Tel Aviv, Israel
For a Clevelander traveling the world these days, the celebrity status of NBA star LeBron James brings us instant recognition.
Whether you are in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East, nearly everyone seems to know one fact about Cleveland, Ohio, USA: LeBron James plays basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Folks in Israel know another thing: David Blatt, an American famous here for his prowess in leading championship basketball teams, is head coach of the Cavs.
As my wife and I were walking this week in Safed, one of the holiest cities in Israel, in the hills above the Sea of Galilee, I helped to reduce some basketball anxieties among a group of merchants in the local outdoor market.
We had arrived in Israel on luxury cruise line Silversea’s 540-passenger Silver Spirit, docked in Haifa, and were touring with a private guide.
We stopped briefly for a tasty lunch of a crepe-like dish from Yemen at a small Safed street stand.
Nearby I noticed a t-shirt for sale with a Cavs emblem -- words in Hebrew.
At the time, the Cavs had yet to win an October exhibition game, which I knew, and, strangely enough, so did the man at the t-shirt stand.
“They haven’t won a game yet,” he said, his brow furrowed.
“It’s OK,” I said, “Just exhibition season. Doesn’t count.”
He smiled. “That Blatt. He’s smart.” The merchant's brow furrowed again with a question: “Blatt and LeBron, they’re ok?”
“Yes,” I said, and the smile returned. I bought the shirt for 50 shekels, about $12.50 US.
Cavs will wake you early again this season
The next day, we stopped for lunch at Dr. Shkshuka in the old city of Jaffa, to eat a fantastic kosher Libyan dish of tomatoes, mushrooms, onion and eggs.
Nearby, in an old market on a skinny pedestrian street, LeBron and Blatt returned to the conversation.
A merchant wearing a yarmulke, who was trying to sell me trinkets, shook my hand when he heard my no-thank-you in English.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“Cleveland, Ohio,” I answered.
“LeBron playing there this year?”
I answered, “Yes.” He said, “LeBron and Blatt, good. When’s the season start?” I told him, “Soon.”
Our learned guide, Ophir Akiva, said he had seen an ad on Israeli television in which Blatt played a major role. As Ophir remembered it, Blatt says, “Sorry, but we will be waking you up early again this year.”
Time difference between Israel and Cleveland in winter is 8 hours, so a 7 p.m. game in Cleveland starts in Tel Aviv at 3 a.m. Easier on the sleep are Cavs’ away games on the West Coast of the U.S. which will get going on Tel Aviv TV about 6 a.m.
Israel will be watching them all.
“Maybe this is the year,” said the trinket salesman in the Jaffa market. I said, “I think we can do it.” And as quickly as that, he and I, living thousands of miles apart, became a “we.”
Maybe in June, both of us will be cheering a champion. I don’t even know his name, but I will remember his face.