Every Saturday, as the afternoon begins to draw to an end, some of the University of Toledo women's basketball players prepare to make a phone call.
When the sun finally sets, they dial their teammate, Naama Shafir. "Naama, it's time to come out and play!" they sing to her.
The Rockets have learned a lot about their freshman point guard, Shafir, in the last four months. Always be ready when she has the ball because there's likely a flashy pass coming your way. Anyone can learn English in a matter of weeks. Please give her time to herself during the Sabbath.
She's giving our team a lesson in observing differences and respecting them Shafir, a native of Hoshaya, Israel, is UT's leading scorer with 12.7 points per game. She's also believed to be the first female Orthodox Jew to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship. Tamir Goodman, who played men's basketball at Towson from 2000-2001, is the only other known Orthodox scholarship athlete to play in the U.S. UT coach Tricia Cullop and her staff have helped make sure Shafir can balance playing college basketball, being a student and practicing her religion, a strict interpretation of Judaism. With both sides making sacrifices, the pairing has worked out well. The first week of the season, Shafir was named the Mid-American Conference West division player of the week.
"She's giving our team a lesson in culture, observing differences and respecting them," Cullop said.
Shafir and Cullop, the Rockets' first-year coach, took flyers on each other last summer. Cullop needed a point guard late in the recruiting process and had successfully found players from overseas, including Israel, in the past. After starring on her club team and Israel's under-18 national team the last few years, Shafir wanted to take her game to the United States.
Cullop watched a DVD of a few of Shafir's games sent to her by a friend who had tipped her off to talented international players in the past. She offered a scholarship to Shafir.
That was the first sign of our team coming together "I was really impressed with what I saw," Cullop said. "You could tell she just had unbelievable instincts. She had incredible court vision. A lot of parts of her game were beyond what I thought a normal freshman would have."
From the beginning, the Rockets wanted to be as accommodating as possible. The 5-foot-7 Shafir had already had discussions with schools in the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference, but a coaching change at one and unwillingness to agree to her requests at the other took them out of play for her.
"She is very devout in her religion, as she should be," Cullop said. "It was very important to her that she found a place where she could still practice her religion and play basketball. Until she found that, she wasn't coming."
Among Shafir's requirements: she needed to eat a kosher diet, wear a T-shirt under her jersey, couldn't practice from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and couldn't ride in a motorized vehicle during that time frame. Cullop thought, "We're going to have to get creative," but the offer remained on the table.
Shafir became convinced to come to Toledo after talking with one of Cullop's former players at Evansville, Israeli Tal Milchan.
"She said, 'You have to go there, that was my coach and she's amazing,'" Shafir said. "She said only good stuff about her. That helped."
The UT coaching staff had several discussions with Shafir's family through Rabbi Yossi Shemtov of Chabad House-Lubavitch to work out the details.
"They asked for my help in presenting Toledo as a nice place for her to live," Rabbi Shemtov said. "We worked out a plan. She was very touched by the true genuine effort on behalf of the university to make her life easier."
Next it was time to set up Shafir's life in America. She traveled with her father, Ytzik, to Toledo a week after school started. He found a place in Detroit to prepare and freeze kosher meals for her, and she stocked the meals away in her residence hall floor freezer. A family friend living in Cleveland invited her to spend the Jewish holidays there.
Shafir became eligible to practice with the Rockets after she paid for her high school transcript to be translated from Hebrew, including an explanation to the NCAA of what her grades represented.
Finally, in November it was time to play. Shafir and her team survived the first bump in the road.
The Rockets toted a cooler of kosher food to Hawaii with them for a season-opening tournament. At their pre-game meal before facing Arizona, Shafir asked the restaurant to heat up her dish. Management said their health code said they could warm it for her, but she couldn't eat it in the restaurant. Cullop, followed by the players, took their plates into a lobby and ate there, shouting the Hebrew word for "team" as they exited.
Photographs by Lori King for The Blade
"That was the first sign of our team coming together," Cullop said. "I really was impressed with how much they wanted to be near her."
Shafir left Hawaii with the tournament's most valuable player award, averaging 19.7 points in the three games including 33 points against Loyola Marymount. Her early success surprised her after everything she had gone through in the first few months.
"Everyone knows what they can do, but I didn't think the first season I could play like I really know," she said.
Shafir's game is built on quickness and unselfishness. She gets a lot of her points on drives to the basket, but her jump shot is coming along. She leads the team with 4.1 assists and grabs 1.7 steals per game heading into yesterday's contest against Northern Illinois.
Any UT Saturday practices are pushed back to the evening. When the team travels Friday for a Saturday game, they arrive before sundown and she stays with a teammate at a hotel within walking distance.
Everybody helps... they have made it easier for me Shafir's teammates often ask questions and seek more knowledge of her religion. Her English has improved drastically in the time she has been here, so she's become better able to explain her way of life. Her work ethic and devotion have quickly earned the respect of the other players.
"The things she goes through here, her language barrier, that shows she's a very strong person," sophomore Jessica Williams said. "We do so much to try to make her feel comfortable."
Rabbi Shemtov said the local Jewish community is "very much" excited about Shafir's presence on the team.
"I think it's a very good thing for our kids to see someone who was able to have success in life and yet has her values," Rabbi Shemtov said. "She's not ready to give up on her values and she shows that actually you don't have to. It's a beautiful message on both ends."
Shafir, who turns 19 next month, isn't quite ready to be a role model.
"Everybody helps me. They have made it easier for me," she said. "I'm just playing."
For one day a week, Shafir puts away her cell phone, computer and basketball to adhere to her religious beliefs. Williams and her teammates are there to greet her when the Sabbath concludes, whether it's to practice, go bowling or attend a men's basketball game.
Cullop is quick to say "she's only a freshman" when discussing Shafir's talents, and can't wait to see how much she can improve. She's been happy to help Shafir bring her culture to Toledo.
"It would be easy for her to say, I'm away from home, I'll eat whatever, I'll practice over Shabbat," Cullop said. "It's to be admired that she said, 'this is what I want to do.' My team admires what she's doing. She's a great example of someone who is sticking to their guns and doing what they believe."
Reprinted with permission of The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, Jan. 11, 2009.