The basketball practice is intense, as the women of the Israeli professional basketball team, Elitzur Ramle, listen to the play their coach is explaining in his accented English. He counts down the clock as they pass the ball skillfully, setting up the team for a three-point shot.
"Three, two, one," he counts, and — swoosh — the ball goes through the net.
Alison Hinton, 22, a 5'9" forward from Richboro — and the newest addition to the championship-winning team — never lets her focus slip. Four years ago, as a star athlete at Council Rock High School North, Hinton never dreamed that she would someday become a professional athlete or, even more unlikely, an Israeli citizen. Today, she is both.
In September, the tall brunette, with wide green eyes, became a new immigrant and moved to her newly adopted hometown of Ramle in central Israel, where she now lives and plays for the country's most successful and best-known women's basketball team.
Hinton has been handling a basketball since she was 10 years old. She starred as a varsity record-breaking player at Council Rock, where she also stood out in varsity volleyball and soccer. "At the time, I knew I wanted to play ball in college, but it never crossed my mind that I could play professionally," she recalled during a recent interview after practice.
Or as her mother Joanne put it: "It's like the dream that she never knew she had suddenly became a reality. Playing professionally in Israel is an unexpected but wonderful opportunity for her."
Although her father isn't Jewish, the three Hinton children were raised as Jews. Alison became a Bat Mitzvah and grew up celebrating Jewish holidays. Mother and daughter both agree that the family is not very observant and, until now, did not have any particular attachment to Israel.
Early in her high school basketball career, Hinton was spotted and recruited by Boston University. A starting player in her freshman year, she won — and still holds — the B.U. Terriers record for the most games played in a college career by either a male or female athlete. She graduated from college last spring with a B.A. in psychology and a master's degree in education in sports psychology, earning both degrees within four years, with plans to pursue a career as a coach.
'Whole Coming Together'
But her short-term ambitions began to evolve in the summer of 2009, when she traveled to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah Games. Her mother, who accompanied her, said that Alison fell in love with the country. Her Jewish identity was solidified by the Maccabiah experience and "the whole coming together of all these Jews in one place," she said.
The younger Hinton agreed that participating in the games "really helped cement my connection to Israel." Moreover, during that trip, her exposure to the Israeli women's basketball scene made her aware for the first time that becoming a professional basketball player — and doing it in Israel — was "a viable option."
One of her classmates back at B.U. had a brother who was a professional basketball agent. When Hinton told him she was interested in playing in Israel, he made the connection to an agent there. High-level Jewish players are hot commodities because they can easily get citizenship, and therefore do not have to be counted among the professional teams' predetermined quota of foreign players, which the teams fill with professional-level players from Europe and the United States.
Several Israeli coaches looked at Hinton. One offer to join an Israeli team came her way early in the summer, and then later, a better offer came from Ramle.
The process of getting to Ramle in time for the 2010-11 season was a whirlwind. NCAA restrictions had forbidden her from exploring professional opportunities until April of her senior year, and since the offer from Ramle came late — in August — Hinton was only left with a small window of time to complete her citizenship process and relocate. Three weeks after receiving the offer, she was in Israel.
Elitzur Ramle women's basketball fans are famous throughout Israel for their enthusiasm — cheering, chanting and banging on drums at every game. Even their practice sessions draw an audience. This year, the team includes native Israeli players, two African-American players and two Serbians, as well as Hinton and one other American Jewish player.
Because Elitzur Ramle is Israel's reigning women's champion, besides playing against the other 11 teams in Israel, Hinton is part of the premier team that represents Israel in the European Cup. So far this season, she has already flown to Armenia and Russia to play overseas.
Faster and More Physical
As the youngest member of the team and the only rookie who has never played the game professionally, Hinton is still in the process of adjusting to a different level of play.
"The game here is much more physical and faster than in the United States. It's definitely different — the referees let you bang around more, people are stronger, and the 3-point line is further from the basket. It's an adjustment," she admitted.
Socially, the transition has been smoother. There is camaraderie among team members, even though some of them work or attend university, she said.
Shay Doron, arguably the best-known women's player in the country (Doron broke records at the University of Maryland and played a short stint in the WNBA) speaks of Hinton with clear admiration.
"Let me tell you that not a lot of people in this position could handle it in the way that Alison has," stated teammate Doron. "Coming straight from college at her age and level of experience onto a top-tier international team is not easy. But she is so great, and friendly and willing to pitch in and help on every level. She makes the team better."
The season is intensive: The team practices three to four times a week during its season, playing two games each week, including the international games.
"On a typical day, I sleep late, get up, walk around a bit and do my errands. We don't have practice until 5 or 6 in the evenings." That hasn't left her a lot of time for sightseeing yet. "I've gone to Tel Aviv a few times — I still haven't been to Jerusalem!"
Ramle's supporters may be passionate, but Hinton's biggest fans, of course, are back home in the United States.
Being so far from family is the most difficult part of her new career, acknowledged Hinton; she keeps her connection with them via regular online chats.
"Thank goodness for Skype," sighed her mother.
But Hinton said that playing in Israel is worth the sacrifice, and she plans to stay for as long as the team will have her. "Someday, I want to coach at the college level, so this is just a great experience playing with different people, seeing different styles. I'm learning a lot."
So, does she think of herself now as an Israeli and a basketball pro? "I do," she replied. "It definitely took a little while to think that way, and it still feels a little new and weird to me, but I do. I'm a professional athlete."
For her mother, her daughter's journey is about much more than basketball.
"The whole process of connecting to Israel and making aliyah was a great experience for her," said Joanne Hinton. "From my perspective, this time is not only about basketball as Alison's career. It is also about developing this connection to Israel and being Jewish.
"It is important for me as my children's Jewish parent to make sure that she and my other children understand that it is up to us to perpetuate our religion — in that sense, having Alison in Israel is a great thing for the whole family."
Team Puts Ramle on the Map
Dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, Yoel Lavi, the mayor of Ramle, stands out among a large group of middle-aged men watching a recent practice of the town's renowned professional basketball team.
Lavi proudly proclaims himself the team's No. 1 fan. As he explains the team's evolution, it's clear he has good reason to cheer.
An avid sports fan, Lavi knew little about the local women's team when he was first elected to lead the city 18 years ago. But the wife of his best friend was the president of the team and a devoted advocate.
"She first dragged me to the games. And as I watched them play, I understood the potential. My friends and I defined ourselves by our sports teams in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"It would have been impossible to match the top teams in men's basketball or soccer, but I quickly realized that a great women's team could help improve Ramle's image, put it on the map, and help the residents have a feeling of belonging and pride in their city," he said.
"We are a wonderful place," he continued, "but because of our mixed population of Arabs and Jews, and our many new immigrants, not everyone knows this."
Lavi made an unprecedented financial investment in the women's team, one that paid off — with six national championships under its belt, and its famously devoted fan base.
Was it a challenge to get the macho Israeli sports culture to support a women's team?
Lavi replies by waving his hand in dismissal.
"It was no problem — sports isn't about who plays, it's about the level of play. If you have a team that plays great and wins games and titles, they will be interested.
"Our women players are stars in our small town — people recognize them wherever they go — they feel great here. The foreign players who play for a few years and move on, keep their connection to Ramle when they go home."
"Every season," said the mayor, "we make tremendous efforts to find American Jewish players to bring to Israel."
He noted that they have scouts all over the United States keeping their eyes open for strong candidates: "It's something special to bring Jews to Israel to play on our team."