BY LEAH LEVY / AJT //
LaVon Mercer, an American-Israeli basketball star, recently visited the Greenfield Hebrew Academy. Mercer played for several teams in Israel – including the Israeli national team – but, as he told the students at GHA, he started out right here in Georgia.
“I could have turned out a hundred different ways,” Mercer said.
He described his childhood in Metter, Ga., where he lived with his grandparents and worked to support them. After their deaths, he found himself homeless at the age of 16; but in high school, he found a mentor in Len West, his basketball coach.
With hard work and a willingness to learn, Mercer found himself poised for basketball stardom – he played for the University of Georgia and was eventually drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. Then his life took another unexpected turn.
“They sent me to play in Europe for a while, first in Italy and then in Israel. I thought I knew something about Israel, because my grandfather was a Baptist minister,” he said. “But my first trip to Israel was horrible! The flight was almost empty – I got a whole row to myself to stretch out in – but when I landed, I discovered that was because it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. And there was no food anywhere!”
Fortunately for Israel and Mercer, he soon settled in and found himself falling in love with his new home. Israelis, meanwhile, fell in love with him.
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In time, Mercer found that he preferred playing basketball overseas; it was much less restrictive and more challenging.
“A lot of NBA players would have a hard time playing in Europe,” he said. “A lot of things you call a foul for in the NBA are just part of basketball in Europe!”
Mercer explained to students that he got to travel all over the world, whereas NBA players often only see the U.S. He showed the students his first American and Israeli passports, both covered in stamps from across Europe.
While playing in the Israeli Super League, Mercer played for Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv as well as on Israel’s national team. Over time, his “temporary” assignment to Israel became a permanent career.
“I was the first African-American to play for the Israeli national team,” Mercer told the students. “At first, it was difficult to grasp that I was accepted, but then I realized that they did accept me. I loved it.
“We were seventh in the world championship games, the highest position for Israel. I played against guys who had played in the NBA.”
He became an Israeli citizen and served for two years in the IDF, but after 14 years, the necessity of being more available to aging family members has brought him back to Atlanta. He still returns to visit Israel as often as he can.
While visiting with students, Mercer took part in a lively discussion of who might be the best player in the NBA (“Kobe Bryant, because basketball isn’t just played from the neck down”) and revealed that he knew Kobe as a child, when his father played in Europe with him.
Mercer told the students to always be willing to learn from others, but to remain true to themselves.
“Don’t ever stop being who you are,” he said.
After school, Mercer ran a basketball clinic for GHA middle school students who had accumulated more than 500 “Zamzee” points during the previous weeks as part of the school’s fitness campaign. He coached the students as they ran around the gym, moving constantly, showing teachers and students how to hold the ball and improve their technique.
“Sports are so important, because they teach us to compete,” Mercer said. “Sports teach you to fall on your face and get up and figure out a way to keep going.”
These days, Mercer is retired from basketball but still travels all over to share his experiences and stand up for Israel, especially for audiences who know little about it.
“Things happen in life, and you think they’re by chance,” he says. “But they’re really blessings.”