In September, Jon Scheyer made Aliyah. The Hebrew term means ascent but in context refers to a Jewish person’s immigration to Israel.
Now returning to the United States after his brief stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the former Blue Devil is trying to take his game to even higher ground.
“For me I’ve always been planning on playing in the NBA, and I feel like I’m very capable of that,” Scheyer said.
Scheyer was never given the chance to shine with Israel’s top team, averaging just 10.7 minutes and 2.6 points in his 46 games with the club that has won five Euroleague titles. But his difficulties were not unprecedented—the man with whom he shares a nickname had the same issues when he made Aliyah ten years ago.
Tamir Goodman, dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” before Scheyer received the nickname, began playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2002, just two years after being one of the country’s hottest high school recruits. Goodman became a national sensation when he turned down a scholarship offer from Maryland because it would have forced him to play on Friday and Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.
Scheyer followed in the footsteps of Goodman, and both received Israeli citizenship as Jews—important because the league restricts the number of foreign players. Their arrivals attracted significant fanfare but playing under the same coach, David Blatt, they were unable to crack the rotation and live up to the hype.
Goodman, who said he has observed Scheyer’s career and is “very impressed with what he’s been able to accomplish,” said a potential factor in both of their difficulties abroad might be cultural differences regarding how teams are managed.
“If you prove yourself in practice in America and do all the right things, eventually you’re going to be able to build yourself up,” Goodman said. “But what I’ve seen overseas sometimes is there’s this hierarchy with veteran players… and no matter what you do in practice you’re just not going to get the chance that you want.”
For Scheyer that meant an adjustment from his days at Duke, where he was the workhorse leading the Blue Devils to the 2010 national championship. In that season, he set an ACC record for minutes played while leading the team in points, assists and steals.
Despite being disappointed with the role of a part-time player, he had to learn how to play with sparse court time and make the most of it.
“Of course I wanted to play more,” Scheyer said. “I feel like I’ve had some really good experiences coming off the bench… even if you’re just going to play for 10 minutes, you need to be ready to go.”
European basketball is notorious for its physical play, so stylistically it was also a learning experience for the 6-foot-5 guard. Although the NBA is regarded as the world’s premier basketball league, the high level of play in Israel and Europe continues to gain international recognition, with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Omri Casspi being selected in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft.
“To a certain extent maybe it’s a lower level than the NBA, but there are so many great players over there,” Scheyer said. “Even on my team, going against those guys in practice was really great in my growth as a basketball player.”
Eventually, though, the limited playing time was no longer enough for Scheyer. Furthermore, reports surfaced that the Israeli military expected Scheyer to complete his mandatory duty—all citizens are required to serve, and most who naturalize at his age, 24, would be expected to complete six months of service.
Although reluctant to discuss what transpired with the military, Scheyer said it added to his experience of being abroad, showing him all sides of Israeli culture.
“It wasn’t something where I had a personal issue with it. It’s just something you need to do as an Israeli citizen,” Scheyer said. “It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Goodman served for a year in the Israeli military in the middle of his Israeli basketball career. Unlike Scheyer, however, he is an orthodox Jew and has always been a religious activist—explaining his passionate commitment to the defense forces.
Goodman is now a public speaker who addresses religious issues and is the founder of the non-profit Coolanu Israel, which is “dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity.”
“Everyone who makes Aliyah, who becomes an Israeli citizen is supposed to do the army, but it was more of a privilege for me,” Goodman said. “My grandparents were both Holocaust survivors and I know how much it meant for them after being in the concentration camps to come in and rebuild the land of Israel, and I kind of grew up with those values.”
Scheyer, who grew up in Chicago with a much different background as a Reform Jew, is back home and will now have the chance to do something Goodman never did—play in the NBA.
Although Scheyer attempted to do so after college, he went undrafted after mononucleosis forced him to miss the pre-draft combine. When he caught on playing with the Miami Heat during summer league competition, he suffered a severe eye injury that required surgery. Scheyer tried out with the Los Angeles Clippers and later played with the Houston Rockets’ Developmental League team, but never played in an NBA game.
He is now working with his agent to arrange workouts with teams, play in the summer league and hopefully get his chance at the game’s highest level.
Regardless of where Scheyer plays next, whether he makes it in the NBA or returns overseas, his experience in Israel was invaluable. Next time, though, he has to take a breath and fully soak in the land of milk and honey.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see as much of Israel as I would have liked because we were so busy with basketball,” he said. “When I had friends and family come visit me, they got to see more than I did. That’s my one regret-—I didn’t get to tour, didn’t get to see the Dead Sea.”