Israeli free throws and spikes come to San Francisco

Trying to explain a “pick and roll” play to your opponent at the 42nd International Children’s Games would have been an exercise in futility — or at the very least would have required some deft translation skills.

French-speaking Africans played Slovenians. Israelis faced off against Koreans. Others chattered away in Hindi, Swedish, Greek and Russian.

But when the youth athletes got on the court, language didn’t matter. In the paint, it was all about the game.

At the games, held in San Francisco from July 10 to 14, three teams from Israel were among the 12- to 15-year-old participating athletes — around 1,500 of them — from 100 cities and 50 countries around the world.

Jerusalem sent a boys volleyball team and girls basketball team, and there was a boys basketball team from Ra’anana, a high-tech city in central Israel. Other athletes came from as far away as Greenland, Kenya and Mongolia.

Sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, the expansive event held at several San Francisco sites included soccer, basketball, swimming and volleyball.

The Jerusalem boys volleyball squad and the Ra’anana boys basketball team each advanced to bronze-medal games on July 14 at the University of San Francisco, but each lost and finished in fourth place.

The Ra’anana squad trailed the team from Florence, S.C., 16-6 at halftime of the bronze-medal game and, despite a stirring comeback by the Israelis in the second half, Florence pulled out a 45-39 win. Thanks mostly to its tenacious defense, Ra’anana tied the game 29-all with six minutes remaining, but couldn’t overtake Florence.

“In the first half, we froze. We were a little afraid,” said Ra’anana’s Amit Alkoni, who was celebrating his 15th birthday on the day of the game. “In the second half, we felt more comfortable.”

Alkoni cited Boston Celtics center Kevin Garnett as his favorite NBA player, praised the beauty of downtown San Francisco’s buildings and said he was looking forward to shopping during the five days his team’s contingent would spend in the area after the games.

The Jerusalem boys volleyball team got off to a strong start, defeating a team from Brantford, Ontario, in its first-round match. Two of Jerusalem’s players exchanged a celebratory chest bump after match point, perhaps influenced by watching American athletes on television.

In the bronze-medal match, the Jerusalem squad lost to the same Brantford team, settling for fourth place.

When queried after their first match about whether he and his Jerusalem teammates had a curfew like most traveling sports teams, 13-year-old Guy Rifkin said it was a non-factor. “We don’t need a curfew, because we have such jet lag,” said Rifkin.

Rifkin said he enjoyed watching the NBA, soccer and Major League Baseball on television. He said he was a Barry Bonds fan and was visiting family in Connecticut last year when Bonds hit his record-breaking 756th home run.

It was clear Rikfin hadn’t read Mark Twain’s famous quote about summers in San Francisco. “It’s cold,” he said July 11, the first day of the competition. “We thought it was summer and it would be pretty hot out.”

Rifkin made note of a recent terror attack in Israel, in which a Palestinian used a bulldozer to flip over a bus and kill three people, saying it occurred one neighborhood away from his. “We are always alert,” he said.

“We check for objects in our rooms,” added 15-year-old Niv Dan, another volleyball player on the Jerusalem team. “We don’t know what can happen.”

San Francisco was just the second U.S. city to host the International Children’s Games, the other being Cleveland in 2004. The first games were organized in 1968 by Yugoslavian professor Metod Klemenc, who had had his own childhood disrupted by World War II.

Until 1994, the games were held only in European cities. In San Francisco, the athletes were housed at USF and San Francisco State University, and events were held at Kezar Stadium, Kezar Pavilion, USF, Golden Gate Park’s tennis courts and Harding Park Golf Club.

After their first-round match, the Jerusalem boys volleyball team walked to the other side of USF’s Koret Center (the university’s recreational sports facility) to cheer on the Jerusalem girls basketball team.

In that matchup, Jerusalem was playing a talented team from San Francisco, which won the game 46-11. The volleyball players sang and cheered to encourage the girls, but aside from a 6-2 run by Jerusalem in the first half, San Francisco dominated the game.

The Jerusalem girls finished with a record of 2-4, with wins over Australia and Ghana.

Inbal Dar, 14, said she was excited to visit San Francisco with the basketball team, even though she has been to the United States before (her mother, who works in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took her to Maryland).

“We want to go shopping, but also to visit the Golden Gate Bridge,” Dar said.

A huge basketball fan, she said it’s difficult to watch NBA games in Israel because of the 3 a.m. start times. But she noted that she watches replays and her favorite player is Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards.

And as for day-to-day life in Israel?

“I’m not really affected by the political situation,” said Dar with the innocence of a typical teenager who cares more about pop culture than politics. “I usually feel safe, but you never know.”