NEW YORK (AP) — Yehu Orland wore a shirt honoring a close friend who was killed two days earlier defending Israel, and cried a little 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.
The Nets won 135-103. Ra’anana’s players lingered to greet and pose for pictures with their fans after a game that forward Jonathan Mor said was the first time he’s seen some teammates smile in days.
“Obviously the last five days have been some of the toughest days anybody can face,” the 28-year-old said.
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 country’s 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. in the middle of last week, just days before 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.”
Mor said he was having dinner with two teammates when they began getting word about the attacks. Soon after, they found video showing the horror.
He said the players have been able to check in with family back home and that so far all of them have remained safe.
“Both of my brothers are down there. Some of my best friends are fighting,” Mor said. “We’ve been checking in, so far so good, at least for me and the guys here. But it’s our people and the things that are coming out of there is things that no human being is supposed to even look at.”
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.”
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