Peace Gives Cal's Tamir a Chance

From Associated Press

Amit Tamir badly needed a haircut, so he asked his coach's advice about the best place to go.

Ben Braun sent the 6-foot-11 center from Israel to his longtime hairstylist, and Tamir surprisingly returned with streaks of blond highlights.

"He looked at me and smiled," the California men's basketball coach recalled. "I said, 'Oh, boy.' He comes back with Berkeley hair lights and streaks. So, he's really adapted well."

Tamir has found peace amid the rolling hills and tall trees on Cal's cozy campus. It's a different, laid-back world from his troubled homeland, where he served the required three years in the Israeli army but never lost his dream of playing big-time basketball.

Braun began tracking Tamir when he was a pudgy 16-year-old player with no discernible talent. Now the center is a budding star for the Golden Bears, and has aspirations of becoming the first Israeli to make it in the NBA.

Braun never would have believed it several years ago.

"He was a big, heavy kid, kind of pudgy, but he did have something about him at his age and you could tell that he had some potential," Braun said. "He was just kind of a big kid who I didn't think of as being a future college player at the time. I managed to track him over the years and he kept getting better and better."

Tamir's journey hasn't been easy.

He has lost friends in suicide bombings back home. One former classmate died last year during Tamir's freshman season at Cal.

Tamir was never in the middle of the terrorism and fighting, but said one can never really get away from it while living in Israel. Because he's an athlete, the army gave him an office job in communications so he could also play basketball.

"Everywhere in Israel, you get violence, close to everyone," he said. "Usually life was pretty calm and normal, but at times there are some bumps on the way that hurt the harmony."

Tamir's teammates admire how he gives no indication that he's overly concerned with the problems back home.

"There were other people I knew of that died, but this is part of the life," said Tamir, who was raised in Jerusalem. "I don't think I've been through a traumatic life. All Israelis are trying to think about it as a situation they have to live through, and move on with their life. If they let it affect their regular life, the terrorists will achieve their goal."

Tamir had been at Cal only a short time when he delivered a moving message to the Bears about not living in fear. It was just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"He's definitely been through a lot more than most of us," said teammate and roommate Erik Bond. "I know he's known some people that he's lost. I know it's a completely different lifestyle over there.

"His mom usually calls every day or every other day, and if Amit's not there, she just says, 'Tell Amit everything's OK.' "

Tamir is not the first Israeli to play for Cal. Shahar Gordon played two seasons for the Bears before returning home to fulfill his military commitment.

Braun established a connection in Israel in 1989 when he was coach at Eastern Michigan. He served as the U.S. coach in the Maccabiah Games, often referred to as the Jewish Olympics.

Braun brought a player from Israel to Eastern Michigan, and that player helped monitor Tamir's progress.

It's easy to follow his success now. Tamir entered a weekend road trip to Washington and Washington State as Cal's second-leading scorer at 16.8 points per game. He also was averaging a team-best 6.7 rebounds for a team that has been in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.

Tamir scored 26 points in a win at Washington on Thursday night. That followed another big performance a week earlier. He had 25 points in an 88-72 upset of then-No. 12 Oregon, an effort that helped the Bears receive significant votes for a top-25 ranking. They could be in the poll soon.

Tamir is averaging 27.7 points in his last three games against the Ducks -- including 39 in Cal's 107-103 double-overtime victory last season.

"Maybe it's just coincidence," he said. "Maybe I'm more focused against them because they're a good team."

Tamir visited three colleges on recruiting trips, and Cal was the first. It seemed to be the best fit right away.

It's rare that Braun notices Tamir losing his focus, despite all the potential distractions.

Tamir is on mission to make it to the NBA, and that's his motivation.

"I don't think that's unrealistic at all," Braun said. "I'd be surprised if he didn't get there, and I think he may be disappointed if he doesn't."

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