by Richard Friedman
“There is no difference between us when we are on the court,” says 25-year-old Shahd Abboud, the only Arab on Israel’s national women’s basketball team, and a former player at Northwestern State in Louisiana.
Abboud was one of three professional female Israeli basketball players who highlighted a recent online program on the impact of sports on race and religion.
The Maccabi USA program was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, Center for Jewish-Multicultural Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, the Jewish Federation of Milwaukee, and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
New Orleans Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow, a former president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, was one of the moderators.
Abboud’s basketball prowess has taken her all over Israel while growing up, to play with Jewish teams; to junior college in Texas, to Louisiana where she became a widely-admired star at Northwestern State, and back to Israel where she’s made a name for herself as one of the country’s top female basketball players.
Most young Arab women, be they Muslim or Christian, like Abboud, don’t have the chance to pursue sports careers. That’s because the emphasis in their culture is mostly on academics and developing professional skills. Women’s sports are not promoted.
Abboud, however, was cast in a different mold. Both of her parents are educators and basketball coaches, and progressives compared to their general culture. So they supported their daughter’s basketball pursuits.
Her parents would drive her all over Israel from their home in Nazareth so she could play on Jewish teams, which offered a higher level of competition.
Trust and Dreams
Allowing her to come to the U.S., first to play basketball at a junior college in Texas, then at Northwestern State, was another big show of support for her. “I was just 18 and didn’t speak much English. Yet they trusted me and let me follow my dreams.”
In high school, Abboud already was a part of the Israeli national team. After a game in Europe, she was approached by an American who asked if she’d be interested in playing college ball in the U.S.
That led to her playing two years of junior college basketball at Jacksonville College in east Texas. Her success there led to a scholarship offer from Louisiana’s Northwestern State University, located in Natchitoches.
Abboud has been back in Israel for four years where, as the first Christian Arab Israeli to play in the First Division League, she plays for Maccabi Haifa. Last year, she was named the league’s domestic MVP.
Versatile on the court, Abboud at 5 feet, 11 inches, can play guard or forward. She can hit three-pointers, handles the ball well and plays with aggressiveness.
On the recent online program, Abboud was impressive and poised. She acknowledged that living in a region where religious and ethnic tensions are ongoing is a challenge. Israel is 75 percent Jewish. Of the remaining 25 percent, most are Arabs, though Muslims vastly outnumber Christians.
As an Israeli sports pioneer, Abboud receives media attention. She’s often asked about politics, a subject she doesn’t discuss publicly. On social media, about half the comments directed toward her are positive and half are negative. However, she says, that does not faze her.
Respected and Admired
Northwestern State’s athletic director Greg Burke and Brooke Stoehr, who coached Abboud for a year, rave about her.
They say she was a serious and determined student-athlete, a fierce competitor who practiced good sportsmanship, and someone who was respected and admired by all who knew her.
Not only was she a winner, they agree, but she won over countless fans because of the way she carried herself on and off the court.
“She was an incredible teammate — one of the most selfless people you will meet,“ said Stoehr. “She wanted to be part of something bigger than herself.”
In addition to making her mark on the court, Abboud was involved in the community.
“She got to know people, in the program and beyond. They loved her personality. They appreciated how grateful she was, how respectful she was,” said Stoehr.
“Shahd sacrificed to go to college in the U.S. and have an experience outside of her normal upbringing. When you have players who do that it shows a lot of courage and commitment. There was a desire to represent her family and country well.”
Abboud’s uniqueness gave her the chance to make an impact beyond the basketball court, a role she welcomed.
“It was unusual to have a player from Israel, especially an Arab,” Stoehr recalls. “As we got to know Shahd, we got to know things we didn’t know — about her family, culture and country.” This was a great experience for the team, says Stoehr. “It doesn’t happen very often. It was great for us to listen.”
Now that Abboud is back home in Israel, advocating for women athletes, particularly in the Arab community, is important to her.
“I’m trying to do whatever I can in my community to have more female athletes have the same opportunity,” she said during the online program.
“We need to use our voices. I go to different schools and communities and tell younger Arab women that they can get to where I am now and they can do it,” she said.
“I think society will appreciate and respect women in sports when we stand up for what we believe in and voice what we deserve. I think the change is coming.”
As a result of the country’s preoccupation with security, being an Arab in Israel is not always easy. When the national team travels abroad, Abboud often is the only member airport security pulls aside for extended questioning. “It is not a good feeling. But my teammates never treat me differently, and at the end of the day that’s all that counts. I remain true to my identity and proud of who I am.”
She also doesn’t hesitate to dialogue privately with her Jewish teammates about issues that at times cause tension between their two communities. “We get along great. We love and respect each other in every way possible.”
Abboud doesn’t know how much longer she’ll play professionally. But she already knows that post-basketball she wants to work with athletes. Meanwhile, her Louisiana legacy continues.
The Northwestern State community loved her, said Stoehr, a love that continues to this day. “When a young man or woman puts on a jersey, our fans fall in love with these athletes — and they loved Shahd.”
And she, in turn, loved them.
Playing professional basketball is great, she says from her home in Nazareth, but playing at the college level, especially for the Northwestern State Demons, was something special.
She loved her teammates, she loved her school and she loved Louisiana, especially the people, their warmth, and the food. “I miss it very much. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity I was given.”