Half a World Away

Jan. 13, 2004

BERKELEY - Half a world away, three families celebrated the winter holiday - a time spent enjoying good food, laughter, song, gifts, and love - but there was an empty seat at each of the tables. In its place were thoughts and prayers for a son in America, living out a childhood dream.

During the time of holiday cheer, the one stretch of the year when seemingly the entire world takes a breather from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to enjoy the company of loved ones, the harsh reality of a life in athletics set in.

While games and practices are dormant during this period, those players whose families reside overseas are not so fortunate.

The money and hassle of traveling home for virtually a 24-hour stay leaves the foreign-born players opting to stay in the winter break, ghost town of Berkeley.

It's a reminder of the extra challenges faced and sacrifices made by Amit Tamir, Richard Midgley and Jordi Geli, as well as by their ever-supportive families.

Each player's story starts off similarly. From history-laden Jerusalem to the sleepy English town of Burgess Hill to the colorful medieval avenues of Girona, a little boy learned to play ball on the nearby park courts and fell in love with the American sport. Joining club leagues, these boys began to establish themselves as solid players in their countries - though at varying levels of speeds.

Midgley immediately tore up the offense-dominated courts of England, twice contributing 91-point performances as a teenager, winning 11 national age-group titles at the club, state and county school levels, and captaining the England Youth National Team.

With those in his age group choosing to pursue soccer over basketball, Geli played on a team with a cacophony of older players who quickly helped him develop his skills.

Tamir, in contrast, was a pudgy child who often found himself warming the bench.

'I wasn't a good player in the beginning,' he said. 'When I was around 14-years-old, I lost all that weight and started getting better, getting more confident. Then my work ethic got better, so I got better every year.'

Although each acquired the reputation of being good players and played on the best club and national teams in his respective country, there lingered a sense that the talent could be better applied in a country where basketball was characterized by Magic and Madness.

The paths taken to get there, however, were as different as could be.

Tamir caught the eye of head coach Ben Braun as a high school senior when the coach was in Israel for a series of basketball clinics. Recognizing his potential, Braun told Tamir to stay in contact.

Over the next 3 years, as Tamir honored his military commitment to his country, Braun occasionally received updates about Tamir's progress from one of his former players at Eastern Michigan and a fellow Israeli.

As soon as he finished his years of service, Tamir made visits to Cal, Northwestern and Ohio University, and ultimately decided to choose the school that put forth the most effort to get him.

Realizing their son clearly had potential, Kevin and Gill Midgley got in touch with a friend of Midgley's old coach and arranged for their youngest son to move to Modesto as a 15-year-old.

Picking up where he had left off in England, Midgley quickly made an impact on his team, leading Modesto Christian High School to a runner-up finish in the state tournament his junior year. Soon, the Englishman gave his verbal commitment to play at Cal.

Geli's whirlwind journey to Cal began with an unexpected phone call he received from assistant coach Joe Pasternack in August 2002 as he relaxed on the beach outside Girona with his friends. In two days time, Geli and his mom, dad and younger brother were all on a plane to San Francisco to check out where Geli might spend the next four years.

With each family member weighing in on the decision and giving their approval, Geli flew to Madrid as soon as he got back to Spain and amazingly managed to get a student visa in two short hours. The next day, he packed his bags, got on the plane and was dropped off in the middle of Sproul Hall with a map of his classes.

The journey to Cal foretells only a fraction of the story, as the transition to the States posed its own set of unique challenges for the foreign-born players.

For Tamir and Geli, thinking and communicating in a language not native to them topped the list of tasks to conquer.

Tamir felt comfortable with his English fluency in everyday conversation, but took a little longer in getting adjusted to using it in the classroom.

'Learning to think and write everything in English was hard,' Tamir said. 'Sometimes I would know the answer, but I would have to express myself in a language that was not my own.'

Geli, on the other hand, was nowhere near fluent when he arrived in Berkeley, and his teammates made sure to have a little bit of fun with their new Spanish teammate's struggles.

'They used to speak really fast so that I couldn't understand them,' Geli said.

Even Tamir took his turn at making life more difficult for Geli, continually making the same unmentionable quip that Geli couldn't even retort to as the six words blurred into a quick and unrecognizable phrase.

'It took me about two months to understand his comment before I could finally make a comeback!' Geli admitted.

Midgley didn't have to deal with the language barrier, but was faced with leaving behind his family and friends at a relatively young age.

'It was a little tough at first,' said Midgley, 'but it wasn't too bad because another player from England also came (to Modesto) with me.'

For the most part, Midgley didn't find being in Modesto much different from being in Burgess Hill - a small town of 27,000 south of London. The culture and language being pretty much the same, the only differences he noted were that the sports were taken more seriously and schoolwork was much easier.

Transitioning to American life as a precocious teenager and having spent much of his last four years in California playing basketball year-round, Midgley could almost be considered more American than English. His accent is possibly the only thing that betrays his English origin.

These days, Midgley even finds himself preferring life in America.

'I've probably got more friends over here so I like (America) better now,' he said, 'though I like England, too.'

While he misses his friends and family back in Burgess Hill, the Bears' starting guard never struggles with bouts of homesickness. Older brother, Daniel, closed the distance a smidgen by making the jump from England to Division II college basketball at Maine-Machias - albeit on the other side of the country - two years ago. Midgley speaks to his folks on a weekly basis, and his parents manage to visit once a year; in February, they'll be in Berkeley to watch the Arizona games.

