By Jon Marks
Don’t expect Michael Moshkovitz to become the eighth native Israeli to make it to the NBA.
No, he said he doesn’t intend to follow the trail blazed by Omri Casspi, Gal Mekel and his former national team teammate and current Washington Wizard forward Deni Avdija, among others.
The 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania senior from Jerusalem, who’s spent the last two seasons playing for Steve Donahue’s Quakers, said his hoops career may be well nearing its end.
“This is my senior year, my last year here, and the way I feel right now, it’s probably the last year I play basketball,” said the 6-foot, 7-inch Moshkovitz, who started 16 games last season, averaging 5.1 points and 4.7 rebounds but has seen his playing time greatly diminished this year. “I feel like I want to focus on something else. For now, I want to stay here (in the U.S.), get a job and some experience. I’m considering New York and the West Coast. San Francisco might be a good place.”
Not that he has any complaints about Philadelphia, other than he hasn’t gotten out to as many places as he’d like, including the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. But considering the road that got him here — being “recruited” out of Kankakee (Illinois) Junior College via Zoom amid the pandemic — the soft-spoken “Mosh” as his teammates call him, has enjoyed the experience.
That’s because it would’ve been easy to simply give up and stay home.
“The biggest reason why Israelis don’t go to schools in the U.S. is because you have to do your army service first,” explained Moshkovitz, who’s averaging just 1.9 points and 2.2 rebounds for the Quakers. “I was in for two years, eight months which is required time for males. I was in a special program for athletes because I played ball. I was a weight room instructor on a base in Jerusalem, right near my house.”
He completed his service in April 2019, too late to apply to Division I schools.
“I had a friend who I used to play with who went to community college at Kankakee,” Moshkovitz said.” “I played one year there and lived with my friend and another Israeli. That was my first time in the U.S. Kankakee was such a different place. Everything was different — the people, the food, the stores. I had a really tough time, and I don’t think I met a single Jewish person.”
During the season, Moshkovitz started considering Division I schools, emphasizing some in the Ivy League. He was leaning toward Columbia University when the pandemic hit, at which point school was canceled and he headed home.
“There was a complete lockdown in Israel,” said Michael (pronounced Mik-hail) — who once met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Cheltenham High School grad, after his Israeli Youth team won gold at the 2017 European Championships. “You couldn’t leave your house for more than a 100-meter radius. I don’t think I touched a basketball for a month. I tried talking to schools, but it got much harder because of the time difference. At one point, I gave up on the idea and signed up for Hebrew University.
“But then I talked with my mom (Ayelet), and we decided to give it one last try. I texted the head coach at Columbia. He never replied. She emailed the assistant at Penn, Coach (Nat) Graham. He replied and said, ‘We’d like to have a Zoom call with you.’ That was the first time I spoke with Coach Donahue.”
Donahue told Moshkovitz that he’d seen tapes of all his games and wanted him to come to Penn. But when the Ivies canceled all sports in 2020, he remained home, taking classes virtually. Not until well into 2021 did Moshkovitz finally arrive.
The transition was difficult.
“Last year was my first year playing, and it started pretty rough,” said Moshkovitz, the second oldest among two brothers and a sister. “It took me a while to adjust, I think, because of the combination of being rusty and the difference in the game from community college.
“The second half was much, much better. I gained some confidence and, because of some injuries, I had to start. I think with our offense my game fits that position. What I do best is pass. I can rebound, play good defense and score when we need it.”
Yet Moshkovitz has come off the bench this season, though Donahue insists he hasn’t lost confidence in him.
“I think the role for him has changed — sometimes from game-to-game,” said Donahue, who played Moshkovitz a season-low two minutes in the Dec. 10 77-57 win over Temple.
“The thing about Michael is he’s so versatile.
“He can play against bigger guys, yet can guard quicker, smaller guys. He was the No. 1 assist-turnover ratio guy in the Ivies last year. He can really pass. He’s very smart, has a high IQ and is a tough defender who does all the little things.”
He’s also someone who won’t question his coach’s decisions.
“I don’t think starting or not is the most important thing,” said Moshkovitz, who’s majoring in cognitive science and computer science and wants to be a computer engineer. “I feel my thing with the team now is to help whenever I can. I respect every decision and if it means playing less I’ll do my best when I get the chance.”
As for being a student on campus with a large Jewish community, that was unexpected.
“I was surprised to find out how big the Jewish community was at Penn,” said Mosh, who attends Hillel meetings and goes to Shabbat services when his schedule permits. “I’ve made some good friends, which is nice. Having this Jewish community here is amazing. I can talk about things related to my life in Israel and people understand.”
Jon Marks is a freelance writer.