No longer roommates, still brothers: Avdija, Madar allow Israel to dream
PRAGUE (Czech Republic) - One is a Hapoel Tel Aviv guy, the other Maccabi Tel Aviv. One plays for Partizan, the other has a Crvena Zvezda background. One is playful and talkative, the other is calm and collected. One is ice, the other is fire. Yin and yang. Yam Madar and Deni Avdija.
Their relationship has been documented over the years, since they first appeared in FIBA youth championships. Two of the best players of their generation, two medal winners, two trophy collectors and All-Star Five members at the FIBA U20 European Championship in 2019, and most importantly, two roommates.
Or, at least they were roommates up until they arrived in Czech Republic. The Israeli team decided to keep them apart this time around, which is understandable, increasing the opportunities for them to bond with other guys on the team.
"We had a promise," Yam Madar smiled. "If we make it to the next round (in Berlin), we're gonna be roommates again. But playing our first FIBA EuroBasket together, it's gonna be special for both of us."
Israel have a rich tradition of basketball, especially at club level. You can take Maccabi Tel Aviv's sustained success, you can point to Hapoel Holon's back-to-back appearances at the Basketball Champions League Final 8 and Final Four - there's no denying it, this sport is part of the nation's DNA. Just check the stands the next time you see an Israeli club play, "crazy" doesn't begin to describe their devotion.
At the same time, the Israeli national team did not have the same kind of results. Their best FIBA EuroBasket finish was back in 1979, when tournament MVP Miki Berkovich took them to the Final, but they haven't been to the top eight since 2003. Even in 2017, when they hosted one of the groups, they only finished in 21st spot.
So where do they base their national team optimism for a brighter future? You have to go here to figure it out: Israel played the Final at the FIBA U20 European Championship in 2017, then won the next two editions, and brought home another fourth place earlier this summer.
The first three of those generations are already paying off for the national team, with Tamir Blatt, Yovel Zoosman, Deni Avdija and Yam Madar set to play serious roles for coach Guy Goodes in Prague. Their mission? Take that U20 medal winning mentality and turn it into a senior team reality.
"We talk about it a lot. Eventually, we have the talent to go there. We will never give up, we always have dreams, and hopefully one day we can do it on the senior level, for sure," Avdija said about Israel's goals to win another FIBA EuroBasket medal in near future.
He may be the youngest guy here, but he is the biggest Israeli star. He doesn't feel any pressure surrounding him and he doesn't look like someone who has the weight of a nation on his shoulders - he's got his more experienced teammates to thank for that. Israel created a united atmosphere within the team, easily felt even by outsiders witnessing how players went about their business ever since arriving in Prague.
"The whole national team is just a bunch of great guys who know how to play and love each other," Deni explained. "The only thing is, Yam and I have been together from a young age, so our relationship is a bit different."
The crowning moment of the relationship was the U20 European Championship played in front of 3500 Israeli fans every single night.
"It was a special experience, for sure because we won it. But also because we had a chance to play in Israel, in front of our fans, to play for our country," Madar explained.
Since then, their careers went separate ways. They were both in the 2020 NBA Draft, Avdija was the ninth pick and joined the Washington Wizards, Madar was selected with the 47th overall pick by the Boston Celtics, but stayed with Hapoel until 2021, when he joined Partizan.
Even though Deni got the bigger stage lights, the way he behaves has not changed..
"He is the same guy. He stayed the same. That's something that is very beautiful in his personality, he doesn't go so high or fall so low from wins and losses. He is staying solid and true to who he is," Yam said in a single breath, then continued:
"That's something I really appreciate in him, being in the NBA, being the only Israeli playing there, he could've easily gone and became somebody else, but he stayed who he is. That's something that separates him from all the others."
Going along the whole dichotomy from the beginning of this story, while Madar thinks Avdija stayed the same, Avdija offers that Madar is a changed man now.
"He changed for the better. He took a lot of things more seriously, I saw how he grew more mature, more responsible, how he loved to work. He's a hard worker, I really think the sky's the limit for him," he said.
Both of them are 21 now. Both of them have strong Serbian connections. But both of them say there is no need to start their own Serbian code language within the Israeli team.
"I already told you what kind of Serbian words I know," Madar laughed, with no explanation needed if you know anything about Zeljko Obradovic, Partizan and the Serbian way of expressing emotions.
"We're not talking Serbian, not yet, not yet. But... I do teach him a lot of things about Serbs and stuff he needs to know," Deni added, with a significant smile.
They will get a chance to show what they both learned very soon. Israel face Serbia on Tuesday, September 6. Going up against one of the favorites to win gold in this competition, is the perfect opportunity to see how far Avdija and Madar are from realizing their childhood dreams on senior level.