Import Duty

A former pro basketball player from Israel has to be bigger, stronger and faster for the American college game

For first-year St. Louis University basketball player Izik Ohanon, a six-foot-nine forward who grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat-Yam, the adjustment to life near a muddy riverbank far removed from the Mediterranean Sea has proved a cultural, athletic -- and culinary -- baptism by fire.

"One night, he put frozen chicken on a frying pan, put it on the stove and went to his computer," says Chris Braun, a senior Billiken forward who is also Ohanon's roommate. "Then he just threw water on it. He almost burned our apartment down.

"He'll eat fried chicken four or five nights a week. He friggin' loves barbecue sauce."

Izik Ohanon
Jennifer Silverberg
Izik Ohanon

KC Masterpiece wasn't a dietary mainstay in Ohanon's hometown, just as defense and physicality aren't especially valued commodities in a high-scoring overseas game where finesse and marksmanship carry the day. How quickly the lanky Ohanon adjusts to the smash-mouth American game will have a lot to do with whether the Bills can crack the postseason for the first time since 2000 -- and whether SLU can open an international recruiting pipeline.

"Good shot, no 'D'" is a label that has dogged virtually every foreign hoop import from Drazen Petrovic to Dirk Nowitzki. And Ohanon is doing nothing to discredit this stereotype at a mid-October practice. Matched against senior SLU center Kenny Brown, Ohanon is far and away the weakest defender on the floor, perpetually grabbing and fouling the bigger, stronger Hazelwood West alum in one-on-one drills.

"The really big guys, most of the time, are stronger than me," says the 220-pound Ohanon, who admits to having trouble gaining weight.

Once a key reserve on a top pro team in his homeland, Ohanon will have to scrap to get playing time in the American college game. A month after his hack-and-grab practice display, Ohanon looks considerably improved in an exhibition duel with Athletes in Action at Savvis Center. During a brief but effective first-half spurt of playing time, he notches four points, all on free throws.

"He was catching the ball and dribbling, which you don't see out of a six-foot-nine guy that often," says Billiken point guard Josh Fisher.

"He's still getting used to physical play," says first-year SLU head coach Brad Soderberg of Ohanon, who is now eligible after sitting out the NCAA's maximum eight-game penalty for having pro experience overseas. "He's got more of a perimeter mentality."

There is a significant upside to this perimeter mentality, says former Pattonville High and Mizzou standout Corey Tate, now an assistant coach at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri, which is nurturing a pair of frontline hopefuls from Sarajevo.

"Foreign players shoot a little better and can pass it," says Tate. "The American player is bigger -- watches a lot of SportsCenter and And-1 commercials. All they're thinking about is a fancy move or dribble, and they forget about the game of basketball."

Ohanon also benefits from the experience of squaring off against such warhorses as current NBA players Pau Gasol, Nate Huffman and Carlos Boozer in international competition, as well as Israeli club vets as much as fifteen years older than him.

"Guys here are young, don't have the same experience as those who play in Israel," says Ohanon, who drew only his army salary (Israeli youths serve a mandatory three-year stint in the military) in the Israeli Premier League while his teammates earned an average of approximately $60,000 annually. "U.S. players have a different enthusiasm for the game. It's more intense. College basketball is just different."

So far, Ohanon -- a sophomore in eligibility because he's over 21 -- has also adjusted to the off-court differences of St. Louis.

"Most of my friends had never heard of St. Louis," says Ohanon in his deep, mellow Israeli accent. "But that's not good or bad. People here have high standards in life, just like we have high standards in Israel."

But that's where the similarities end.

"Tel Aviv is just like New York -- maybe the buildings are shorter," explains Ohanon. "[St. Louis] feels like a small town, but I like it like that. There's a lot of green. The [SLU] campus is lovely and fun to walk."

"He thinks it's so stupid that Schnucks has fifteen different kinds of toilet paper," says roommate Braun, "but he can't get over how much nicer people are here. Over there [in Israel], a stranger will never say hello."

One stranger who befriended Ohanon early on was Greta Bujaker, a five-foot-six guard on the Lady Billikens squad who immigrated to Florida from São Paulo, Brazil, with her family at the age of thirteen.

"When he got here, we went to synagogue together," recalls Bujaker, who is also Jewish. "I just invited him to go -- I didn't know how many people he knew here. He's more mature than college students in general. He definitely knows what his priorities are and what he wants to get accomplished here. If you go and you look at what regular college students engage in, by comparison, he's keeping his mind straight."

Although Bujaker says she feels "a lot safer" in the States than in Brazil, Ohanon believes the seemingly perpetual bloodshed in his native Israel is way overblown.

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