Additionally, getting his annual dosage of England in the form of 10-day trips during the summer is more than enough.

'There's not too much to do in Burgess Hill,' Midgley added, with a smile.

Unique to Tamir's transition was coming to Berkeley as an introspective freshman whose 21 years in a country fraught with strife greatly outweighed the life experiences of his fresh-from-high-school, American classmates.

Although images of unrest currently dominate perceptions of life in Israel, Tamir recalled when it wasn't that way.

'When I grew up, it was more relaxed and at ease over there,' Tamir said. 'Any normal childhood is the same as an American childhood - with the same activities, school and all that.'

Though he is quick to point out one difference: 'I think over here you have end-of-the-year events and performances; we would probably think it's too corny.'

More than an absence of award assemblies and school dances, however, Tamir and his Israeli classmates dealt with ever-growing tension in their country by the time they finished high school - experiences that contributed to a certain level of perspective when the Cal center moved away from his family.

Rather than being overly concerned with the unpredictable acts of terrorism frequenting the headlines, Tamir's concerns for his family remain the same as when he was younger - quietly trusting in faith to keep them safe.

'In everything, you get the possibility that something (bad) might happen, even if it's not suicide bombing,' he said. 'You can worry that you want them to stay healthy. It's the regular worries that any person is going to have.'

His parents, in turn, are a little more at ease with their eldest son away from Jerusalem's perpetual dangers. Still, his mom manages to get on the phone the minute she hears of anything that happens in America, regardless of location. During Southern California's recent firestorm, Tamir had to put the distance in perspective.

'She asked if there were fires around here, and I told her to go from Jerusalem to the southern-most city in Israel, which is a six-hour difference,' he said. 'She responded, 'Six hours away? It looks so close on the map!''

This second year at Cal has surprisingly been more difficult for Geli than when he was a freshman with limited English skills.

'It's sort of like your first week at camp,' Geli said. 'At first it's exciting and you never want to go back home, but after a few days, after you've tasted everything, you want to leave.'

With the fun and excitement of being at a new school in a foreign country having turned into routine, Geli - who, as a 12-year-old, set his heart on living in America someday - now finds himself thinking more and more about the town and family he left back in Spain.

He speaks fondly of Girona, the perfect city in Catalonia just minutes from the beach and minutes from the mountains, which he claims has more movie theaters per person that anywhere else in the world.

He recounts such 'bad' experiences as playing in a freezer-like gym that was so ratty that the entire building shook when someone made a dunk.

Most notably, he contrasts family values in Spain, where everyone is close, to America's comparative lack thereof. He lights up when he describes his extended family - all who grew up within blocks of each other - and their weekly dinners at the family house in the forest.

And though he may struggle with missing everything and everyone in Girona, Geli is still thankful for the opportunity to attend Cal, not just for basketball, but also for the academics and for the open-mindedness it fosters.

'I'm glad I made the decision to come here,' Geli concluded. 'I'm not going back (to Spain) until the end of the four years. I'm going to stay here and get my degree, no matter what anyone says.'

Whether Geli, Midgley or Tamir return for good to their home countries remains to be seen.

'My aunt said that I was going to marry an American girl and stay here forever,' Geli said with a laugh.

Out of the three, Geli seems the likeliest to return back to his roots, as he envisions playing basketball professionally in Spain and possibly getting a jump start on a future in architecture by working with his dad. His biggest decision following his years at Cal will be whether to follow in the footsteps of either Pau Gasol or Gaudi, both Catalonian legends.

'When I get out of here, I'm just going to focus on either basketball or architecture,' he said. 'It's tough to combine both, and it's really frustrating right now because the degree is getting tougher, and I want to put more hours into basketball, but it's not possible.'

Midgley and Tamir, in contrast, have just one focus in mind: making it big in the NBA, and both seem poised to do so, as each has garnered his fair share of experience as a starter, as well as deserved media hype.

Already ordained 'King Richard' by ESPN, the sophomore 'with a Tony Blair accent and a Hugh Grant twinkle in his eye' has succeeded in making Midgley a household-name in the world of collegiate basketball with his March Madness, clutch heroics.

With the American public readily adopting English imports - Harry Potter, David Beckham and Orlando Bloom, among others - it may be ready to embrace a new basketball star who shoots threes with an ease, accuracy and grace that is unparalleled.

Similarly, Tamir has already been pinned as The One - He who would earn the distinction as the first Israeli to make it to the NBA.

Hailed by CBS Sports as the 'most versatile big man in the league,' Tamir has been racking up honor after honor during his tenure at Cal. This year alone, he has been named as one of 50 preseason candidates for the Wooden All-America team, one of 10 players on the 2003-04 Playboy All-American squad, and one of 30 preseason candidates for the 2003-04 Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award.

All this success may translate into the realization of his childhood dream, but will also mean an extension of his absence from his native home. It's been over a year-and-a-half since Tamir last stepped foot in Jerusalem to see his family, and should all go as planned, there's no telling when his next trip home will be.

'Of course, I get homesick,' Tamir said. 'When you call home and your parents remind you that they haven't seen you for so long and that they miss you, you miss them too, but there's a greater goal.'

By Seoyoung Kim

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