(TPS) In many ways, Mirna Sayeh is a typical 22-year-old basketball player trying to establish herself in Israel’s Premier League, chasing her athletic dreams as high as she can while pursuing a more down-to-earth degree in accounting.
But Sayeh is drawing national attention because she’s the first Palestinian woman to play in Israel’s top-tier basketball league. Although she lived in Bethlehem all her life and is studying at Bethlehem University, Sayeh is technically not considered a foreigner because her mother is from Nazareth. Having an Israeli identity card allows Sayeh to travel back and forth to Jerusalem for games and practices.
“I manage my time. I go to college in the morning and then to practice in Jerusalem and I study at night. I found this is the only solution,” Sayeh told the Tazpit Press Service.
She was discovered by Ohad Gal, who coaches ASA Jerusalem.
“I was playing in the third division,” Sayeh recalled to TPS. “Coach saw me playing and said he wanted me to play with him. I was really happy and excited. It’s something I was dreaming of doing.”
Asked how Sayeh is adjusting to the Premier League, Gal explained to TPS that most players normally need a season or two to adjust to the Premier League’s level of play, which includes athletes from the US and other countries.
“She has a gap to fill. but her skills for the game are very good,” Gal said. “She needs to get stronger and I’m happy she’s trying. You can see how talented she is on the floor. Her dribbling skills and shooting. She’s a good shooter.”
Sayeh currently plays guard, but Gal told TPS he envisions his new recruit eventually playing the more demanding position of point guard.
“She’s quick, her ball skills and dribbling are excellent and this is what you want your guard to do,” Gal explained. However, he added, “A point guard is also responsible to navigate the ship. For me, every guard should be a point guard and I hope she’ll have the confidence to become a point guard. It takes time, but she has it inside her.”
Sayeh and Gal both stressed to TPS that she’s just one player on ASA Jerusalem and that her Palestinian identity isn’t a big deal. Sayeh says she and her teammates get along, and they don’t get into politics.
Asked if there was any worry that other players wouldn’t accept a Palestinian on the team, Gal said, “Never. And its’ not their decision. All I see is someone willing to make the effort and has the ambition to live her dream.”
Sayeh added that her family and friends in Bethlehem have been very supportive. “They know it’s my dream to be a professional basketball player. My mom comes to every game I play,” she said.
Sayeh told TPS she first began playing basketball at the age of six.
“When I started, it was just for fun. All my friends were playing and at some point, I felt like I just wanted to learn more and play every day,” she said.
Asked which players currently inspire her, Sayeh said she likes to watch Klay Thompson, an All-Star guard for the Golden State Warriors. “He’s a great shooter and I like the way he practices. I like to be a shooter too, and I like what he says about improving himself.”
She said that Palestinian society tends to focus more on men’s sports than women’s. Basketball is one example she cites.
“The men’s league has a lot of teams and [the season] is nine months. For five years, there were only 10 women’s teams, and the season was only two or three months,” Sayeh said. “I love the game and I didn’t want to stop playing. I wanted in my future to play.”
Gal hopes to see more Palestinian women join the Premier League.
“I hope their agents or coaches approach us so we can see their skills. We’re a professional team. Nobody’s going to be turned away because of their identity. They just need to show up and work hard like any other player.”
Sayeh is aware that the spotlight of being the first Palestinian player in the Premier League has made her a role model for other girls with athletic ambitions.
“Never give up. If you want something, work hard to get it. You have to work everyday to achieve your dreams because nobody’s going to give it to you.”
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