Faith And Hoops Basketball

Toledo's Naama Shafir, center, from Israel, cheers from the bench with teammates during an NCAA college women's basketball game against Western Michigan.

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Naama Shafir had all but given up hope of playing college basketball in the United States even though she was clearly good enough.

She was the best player in her league in Israel. College coaches noticed her. But she wasn't willing to give up her religious beliefs.

Shafir, an Orthodox Jew, already had cleared one obstacle: her rabbi gave her permission to play on Saturdays, a day of rest and prayer. Still, she needed a school that would accept a player who couldn't practice or travel in a car or bus from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. And she had to leave home for a new city and language.

"In a way, you could call it a leap of faith," said University of Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, who readily agreed to Shafir's requests.

What the coach got was more than a talented freshman who is the team's second-leading scorer.

Shafir (SHUH'-fihr) has taught her teammates about respecting and embracing cultural and religious differences and what it means to come together as one. "It shows we're all different, but we're alike in many ways," said freshman guard Clare Aubry, of Upper Sandusky.

Instead of leaving Shafir behind on the Sabbath, her teammates wait to go bowling or see a movie until she can join them. They help her look for kosher foods and take turns traveling with her to road games so that she arrives before sundown on Friday nights.

"We're proud to do that," said freshman Courtney Ingersoll, of Massillon. "She's so serious about her religion. For a player to be committed about that, it's so inspiring."

Mixing religion and sports isn't always easy.

-- Tamir Goodman, an Orthodox Jew, rejected a scholarship from Maryland because the school couldn't accommodate his refusal to play on the Sabbath. He then spent just over one season at Towson.

-- Sandy Koufax once sat out a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday that ends a 10-day period of soul searching.

-- Canadian hockey player Benjamin Rubin was dropped from a junior hockey club in 2007 because he would not play or practice on the Sabbath. He later agreed to play in Saturday games expect those during Yom Kippur.

Jewish law forbids Orthodox Jews from performing any activity considered work on the Sabbath or religious holidays.

Shafir knows that some Orthodox Jews believe that she shouldn't play on Saturdays. She wasn't sure herself until her father asked a rabbi at home who decided that games were fun and therefore allowed.

"Some people think it's not the right thing to do, but everybody does what they believe," she said. "I asked the rabbi that I trust."

Playing competitive games on Saturdays isn't something that most would agree with, Jeffrey Gurock, author of "Judaism's Encounter with American Sports," said in an interview.

That's a big reason no one is aware of other Orthodox women who have received an athletic scholarship from an NCAA Division I school.

Shafir, who is majoring in business, wants to be an inspiration for Orthodox girls who hope to play sports.

"Before, nobody thought that we could do both," she said.

Still, she had some requirements that weren't negotiable: she can eat only kosher food and must wear a T-shirt under her jersey. She can't watch film with the rest of the team on Friday nights and most notably: no practice or motorized travel during the Sabbath.

The last request has required the most juggling.

For most weekend road games, one of Toledo's assistant coaches drives Shafir and a teammate before the rest of the team leaves on a bus. They must find her a hotel within walking distance of the arena even if it means that she and the teammate she rooms with must stay apart from the other players.

Her teammates say they don't mind accompanying her on the trips or walking a mile in the cold to get to the arena. And since Shafir cannot use electronic devices during this time, they give up their cell phones as a way of respecting her beliefs.

"They've kind of put themselves in her shoes," said Cullop, who is in her first season at Toledo after eight years as the head coach at Evansville.

Hired in April, she had just one returning point guard and desperately needed another. Cullop called a friend who told her about a player in Israel. Two other schools recruiting Shafir had backed off because of her religious requirements.

"In the end, this was the only option," Shafir said.

Cullop knew Shafir was the player she needed. She had more experience than most freshmen, having played with the Israeli national team. She averaged 21 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists per game in the country's under-19 league.

Because few girls played sports at home in Hoshaya, Israel, she grew up playing basketball against boys who were bigger and faster. "That's why I play like I do now," she said.

Shafir has started all but one game and is averaging 11 points per game for Toledo, which is 16-10 after five straight losing seasons in the Mid-American Conference.

In her first game, Shafir scored 19 against Arizona, including two game-winning free throws with four seconds left. Then in January, she made a game-winning layup with 4.7 second left against Miami of Ohio.

"She has a confidence that everything's going to be OK," Cullop said. "She's so grounded religiously. I think that does carry over to the court."

But being so far from home and juggling a new language and school has been tiring.

"It's really scary to go and do it," Shafir said. "It was hard in school, it was hard in practice, it was just hard to communicate with people."

Cullop had no idea how Shafir's presence would bring her young team together, or that it would happen before the Rockets played their first game at a tournament in Hawaii.

Eating at a team meal, Shafir asked the restaurant staff to heat up her frozen kosher food. She was told they could warm the meal, but she couldn't eat it there because of health code rules.

Shafir took her food into the lobby. Cullop picked up her plate and followed. So did the rest of the team. They sat together, on the floor and in wicker chairs, balancing the dinner plates in their laps.

On the way out of the restaurant, her new teammates chanted the Hebrew word "k'futsa."

It means team.

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