In Israel, Jeremy Tyler's NBA dreams come back down to earth

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; D04

HAIFA, ISRAEL -- Jeremy Tyler displays his life in tattoos. The "S" and "D" on the 18-year-old's hands are his roots in San Diego, where he sacrificed a high school diploma for professional basketball. The dreamy Virgo design draping down the left shoulder of his 6-foot-11, 260-pound body, encompassing the names of relatives and a basketball, are his aspiration to support his family through his craft. There is a spot for his girlfriend's name, the initials of a recently deceased friend, and angel wings on his back -- still in progress at the body art shop in the Haifa Mall.

Yet unwritten: whether Tyler's decision to skip his senior year of high school for a contract with the Maccabi Haifa Heat in the Israeli Basketball League's top division will lead, as he hopes, to a high spot in the 2011 NBA draft, or prove a diversion that undermines the "can't-miss" career of a talent who has been scouted since middle school.

While others, like Brandon Jennings and Kevin Garnett, have skipped college and made the transition to the NBA, Tyler is the first to attempt the journey by leaving high school early -- effectively forcing him, under NBA rules, to spend two years elsewhere before he is eligible for the draft. It is an experiment being debated across an industry that alternately regards him as a young man taking control of his future, or as a pawn in a struggle to push players into the pros more quickly, sacrificing his intended college years at Louisville to perhaps earn an NBA salary that much sooner.

Halfway through his first season, the jury is very much out.

Tyler's statistics have been unimpressive. He is averaging 2.1 points and 7.6 minutes of playing time (per 40-minute game), and earned an ejection and one-game suspension early in the season for what the referees considered a head butt.

In high school, he averaged 28 points, and his coaches say he was such a dominant presence he had to do little more on defense than stay in the paint and block shots.

He got his first start for Maccabi in mid-January, but after three fouls in three minutes was benched until late in the game.

The road also has been rocky off the court and in practice. Tyler arrived, according to Maccabi officials and players, with an oversized chip on his shoulder, the cluelessness of a first-time traveler and an ego not justified by his performance or work ethic. From the complaints about the volume of his stereo on the solemn Yom Kippur holiday to the internal criticism by coaches and players who wondered what all the fuss was about, the would-be superstar is still working to fit into a system where other large men push back, coaches levy fines, and owners want to win.

"Based on the first half, I'd say Jeremy has everything in front of him to prove and help my team," said U.S. businessman and Haifa owner Jeffrey Rosen, when asked whether he planned to renew Tyler's $140,000 contract for a second year. "He is only halfway through and I don't judge them at midterms."

Tyler, affable in postgame and post-practice conversations, said he sees in retrospect what went wrong and is focused now on his reason for coming here in the first place -- learning to compete against other pros.

"I had to learn that I wasn't out here to murder everyone," he said, assuming that he would quickly become the focal point of the team, and frustrated at instead being a rookie who was expected to hustle through drills, play a dutiful role in the Israeli league's many old-school pick-and-roll plays, and earn his time on the court.

"My goal is to make it to the NBA, and I think it is just a matter of time, of sitting back and learning from the older guys," said Tyler, whose conversation is sprinkled with by-the-script references to not looking back or questioning his decision. Neither high school nor a year of college, he says, would have given him the experience he is getting now -- in managing his game, his life or his emotions.

"I wanted to become a man quicker," he said, a process that is arguably underway.

There was likely more than a bit of culture clash -- and a dose of homesickness -- that clouded Tyler's first months here, living alone in a spare apartment in this smallish coastal city.

He is being paid to play, coached by and competing with career professionals, but it is in municipal arenas of a couple of thousand seats, far from the glitz and glitter of pro sports in the United States or the urban pulse of San Diego. It is a league with its own peculiarities, from the high-school age cheerleaders to the soccer-style fans who keep up an incessant din with bass drums and plastic horns, waving flags and tearing off their shirts.

Under local rules, teams have to keep two Israelis on the court at all times, which has made the league disciplined and workmanlike, but "not a big man's league," said Ofer Shaleh, the basketball commentator for Israel's cable sports channel. There are many U.S. players in the league, but Tyler's arrival created a particular buzz: Haifa fans seem split among the younger ones enamored of his star persona, and the older ones accustomed to sending 18-year-olds off to military service and skeptical of anyone interrupting education for sports.

"The thing Tyler has had to cope with is that this is a pro team," Shaleh said. "The coach is a pro coach. It is not like college. . . . If you don't win you're out."

Maccabi is 9-4 so far this year under Coach Avi Ashkenazi, a no-nonsense league veteran who took the team to the finals last year and who, owner Rosen hopes, will build the Haifa franchise into a credible challenger to the perennial champions from Tel Aviv.

The first American owner in the Israeli league, Rosen acquired the Haifa team two years ago, bringing with him a larger strategy of building a presence for Israeli basketball in the United States. Rosen's company has the U.S. broadcast rights for the Israeli league, and has placed league games on regional channels in New York and Florida. He is negotiating with ESPN, negotiating possible NBA exhibition games in Israel and produces a documentary show about the Israeli league that has been placed on some cable networks. Early episodes have focused on Tyler.

Heading into the stretch run of the season, Ashkenazi is upbeat. He said Tyler returned from a recent holiday break with a new attitude -- committed to the coaches, the practices and the team -- that is likely to earn him more playing time.

In practice he pushes through agility drills, nudged by a steady "that's it Jeremy" from the trainer, and works both sides of the court even in casual practice games. He is quick off the bench to greet teammates during timeouts.

"He was like a balloon," Ashkenazi said, indicating with his hands a set of inflated expectations that needed to be brought down to earth.

"We had to humble him a bit," said Maccabi star Davon Jefferson, a former USC Trojan and also NBA-hopeful who has helped mentor Tyler.

This is not a place, in other words, where anyone treats a budding phenom with kid gloves. The referees call him close, the neighbors complain about his music and the team assistants don't hesitate to raise their voices.

"Jeremy," hollered one assistant coach, assigned to help Tyler get around without a driver's license, as the big man shot free throws and chatted with the press after a recent practice. "It's 10 o'clock. I want to go home."

"Jeremy," hollered another. "I'm turning the light out."

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