Basketball in Israel: Storm players soak it up

The memories are of rippling sapphire waters, framed by sandy beaches scented with smells of seafood, spices and the Mediterranean Sea. Sounds of laughter and locals playing "matcot," a Middle Eastern version of table tennis without the table, are background noises while playing beach volleyball in the warm sun.

A Caribbean paradise is conveyed when Storm center Simone Edwards describes her offseason basketball home. A different image than what most Americans picture as Israel.

Ask about her experience overseas and Edwards, 28, rattles on about family, food and basketball. You have to interrupt Edwards, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, to ask about the suicide bombings.

Edwards arrived in Ramat Gan, Israel, five days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America's East Coast. Her mother and best friend, Beryl, moved from Jamaica to the Bronx in the 1990s. But the thought of returning to New York hardly crossed Edwards' mind.

Along with Israeli teammate Vickie Johnson, a New York Liberty guard, Edwards stayed.

In a way, Edwards relates to the Israelis. She was raised in the overcrowded ghettos of Kingston with her older brothers. Wearing shoes so old her feet were exposed to the unpaved roads, Edwards would walk to the dump to find weathered library books. In election years, dead bodies were sometimes near the pile of books and midnight gunshots often woke her.

Unlike Americans, Edwards and Israelis could imagine the kind of terror that struck Sept. 11.

"I'm more scared of being in New York than being in Israel," Edwards said. "After the attacks, you could either stay or you could go. Vickie and I said we were going to stay to the end no matter the situation."

Headlines about Palestinian suicide bombers blowing themselves up in restaurants and shopping malls increased as Edwards played for Maccabi Ramat-Chen.

Yet even as the violence escalated, Edwards felt secure because of the area's preparedness for attacks. And she wasn't alone. As the Storm prepares for its season opener Thursday against the Liberty, three players in the projected starting lineup have ties to the war-torn country.

Guard Semeka Randall and forward Adia Barnes played against Edwards in Israel. Assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg scouted the Israeli league for a few weeks. Former Storm center Quacy Barnes, forward Stacey Lovelace and free agent Beth Record also played.

Although at least 45 minutes from the West Bank, Edwards was barely 10 minutes from multiple suicide bombings around Tel Aviv. She's a regular at The Seafood Market after games — a restaurant and after-hours disco that was bombed in March. For some reason, she just happened to cook at home that night.

Kloppenburg also ate at the establishment two weeks before the attack in March.

"I couldn't believe it when I heard," said Kloppenburg, who returned in April. "I was just there."

Randall, making her first real trip out of the country, was in Ramla, an east suburb of Tel Aviv. She also arrived before Sept. 11 and played through April.

"My mom forbid it, my going," said Randall, 23, who played point guard. "I'd call and hope for the voice mail because I didn't want to talk to her, she was so upset. But I had a contract and I didn't want to break it.

"I had to grow up quick. I learned how to cook. Mostly fried chicken, traditional plates. I had to pluck the chicken that they beheaded at the market and really fry it to make sure it was cooked. I went out to clubs when I first got there and felt safe. When I went home for Thanksgiving and my mom saw I was still alive, she began to feel better about it."

There isn't a rookie orientation in Israel, such as there is in the WNBA. Players figure out what to do and not do through talking to each other.

Riding buses, being in crowded places and partying at the hot spots aren't suggested, to ensure safety. And the sight of armed civilian volunteers, some just teenagers guarding supermarkets while seriously armed police patrol the streets, takes some adjusting to.

American players usually choose to stay indoors. Randall brought 80 DVDs to pass the time. Edwards skipped around between three different families, always at meal time, savoring the native dishes. Adia Barnes surfed the Internet.

But the terror doesn't shake natives. Even as the attacks increased during Passover, a religious period.

"It's almost a siege mentality," Kloppenburg said. "They accept it. They get revenge and then they move on because they're so used to it. They've been living with terrorism their whole lives, but there's a warmth in their eyes."

Israelis throw parties, relax at coffee shops and love their women's basketball.

They especially love Edwards. A 6-foot-4 post, she has played for four different teams since finishing her career at Iowa in 1997. In Israel, Edwards is profiled in five-page Hebrew newspaper articles with Johnson. She is in TV commercials for a Jewish holiday resembling Halloween, dressed as a character named "Drippin' Chocolate." Children follow her on the street or just stare — noticeably in awe of her height, black skin and long braids.

"She's bigger than Michael Jordan over there," Randall said. "She owned Israel. I've never seen Simone play with that kind of confidence before."

At the games, in intimate gyms, fans chant "See-Mone Ed-Wards" until their voices are sore. Edwards, who won a championship with Elizur Ramla in 1997, acts as a savior of basketball, choosing to play with the underdog team and raising them to national status. Last season she averaged 21.4 points and 11 rebounds in five games during the playoffs with the sleeper Maccabi Ramat-Chen.

"If we would have won, they would have made a documentary about it," she said.

Storm Coach Lin Dunn would like to see the same inside dominance from Edwards in Seattle. Entering her third season, Edwards averaged 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds while starting 27 games for the Storm last season.

Edwards again is pegged as a starter primarily because of her defense, rebounding and speed running the court.

"We just need her (Simone) to stick to what she does best," Dunn said. "And that complements everybody else."

A standout track athlete, Edwards didn't learn to play basketball until prompted by Jamaican national team assistant coach Keith Daley her senior year of high school. Although shy to play because kids called her "clumsy," Edwards got serious about the game when then-Oklahoma coach Guy Hudson said she could earn a college scholarship.

"I knew my mom couldn't afford to send me to college in Jamaica, so I got real serious," Edwards said. "But I was so awful. I could jump out of the sky, but had no coordination."

Edwards played at Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma, where she was a two-time All-American, averaging 22.3 points and 10.5 rebounds.

She then went to Iowa. But back-to-back knee injuries prevented Edwards from reaching her full potential in college, so she traveled to Israel to improve her game. The people, whom she calls "Kapara," a Hebrew word meaning good soul, keep pulling her back.

"Stay safe for me," Edwards wrote in a good-bye diary on her Web site. "Don't let the situation with the terrorists get you down. I am with you no matter where I am."

Jayda Evans can be reached at 206-464-2067 or