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‘Can’t break us’: Brooklyn Nets preseason game against Israeli team turns into catharsis for Israel supporters

By LUKE TRESS

(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — Israeli pop superstar Noa Kirel took to the floor of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Thursday night with an Israeli flag draped around her shoulders to sing the national anthem, “Hatikvah,” as the Brooklyn Nets and Maccabi Raanana lined up on either side.

Wrapping up her rendition, she said “Am Yisrael chai,” meaning “The people of Israel live,” her voice cracking before the tip-off. “We will win.”

Israel supporters at a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Israel's Maccabi Raanana, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Oct. 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/JTA)

Israel supporters at a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Israel’s Maccabi Raanana, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Oct. 12, 2023. (Luke Tress/JTA)

The charged pre-season game took place as Israel wages war against the Hamas terror group in Gaza, after a devastating attack on southern Israel killed 1,300 people, shaking Israeli society to its core. Israeli counterstrikes in Gaza have killed around 1,500 people, the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry said.

The game was planned in August, and the Israeli team arrived in the United States on Oct. 4, a few days before the start of the war on Oct. 7.

Jewish and Israeli spectators streamed into the arena for what was also Israeli Heritage Night, many carrying Israeli flags or signs in support of Israel, alongside casual fans and tourists.

“It’s very good to do this game, that all the Jews came here to support this team, that everyone will see the Jewish presence,” said Yoni Shmela, an Israeli who was on vacation in New York when the war started. “It’s really important that everyone came out to show support.”

 

At the start of the game, an announcer said to the crowd, “The Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center condemn the terrorist attacks and mourn the senseless loss of life in Israel.”

“We stand together against terror and our thoughts are with all who have been impacted by these tragic events,” he added before asking the audience to observe a moment of silence.

Once it started, though, the game gave off a typical celebratory atmosphere. Loudspeakers blasted hip hop, the jumbotron cut to excited audience members dancing and entertainers took the floor during breaks in play.

The revelry had an Israeli flair that was celebrated by the Jewish audience. The speakers blasted Israeli hits such as Lior Narkis’ and Omer Adam’s “Happiness Revolution,” with some of the audience singing along. During a timeout, a video showed Nets forward Cam Johnson sampling Israeli snacks such as Bissli and Crembo.

The game was the first in a three-game U.S. tour by Maccabi Ra’anana that will also see the squad play later this week in Cleveland and Minnesota. The team, with a roster of both Israeli and American players, plays in Israel’s Liga Leumit, the country’s second-tier division. (The New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Jewish Sport Report were media cosponsors of Thursday’s game.)

There were some questions beforehand about whether the game should go forward. Nets center Nic Claxton told the New York Post that the team had weighed canceling the game due to the war.

“We feel for the players that we’re playing against,” Claxton said. “I don’t feel that we should be playing.”

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said at a pregame press conference that the game would provide “hope that there are better times for our world ahead.”

“You read some of the stories, you hear some of the things — this game provides hope,” he said.

The Israeli team’s assistant coach, Abe Kuhn, said the players had been in shock when the war broke out and had discussed canceling the game but decided the best course was to play.

“These people have families and friends that are affected and it just wasn’t normal for them. They weren’t themselves,” Kuhn told the New York Jewish Week. “The whole reason the game still was played was as a little beacon of hope.”

Playing the game helped the team take its mind off the war, and the warm welcome from the Nets and the fans bolstered the players’ spirits, Kuhn said. “Definitely the energy in Brooklyn last night brightened everyones spirits,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain and division going on and I just hope for peace, and the love that we have felt has been enormous.”

The NBA and its players association issued a condemnation of the attack on Sunday.

“The NBA and NBPA mourn the horrific loss of life in Israel and condemn these acts of terrorism. We stand with the people of Israel and pray for peace for the entire region,” the statement said.

The Nets told the New York Jewish Week ahead of the game that the team had stepped up security measures for the game. Jewish communities fear attacks related to the Middle East violence, although Jewish security officials and state leaders have said there are no known threats.

The game marked the first time an Israeli professional team has played in a game since the war started. Eli Ginsburg, a friend of the team’s head coach Yehu Orland, was killed in the fighting. Orland wore a short commemorating his friend to the game.

“My heart is broken,” Orland told the Associated Press. “But we have to create for those young people, children, hope that Israel is strong, and that is the reason I think everybody is here.”

The Nets came under fire from the Jewish community last year after star player Kyrie Irving promoted an antisemitic video that included Holocaust denial. Irving was traded to the Dallas Mavericks earlier this year.

The Nets have hosted Jewish Heritage Nights annually during Hanukkah since 2013.

As expected, the Nets handily won the game, 135-103.

Things took a more emotional turn outside the arena after the game, where hundreds of Jews gathered in a spontaneous show of solidarity with Israel. The crowd sang “Hatikvah” and traditional songs including “Jerusalem of Gold” while huddled around an Israeli flag with arms draped across each other’s shoulders.

“It raises my Jewish spirit so high,” said Levi Partouche. “We came to play and they can’t break us. The terrorists can’t break us.”

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