Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle introduces Gal Mekel and his colorful shirt (Glenn James/ Getty).
Way back near the beginning of free agency, before the course of the NBA changed forever (i.e. about four weeks ago), the Dallas Mavericks agreed to terms with 25-year-old Israeli point guard Gal Mekel on a three-year contract. With the Mavericks also having added Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, and rookie Shane Larkin, the backcourt picture now looks somewhat crowded. Mekel, a star for Maccabi Haifa and the reigning MVP of the Israeli Super League, will have to fight for whatever playing time he can get.
To this end, the Mavericks have suggested that Mekel attend their preliminary training camp in September. Unfortunately, that would keep Mekel out of the European Championships, where he would play a major role for the Israeli national team. Arik Shivek, the head coach of that team, is not very happy about it. From Allon Sinai for The Jerusalem Post:
Mekel notified Shivek on Sunday that he has decided not to play for the blue-and-white in the European Championships in order to focus on his preparations for his rookie season in the NBA with the Mavs. [...]
“Mekel told me that he was put in a room with General Manager Donnie Nelson and all the coaches and they told him that as a rookie he would have a better chance of playing more minutes at the start of the season if he takes part in the preliminary training camp as well as the final camp,” Shivek said.
“I was very surprised and so was Gal. Mekel then put Donnie Nelson on the phone, who I know from his time in Europe, and I told him what I thought of what they are doing to Gal. I think they are not being fair and are putting him in an impossible situation.” [...]
Despite Shivek’s claims, Mekel took full responsibility for his decision not to play for Israel this summer.
“I understood that in order to have a good rookie season I need to get to Dallas early and work according to the team’s program,” Mekel said. “I really love the national team, but I came to the conclusion that if I want to remain an NBA player for many years, then my rookie season is very important.
Shivek paints this situation as a surprise to everyone, but the Mavericks are simply expressing the reality of NBA competition. Dallas has several established veterans in its backcourt already, and Mekel will need to show his abilities as soon as possible to work his way into the team's rotation. His comments suggest that he knew staying out of international play was likely when he signed. For that matter, Sinai's story also includes a quote from countryman Omri Casspi, who made the same choice as a rookie in 2009 and has apparently spoken with Mekel about the demands of NBA play at length. If Shivek finds Mekel's choice distasteful, it's probably because he desperately wants the services of one of his best players for a major international tournament.
The major issue here is a familiar one: international stars who enter the NBA are often faced with the dilemma of choosing between club and country. Despite the fact that these players represent their countries' basketball identities around the world, the demands of the NBA in many ways keep them from playing for their national teams. It's a bizarre situation in which serving as the symbol of a nation's growing basketball culture requires not suiting up for that same nation, simply because the NBA means more to the individual and his brand. This quandary is perhaps especially true for members of the Mavericks, because owner Mark Cuban has made no secret of his desire to keep his team's players from getting injured in tournaments that brings him little direct profit.
We're at a point in the relationship between the NBA and national teams at which any player who decides to make the jump to the world's best league knows that he may have to sacrifice extracurricular activities to succeed. Oddly, it's possible that national team participation will eventually become something more like a privilege. As players prove their worth to the organization, they earn more trust and can play in non-NBA tournaments without putting their playing time in jeopardy. If Mekel proves himself essential to the Mavericks, they may have no choice but to let him play for the national team, should that be his preference.
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