Friday, June 22, 2012

Re-post: For Israeli journalist Gilad Shalit, a long, tough road to the NBA Finals

David Whitley AOL FanHouse Columnist - Sporting News
MIAMI – There’s a guy at the NBA Finals who was once traded for 1,027 other players.
If you think the Thunder was a cellar-dweller its first year, this guy spent five years in the basement.
Gilad Shalit was held by Hamas militants for more than five years. (AP Photo)

His name is Gilad Shalit, and he’ll have no bearing on Thursday night’s big event. If the Heat win the NBA championship, they will surely talk about all the adversity they had to overcome.
It’s true, but it’s so cliché. Almost as cliché as pointing out that sports stars don’t know what real hardship is.
Then you see why it’s not just a cliché. He is covering the NBA Finals from Section 332 at AmericanAirlines Arena this week.
Shalit is the Israeli soldier who was captured and held hostage for five years. It was in all the papers. Now he is writing for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper.
It’s safe to say Shalit is the only sportswriter here who’s had thousands of people march on Jerusalem for his cause. And not even Stephen A. Smith has dined with the president of France recently.
Shalit is just another guy with a press credential in Miami. But back home, he is LeBron James. His co-writer, Arik Henig, wrote about that in their first column.
“Passers-by are hypnotized by him, as if something melts inside them when they see him in the flesh and blood, eating a chocolate mousse. Slowly and surely, Gilad is coming back to life.”
Shalit looked like a prisoner of war when he was released last October. He’s put on 15 pounds, but he’s still about half the size of the average American sports columnist.
He was downing a box of popcorn when I cornered him Wednesday night. Shalit speaks halting English and doesn’t really like all the attention that comes with being an accidental celebrity.
“It’s something different,” he said. “I just have to deal with it.”
With his glasses and shy demeanor, Shalit certainly didn’t fit the warrior image. I could just imagine what he looked like as a 19-year-old sergeant in the Israeli army when the bullets started flying.
Hamas and other militant groups crossed the border and attacked Shalit’s tank unit on June 6, 2006. Two Israeli soldiers and two terrorists were killed.
Shalit was dragged from the tank. He had a broken left hand from flying shrapnel and a shoulder wound.
An international incident ensued. It lasted 1,941 days.
Saving Sergeant Shalit became a rallying cry in Israel. It was as if the entire country adopted the boy from Mitzpe Hila, a village in Galilee.
He was a math whiz who loved sports, especially soccer and basketball. Shalit would wake up in the middle of the night to watch NBA games. He’s really impressed now that he’s seeing them firsthand.
“The game is very fast,” Shalit said. “And the players are very big and powerful.”
Seven days after he was abducted, Miami won the NBA title. Shalit didn’t hear about it.
He was in a basement somewhere in Gaza. The only light came from a few sunrays that leaked through a boarded window. He also missed the Spurs win ’07, the Celtics in ’08, the Lakers going back-to-back and Dallas winning last year.
You think the NBA and the players’ union had negotiating problems? Israel and the Palestinians have something of a history. They talked and fought and didn’t talk and fought over Shalit. His childhood pursuits helped keep him sane.
“I drew a lot of strength from sports activity, despite the conditions I was under there,” he wrote in his first column. “It granted me a break from the reality I was in.”
His captors eventually let Shalit have a radio and occasionally brought in a TV. It wasn’t quite like any bunch of guys sitting around a bar arguing whether LeBron is a choker, but those moments helped.
“We could talk about sports,” Shalit said. “It was a bridge, something similar.”
He wondered if he’d ever have a normal conversation again. Shalit went on a hunger strike last fall, hoping to force the matter. He figured Hamas would not want its prime bargaining chip to die.
The sides finally agreed to trade. Hamas got the release of 1,027 Palestinians. Israel got Shalit.
He was pale and gaunt and needed surgery on the old shrapnel wounds. He also needed time and space to adjust. How do you return to normal after spending five years in a basement?
Yediot Aharonot was a big editorial supporter of Shalit’s cause. Given his celebrity status, the paper offered him a job. It’s too soon to tell whether he’ll like writing.
“But I like sports,” Shalit said.
He really learned to appreciate them over the past five years. He knows they aren’t just fun and games.
Sports can bring old enemies together. They can help people come back to life. But you’ll understand if Shalit doesn’t get all choked
up Friday night.
Miami thinks it’s had a hard time getting to this point?
The Heat should check out the skinny guy in Section 332.
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