WNBA stars light up Israeli basketball league

RAMLE, Israel (AP) -Plenette Pierson of the WNBA champion Detroit Shock is used to playing in front of thousands of fans back home in the U.S. This winter, the 6-foot-3 forward is showing off her skills in front of nearly empty stands in small-town Israel – and loving it.

Pierson is among the growing number of WNBA stars who moonlight overseas during the offseason. Buoyed by a small but rabid fan base, Israel has become a top destination.

“I think the Holy Land has been the land of basketball, I think the WNBA players just now found out about it,” said Pierson, who has become so popular she can barely walk through the streets of this backwater town without being swarmed by fans.

According to the WNBA, Pierson is one of 17 players in Israel. Nearly 130 play worldwide, in countries including Russia, South Korea and Australia.

Pierson, along with teammates LaToya Thomas of the San Antonio Silver Stars and Monique Currie of the Chicago Sky, have turned their Elitzur Ramle club into a juggernaut. The team is 15-2 and has clinched a first-place finish and playoff berth, just a year after temporarily shutting down because of debt.

“The league is just as competitive and tough as the WNBA,” said Pierson, who’s averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

Thanks to a basketball-crazed mayor and funds from several corporate sponsors, Ramle has become the top draw for WNBA players in Israel. The team says it pays each of its American players around $80,000 a season, tax-free, throwing in a car and apartment, too.

The 10-year-old WNBA has lasted longer and been more successful than any previous U.S. women’s pro league. But salaries range from about $31,000 to $90,000, with the bulk falling somewhere in the middle, and the regular season is just three months long.

So even top players – such as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi – travel the world each winter in search of extra cash. European leagues also allow the women to stay in shape and arrive for the WNBA summer league in top form.

“If we were making money like the men, we wouldn’t have to go overseas,” Thomas said. “Playing basketball is a job. It’s not a fairy tale, we just go out and play.”

Currie, who’s working toward a master’s degree at Duke, said she welcomed the opportunity to travel the world and see new things while bettering herself as a player.

“Of course we would like to be back in the States, like the men, and not have to play the entire year, but at the same time we enjoy what we are doing, we are still playing basketball, still having fun,” said Currie, who leads Ramle with 21.9 points per game.

In many ways, the Israeli women’s league is far more exciting than that of the men. The competition is wide open, while the men’s league has been dominated for years by perennial European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.

And while the men’s league typically attracts foreign players either at the beginning or the end of their career, the women’s league is filled with players in their prime. Recent Israeli pros include WNBA standouts Deanna Nolan, Vickie Johnson, Mwadi Mabika and Cheryl Ford.

Nowhere is the play more appreciated than Ramle in central Israel, where the team has become the pride and joy of a city normally associated with crime and poverty.

To counter Ramle’s traditionally negative image, Mayor Yoel Lavie decided in the mid-1990s to turn his run-down city of 70,000 into a center of women’s hoops. He enlisted a host of local sponsors and also poured large sums of municipal funds into the team.

Elitzur had won five of the previous 10 championships, overcoming teams from the larger cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, before tax debts forced it to shut down for the season last year. Under new management, and thanks to this year’s crop of American imports, the team has reinvigorated the city again.

“This is the heart of the action, it’s the flagship of our city, it brings us respect,” said Ronen Alperman, a die-hard fan of 15 years.

Home games have become a focal point for social gatherings, with chants of “Plenette,” “LaToya” and “Monique” hollered to the beat of drums. After games, the stars often are mobbed by adoring teenage boys.

“Playing in Ramle you have more of a family fan base, you have the same fans that come to every game, they see you in the neighborhood, when you are at the store, shopping,” Pierson said. “They think you are the greatest thing in the world.”

Team chairman Shmulik Levkovitz said the city could not afford to groom a successful soccer club or men’s basketball team, so decided to focus on women’s sports instead. “With the women you can invest less and get more for your buck,” he said.

With a budget of just under $900,000, Levkovitz has purchased the best talent money can buy. Pierson, Thomas and Currie have accounted for most of the scoring, including some jaw-dropping acrobatic fast breaks, no-look passes and 3-pointers.

Last Monday, the three led the team to a 97-70 victory over visiting Hapoel Haifa/Motzkin, after leading by as much as 40 points. Pierson had 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in the blowout.

Earlier that day, a suicide bombing rocked the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat, killing three people. The harsh Middle East reality has not fazed the Americans, who say the night life and cultural offerings in nearby Tel Aviv remind them of home.

“What you see on TV in the States and what you hear on the radio is not what we experience here,” Currie said.

Pierson, who has played in Israel before, feels a special connection to the Jewish state.

“You grow up hearing about things in the Bible and to be here and see it and to play basketball at the same time, something you love,” she said. “It was a great experience for me to win a WNBA championship and then come to Ramle and hopefully win a championship here.”

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