Jake Cohen, a former star forward for Davidson College’s basketball team, doesn’t hesitate when asked whether the last half-year has been exciting or disappointing.
“Definitely exciting,” said Cohen, a Berwyn native who was a two-time Southern Conference player of the year at his North Carolina school.
On Thursday, the 22-year-old heads to Israel to start his professional career with Maccabi Tel Aviv, a new chapter that he is eager to open.
But Cohen could be forgiven if he had answered the question about the last six months differently. After all, his life since March has been quite a roller coaster.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, Davidson, a No. 14 seed, was a trendy pick to be one of this year’s sleeper teams and to upset No. 3 seed Marquette University in their second round match-up. Davidson seemed poised to do just that. But a Marquette player with a name made for headlines, Vander Blue, drove past Cohen with one second remaining to finish off an incredible final minute rally. Marquette won 59-58.
“It was really hard to comprehend. The first instinct is to blame yourself and think about what you could have done differently, but with a little time you come to learn that’s how things go sometimes — however improbable it may seem,” said Cohen, who led the team with 20 points.
It also probably helped that Cohen didn’t have so much time to stew over the defeat. As soon as the tournament ended, he started training for NBA workouts leading up to the draft in June. He worked out for 10 teams, including two workouts for the Sixers, but went undrafted.
The 6-foot-10-inch forward said he went into the draft with low expectations. The Phoenix Suns had also told him they would sign him to their summer league team, so he said he wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t hear his name announced.
As an undrafted player from a small school, Cohen was a long shot to stick with the Suns, but he had already signed a contract with Maccabi before he started the summer league, meaning joblessness wasn’t on his mind.
And despite not yet achieving his goal of playing in the NBA, Cohen looks at the experience as a positive. He said the Suns treated him like an NBA player and during a four-day minicamp he was able to participate in “some of the most intense basketball” he had ever played.
“I was really playing with house money. If things went really well in Phoenix and I made the team, then that’s great. If not, I had an incredible opportunity with Maccabi,” Cohen said.
A member of Temple Sholom in Broomall growing up, Cohen is not stepping into wholly unfamiliar territory. He represented Israel at the under-20 European basketball championships in 2010 and spent five weeks in the Jewish state before the tournament.
He said he benefited from “playing a different style of basketball. It was definitely an adjustment from college.” The European brand of basketball, Cohen said, is officiated differently and in some ways more physical. Once acclimated, Cohen said he played well, and that was when Maccabi started scouting him.
He also had to adjust off the court.
“It was an eye-opening experience getting to live in a different country, on my own for most of it, and trying to learn a new language unsuccessfully,” said Cohen, who has gone through the process to become an Israeli citizen.
The tryout with the Suns did nothing to diminish Cohen’s lifelong dream of playing in the NBA. He hopes to try again in a few years.
For now though, he’s looking forward to playing with Maccabi on one of the top teams in Israel and the Euroleague, where he’ll face some of the best talent outside the NBA.
“My family is really happy for me because they know that playing professional basketball has always been a dream,” Cohen said. “My Jewish friends are more just jealous that I get live in Israel, but I tell them they have to make a pilgrimage and come visit me.”