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."

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.

"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.

"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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