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These imports are hot items

By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online. By Bob Ryan

LOWELL- It has been, says Ken Barer, a "good fit," a good fit for him, a good fit for the school, and a very good fit for Elad Inbar and Uri Grunwald, a pair of Israeli-born players who have flourished for four seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

With these two as reliable on- and off-court anchors, the 20-5 River Hawks are angling for their fourth consecutive trip to the Division 2 NCAA Tournament. That would include a trip to the Final Eight last year. Head coach Barer has been the happy beneficiary of their talents for the past three of those four seasons. And as the team prepared for a very big Northeast-10 game against Bryant this afternoon, the mentor paused to reflect on just what these two have meant to him and the UMass-Lowell program.

"Obviously, they bring skills," says Barer. "But what they also bring is a certain poise that can only come from their experience, not only as players, but as people."

Simply put, as Israelis they have lived a life that the average American youth could never comprehend -- at least not till 9/11. As Americanized as they are, no Israeli expatriate is ever divorced from the reality of his country's domestic events.

"When an American kid hears about another suicide bombing in Haifa, he'll say, `How about that,' " says Barer. "When Uri hears about it, he's phoning home to see if everyone in his family is safe."

But these two did not come here just to be sounding boards for the Israeli experience. They came here as athletes, specifically student-athletes. There is no such thing anywhere else in the world (aside from a limited Canadian concept). Elsewhere, an aspiring adolescent athlete goes to school, and then when that part of the day is over, you go to a club. You may even skip the school part.

"That's half the reason we came here," declares Grunwald, a 6-foot-3-inch shooting guard. "We are able to combine school and basketball."

Grunwald is a fine Division 2 guard with legitimate aspirations to play professional basketball somewhere in the world when he leaves Lowell with his degree in management information systems. He has excellent speed -- Barer says that harnessing his quickness was perhaps his biggest challenge -- and he has 3-point range. To say that he is a smart player is to state the obvious.

But Inbar operates at another level. By the time his career is over, a strong case can be made that he is as good a player as the school has ever had.

Inbar is a slender, smooth 6-7 forward who has scored in double figures 46 consecutive times and who poses a complex defensive threat for opponents. He was a third-team NABC Division 2 All-American last year and was a Street & Smith's preseason first-team selection this season. He has already scored more points (1,913) than any Israeli has ever scored in American collegiate ball. Inbar is on the NBA talent scout radar screen, and is a mortal lock to be playing at a good European level next season.

"His game is controlled, poised, and understated," says Barer, whose own interesting resume includes a standout career at George Washington, five years of professional basketball in France, and extensive work with Native American youth in both New Mexico and Montana. "He is not going to wow you with `stuff,' unless you understand the nuances of the game. He is not going to outmuscle you or outrun you, but he conceptualizes the game and makes it easy. That is spectacular to me, if that makes any sense."

Oh, it makes sense, all right, as anyone watching his Wednesday night dissection of AIC inside Lowell's Costello Gym would attest. Before the game was 12 minutes old, Inbar had twice successfully posted up with immediate catch-and-shoot 12-foot turnarounds; converted a 3-point transition drive on a give-and-go from Grunwald; scored on a slashing left-to-right drive after a clever up-fake; made another fast-break layup; and swished a pullup transition 3-pointer. The Yellow Jackets really had no answer for him.

The folks at Lowell love to recount how one rival had likened Inbar to a "Division 2 Larry Bird," but that might be a reach. What might not be such a stretch, however, is calling him a "Division 2 Bobby Jones." Inbar has the same basic range of offensive skills, quiet efficiency, and essential modesty. It would, of course, require a substantial upgrade in his defensive game before that comparison could be made, but the same would be true of any young player being mentioned in the same breath as the former North Carolina/Nuggets/76ers great.

So how did the River Hawks get so lucky? Why, of all the gym joints in all the world, did these two wind up in theirs?

The story began several years and one UMass-Lowell mentor ago when coach Gary Manchel was put into contact with an Israeli player named Eyal Leib. According to Inbar, Leib was following his wife over to America. Too old for Division 1, Leib landed in Lowell, where the Division 2 eligibility rules are a bit different. The Israel-Lowell connection thus established, Inbar and Grunwald included the River Hawks on the list of schools to which they sent tapes. In the meantime, the River Hawks landed another Israeli, this one an intriguing chap named Shahar Nachmias, a rugged character straight out of the Israeli Special Forces. And there is yet another Israeli on the current roster, that being burly senior Matan Siman Tov, who made his season debut against AIC after losing (gulp) 60 needed pounds.

Whatever adjustments Grunwald and Inbar were required to make have been of the basketball variety. "Living here has been no problem at all," Grunwald says. "Our basic life here isn't any different than it would be in Israel."

The truth is they might as well be from California or New Jersey. The Internet has made the world a very compact place. They are as in touch with their old friends and families as if they were living in the next town.

`We keep in constant touch," says Inbar.

Lest anyone think that Inbar and Grunwald hampered their chances of playing professionally by choosing a D-2 school, Barer says that just isn't so. "They're much better off with us than sitting the bench at a Division 1 school," Barer insists. "I know how it operates over there. They prefer experienced players who have had extensive game experience."

You can't get much more experience than being a four-year starter, a circumstance that has just about disappeared from Division 1 ball. But Elad Inbar and Uri Grunwald have been River Hawk rocks for the last 118 games with, ideally, a good eight or 10 remaining. The idea of a 2004-05 season without them is depressing.

So, yes, put Ken Barer down as being in favor of human cloning, at least for Israeli basketball players.