On a wet, dreary morning in what has been a difficult season, the players and coaches at the Philadelphia 76ers got a break from the doldrums of practice with a surprise visit from Miss Israel on Wednesday.
Yityish "Titi" Aynaw, who is touring America as an Israeli ambassador, stopped in at the team’s practice facility at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bala Cynwyd to greet the players, pose for photos and even show off a few dribbling skills.
The Israeli beauty queen’s meteoric rise to fame last year, after becoming the first Ethiopian-born woman to win the Miss Israel beauty pageant, has become an inspirational story.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown said he hoped her visit could lift the spirits of his team members, who have endured a disappointing season.
“We’ve gone through some hard times and it was a good change of pace to have her here,” Brown said. “She was fantastic today, it was our pleasure to have her as our guest.”
The 22-year-old Aynaw made aliyah at the age of 12, after both of her parents died, leaving her alone with her brother.
She quickly adapted to Israeli culture, and she entered the Israeli military after high school, alongside her peers.
Upon her discharge from the army, where she had risen to the rank of lieutenant in the military police corps, she entered Israel’s national beauty pageant in 2013.
She became the first woman of African descent to win the competition, and she went on to represent Israel in the Miss Universe contest held in Moscow, where she lost in the semifinals amid great fanfare.
Her success story grabbed headlines as she rocketed to stardom, both nationally and internationally, which culminated in a meeting with one of her self-proclaimed heroes, U.S. President Barack Obama, while he was visiting Jerusalem last March.
Aynaw, who is currently a college student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, is now in the midst of a whirlwind ambassadorial trip around the United States that will include stops in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and San Diego.
“I’m here as a representative of Israel, the Ethiopian community and of the Jewish people,” she said on the sidelines of the Sixers’ practice.
As a huge basketball fan in Israel — she supports Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has done well on the European circuit— she expressed excitement about meeting players from an NBA team.
“It’s so cool,” she said. “I want to play.”
Though the Sixers were conducting a time-sensitive practice, that did not stop Aynaw from stealing a ball from a player and showing off a couple of dribbling moves that brought cheers from the team. She then paused to pose for a group photo. Standing close to 6 feet tall, she drew laughs with a quip about finally being the shortest person in a picture.
After practice ended, players said they had no idea that their coach had arranged for the Israeli beauty queen to visit.
“It’s something different; we were definitely surprised,” said Arnett Moultrie, a power forward in his second year with the Sixers. “It was a good experience to brighten up our day because we’ve been having a tough time.”
To view more photos and a video clip of the visit, click on the icon at the top right of the screen.