Import Duty

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

"It's not as bad as it looks from here," says Ohanon, the eldest of four siblings and son of a computer technician and a homemaker. "You watch CNN, every couple of weeks you see a suicide bomber. But when you live in Tel Aviv -- or anywhere in Israel -- you don't feel like it's a war."

How Ohanon came to play at SLU is indicative of the challenges faced by Soderberg in the wake of former coach Lorenzo Romar's abrupt defection to the University of Washington last spring.

Odds are, Soderberg wouldn't have been in a position to sign Ohanon without the connections of 30-year-old Billiken assistant Anthony Beane, who played professional ball briefly in Greece after starring at Kansas State. While in Greece, Beane befriended Alex Saratsis, who runs an international scouting service with former South Florida and Israeli player David Adler, a native of the same Tel Aviv suburb as Ohanon. Adler's an old friend of Beane's -- and when Beane informed Adler that he had scholarships available this past spring, Adler recommended Ohanon. Beane expressed immediate interest, sight unseen.

Izik Ohanon
Jennifer Silverberg
Izik Ohanon

"From David's remarks and the fact that he knew this league [from Adler's playing days at Conference USA rival South Florida], I trusted him," says Beane, who promptly flew Ohanon in from Tel Aviv for a workout with Billiken players. "It was so late, and we were in kind of a bind. The next morning, his coach called, and that's how it all started."

That coach was Hanoch Mintz, an Israeli basketball icon who was instrumental in establishing the University of Connecticut's "Israeli pipeline" in the early 1990s that made Huskies of Israeli superstars Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld.

Sheffer spent three standout seasons at Connecticut, but he was the exception to an unwritten rule that often sees star Israelis make abrupt U-turns for their homeland's vaunted club league after a year in the States.

Although Ohanon diplomatically cites Soderberg as his main reason for choosing SLU over the University of Miami, another factor was undoubtedly the potential to earn significant minutes immediately -- something that would have been unattainable in Miami with the presence of stud Hurricane forwards Darius Rice and James Jones. SLU, meanwhile, is paper-thin on its front line, starting a three-guard lineup of Fisher, all-conference candidate Marque Perry and gritty Jersey-bred freshman Anthony Drejaj.

But to crack Soderberg's rotation, Ohanon must continue to bulk up -- and then start throwing that weight around.

"At the college level, it's about team defense," says Beane. "He's gradually picking it up. Once he gets that down, he's got the ability to crack the starting lineup."

Israel's Mintz, who fell in love with Ohanon's then-raw game while the latter was playing pickup on the streets of Tel Aviv, feels Ohanon has what it takes to make it to the NBA one day.

"He's going to be one of the best ball-handlers in the country for a forward," says Mintz, who now coaches former U-Conn star Khalid El-Amin on Team Ramat Gan in the Israeli Premier League. "He's like Kevin Garnett. He's not so athletic, but all the other areas, he's better."

Better than KG? Ohanon is not so brash, instead expressing admiration for the Minnesota Timberwolves star and his rim-orbiting peers.

"Garnett can do pretty much anything. I appreciate it when a player can do that," gushes Ohanon. "I like to see Vince Carter play -- also his cousin Tracy McGrady. It's fun to see guys who can jump like that."

So does Ohanon feel he matches their skyward hops?

"Not like that," he deadpans. "No one can."

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