Israeli team begins tour against NBA teams, believing games provide hope during a war at home

Eidan Alber #24 of Maccabi Raanana looks on during an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on October 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Yehu Orland wore a shirt honoring a close friend who was killed two days earlier defending Israel, and he expected to have tears in his eyes Thursday night when his country's national anthem played before a game in Brooklyn.

But the coach of Maccabi Ra'anana believes continuing his team's tour against NBA clubs while his country is at war was the right decision.

"We are the first team that is playing since the war started and nobody will break Israel, because we are a strong nation," Orland said before the game.

The team from the Israeli National League was playing the first of three games during its tour. There was a police presence outside Barclays Center, with barricades set up in the plaza in front of the entrance.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 12: Maccabi Ra'anana  stands during the national anthem prior to an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on October 12, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Some fans held up Israel's flag and others had signs reading "New York stands with Israel" while Noa Kirel, an Israeli singer and actress, performed the national anthem. Before that, the Nets asked for a moment of silence for those impacted, saying the organization condemned the attacks and mourned the loss of life.

Ra'anana arrived in the U.S. on Wednesday, just days after Hamas militants killed more than 1,300 people, including 247 soldiers, in an assault on Israel on Saturday. The ensuing Israeli bombardment has killed more than 1,530 people in Gaza, according to authorities on both sides.

Among the dead was Eli Ginsberg, Orland's close friend who finished his service to the army after 23 years just last month. Their families were planning a vacation together, Orland said, before Ginsberg rushed to aid soldiers in Israel's defense.

Orland said the funeral was earlier Thursday and he wore a shirt that read "R.I.P. Eli. Forever in my Heart."

"I guess when you are losing a friend, you keep asking yourself why it’s happened," Orland said. "So I guess the answer that I gave to myself: That’s what he chose to do. He chose to be a soldier, he chose to protect Israel. He chose this for so many years."

Six players on the roster are from Israel. Orland and team sponsor Jeffrey Rosen said one player had chosen to return home, though didn't specify a reason. Ra'anana will continue on to play the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves during the second straight year the team has visited the U.S. for exhibition games.

"I think depression and sadness, that’s the feeling in Israel right now," Orland said, adding that he hoped his team could provide some happiness to people back home.

"So I’m sitting here, trying not to cry, because my heart is broken," he added, "but we have to create for those young people, children, hope that Israel is strong, and that is the reason I think everybody is here."