBA players want to keep up their fitness levels through the break" in the professional season, "and with her Jewish background, Israel was especially attractive for her."

Ron says the percentage of people in Ramle involved in sport is among the highest in the country "and Elitzur is the flagship of sport in Ramle."

He has a point, even if it seems that Elitzur Ramle is jinxed. Last year it reached its seventh consecutive State Cup final only to lose again. This prompted captain Vika Rodovsky to abandon the team for Ramat Hasharon, the undisputed leader.

Despite her very un-basketball-like height of 5 feet 5 inches, Wideman, 24, has earned a place among the most recognized women basketball players in America.

As starting point guard, she helped lead her Massachusetts high school to the state championship, giving her carte blanche to enter the college scene.

Stanford University was her choice, and she majored in political science and African-American studies. In her freshman year she was captain of the team and starting point guard; the team went to three consecutive Final Fours.

"I thought my time at Stanford would become the highlight of my career, but then the league started in the United States, something we hadn't expected," she said. She was third draft pick in the WNBA and played for the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA's inaugural game. "It was awesome," she said.

"I come from a basketball family and my two brothers had always dreamed of playing professionally. So from hearing them, I grew up saying, 'I want to be in the NBA.' I was too foolish to imagine we would have a league of our own."

In Israel, she added, "I now have the opportunity to explore a part of my history, a part I haven't known about.

"I come from a very, very diverse family background — religiously, racially and socioeconomically — and it's time for me to explore another piece of myself."

Wideman's father, an African-American, is a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. A Rhodes scholar, he grew up in an indigent family in Pittsburgh.

Her mother studied for her law degree in midlife, graduating at age 52. She grew up in a Jewish family in Great Neck, N.Y.

As for her family's religious practice, Wideman said, "We have a very strong sense of spirituality, which is not necessarily grounded exclusively in a particular religion.

"Some years we celebrated Jewish holidays, some years we didn't. It was more a chance for family members to catch up with each other.

"Now I'll have a chance to get to know my roots. As you grow older, you become more attached to different parts of yourself and being here is going to let me explore this aspect of my identity."

Wideman said she hoped to study Hebrew at an ulpan and will travel the country with her mother, who as a teenager spent a summer on a kibbutz.

It's only when asked about her brother, Jake, who is serving a life sentence in Florence, Ariz., for a murder he committed when she was 10, that her body slumps and her laughing brown eyes take on a somber hue.

Jake's sentencing came at age 16, after he killed his sleeping roommate at camp by stabbing him in the chest.

Wideman, always articulate, has built a shield around this painful subject and somehow presents it in an affirmative light.

"Going through that experience with my family has been very defining for me in every way. It was more than an issue for us; we were asked to speak about it publicly, first because my father is a relatively well-known personality and then myself, since I've become known from sport."

A Sports Illustrated 1997 cover story blasted the matter, until then not publicized, into the public awareness and with it, Wideman.

"The lesson I've taken away from my brother's situation is that people are more than the greatest mistake they may make. I have a real belief in people and their ability to change."

She has "an unconditional love for the people in my family,"

An uncle is serving a life sentence for being an accessory to a murder which took place in 1975, a few months after Wideman's birth.

"I've struggled to learn the importance of continuing to reach out to those lives," she said.

She has started a grassroots program, "Hoopin' with Jamila," which combines her passions for writing, basketball and helping underprivileged girls.

Sponsored by Nike's community affairs department, the program teaches basic basketball skills to children in inner-city Los Angeles, concentrating on girls in the juvenile justice system.

"I worked with girls who'd never picked up a basketball and let them create their own poetry, in an attempt to let them talk about their lives and dreams." The program is held at various sites for six months, and Wideman visits each site, spending five to six hours with a group of 20 girls.

For her efforts with the program, Wideman was voted one of USA Weekend's Most Caring Athletes of 1998, but she hastens to minimize this.

"I get as much out of the experiences with the kids as they do. It's helped me to grow; it's definitely not a one-way street.

"I was taught that you measure yourself not by your own accomplishments but by what you allow others to achieve. The two are the same. My parents taught us that this was a value, a standard to set.

"In my family the No. 1 obligation is to make sure that everyone is doing OK, financially, spiritually, emotionally. I've been fortunate, I've been well taken care of and I've had time and resources to help."

Wideman's other brother, Danny, has followed in his father's footsteps as an author, and is writing a book on the slave trade in Ghana.

Wideman is set on a career as a criminal rights and civil-rights lawyer.

She also speaks out for women in sports.

"People invested time to teach me and give me a chance to play on a team and now that I can be a voice for women's sports, it would be irresponsible of me not to try to repay my debts to them."

Women's sports "are at a very important stage now, with corporate sponsorship and national television coverage. It's time to make a real impact while we have people's attention."

Wideman believes the WNBA has really helped: Youth leagues are flourishing and sport is being represented as something positive.

As for the clubs in Israel, she said, "I understand that the league is extremely competitive and that Ramat Hasharon [last year's winners of the league and State Cup] is regarded with great esteem.

"I know a lot of other American players on teams here and I've heard how much they enjoy playing here. It's going to be great fun."

She is also aware, "coming in to this team, that people would have ideas about me because I'm an American and from the WNBA. But I tried to make it clear from the start that I'm here as any other player on court, and I'll certainly give everything I can, whether working hard at practice or sitting on the bench and cheering.

Her coach Chuki Nir believes Wideman is the player who will help bring to an end Ramle's seven-year jinx of reaching the State Cup final but missing the glory.

"Jamila is a born leader," Nir said. "Leadership is taken, not given, and she's got it. She's an excellent player who encourages her teammates to play better, more positively. All the girls took to her right from the start, something I don't remember happening before.

"We've changed our team this year. We have a young, interesting side and Jamila is definitely going to help us reach Europe," he declared confidently.

It didn't take long for teammate Tricia Stafford, also an American, to turn into a Wideman fan.

"She's very straightforward and intelligent and will adapt to any environment. She wasn't always in the WNBA — before, she was 'little Jamila' — so I'm sure she will be able to handle life in Ramle. We really need her leadership, her defense and her intensity on court."