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Huffman Wrestles With Difficult Choice of Playing in Israel as Conflict Escalates in Middle East

April 07, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bomb went off in a coffee shop he occasionally walks past. The streets are mostly deserted at night. "Three years ago, everything was mellow," he says.

Three years ago, Tel Aviv seemed like a great deal.

The days were sunny and the people were nice. Nate Huffman figured he could play a few seasons of professional basketball in Israel, make some money, sharpen his game for another shot at the NBA. Everything went as planned, even better, for a while.

His team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, won a European championship and NBA scouts took notice of the 7-foot center. One more season, Huffman thought. Play one more season and head back home.

Then came a surge in terrorism and rumors of war. He drove through an intersection where, a few minutes later, there was an explosion.

"You have to deal with the suicide bombers," he says. "You don't know where to go."

Not that anyone should feel sorry for him. In the grand scheme of things, one scared American athlete doesn't stack up against millions of Israelis and Palestinians who live with violence each day. This is simply a tale of a small-town kid in a jam, a gym rat caught between the insular world of sports and the real world.

For now, Huffman, 27, is staying put. His wife and 8-year-old stepson are determined to remain by his side.

They are staying for reasons they can articulate and some they cannot. They are staying until Maccabi finishes its schedule.

"Two more months," Huffman says. "Knock on wood we get out of here alive."

If the name sounds vaguely familiar, that is because Huffman was a rookie free agent with the Clippers in 1997, what he calls "a long time ago" during a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. Undrafted out of Central Michigan, he was considered a raw talent.

"He's got to learn better techniques," former Clipper Coach Bill Fitch said then. "It's tough to make it the first time around in this league."

Cut three days before the season, Huffman wasn't about to give up on his dream, not with the NBA logo tattooed on his arm. The young man from Battle Creek, Mich., set out on a journeyman's path.

First came a season with the Idaho Stampede in the Continental Basketball Assn., then a season with a struggling Spanish team. Baloncesto Fuenlabrada unexpectedly made the playoffs that year and the big man in the middle was no longer unknown.

Maccabi, perennially the best team in Israel, signed him in 1999 to a roster that included several Americans. Averaging 17 points and eight rebounds, Huffman--who is not Jewish--became a team leader and celebrity in Tel Aviv. Kids wore replicas of his jersey and fans asked for autographs on the street. His wife, Jennifer, whom he had met in Idaho, fell in love with the seaside capital.

"The people were amazing," she recalls. "They welcomed us like family."

The team went deep into the playoffs that first season. Then, in 2000-01, with Huffman earning Europe's player-of-the-year award, Maccabi won the Suproleague championship, the first time an Israeli squad had taken a European title in two decades. "I never looked back," he says.

Who could blame him for ignoring the battles that raged to the north and south?

On the day of Maccabi's historic victory last year, the Israeli army carried out missile strikes on Palestinian security targets in the Gaza Strip. Yet the news in Israel featured 50,000 delirious basketball fans in Rabin Square and Huffman told himself Tel Aviv was safer than traditional hot spots such as Jerusalem.

The choice seemed easy when the San Antonio Spurs offered him the league minimum of $332,000 last summer and Maccabi countered with a reported $2 million. As fate would have it, the Israeli club tendered its offer on Sept. 9. Two days later, after terrorists attacked New York City and the Pentagon, Huffman's family begged him not to go back.

"I had to look at my future," he says. "They made me one of the highest-paid players in Europe."

Such is the appetite for basketball in Tel Aviv that people still tell stories about 1991 when, with the Persian Gulf War raging and Scud missiles landing on Israel, fans came to Yad Eliyahu Sport Palace wearing gas masks. And now that the city is a more frequent target for terrorists, the 10,000-seat arena is still packed for games against European opponents.

In much the same way, Huffman and his family have tried to live as normally as possible. He lifts weights each afternoon and practices in the evening. Sometimes they go to a restaurant or a movie, taking advantage of the fact that such places are less crowded.

"You almost forget," Jennifer says. "Then you go to a mall and they're doing a full search and pat-down just to get into the Gap."

Which raises the question: Why stay?

Money is a big part of the answer. Those Maccabi checks are being invested, building a nest egg for when basketball is over. After that, the reasoning gets tricky.

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