Is Israel Good for the Knicks?

Oded Kattash hasn’t played a minute of basketball in the NBA, and already he’s keeping All-Star power forward Jayson Williams waiting, at Gold’s Gym in Paramus. Nevertheless, Williams has only encouraging words for Kattash. “He wants to come in slowly,” Williams says. “But I told him, you don’t come into anything slowly in New York.”

Especially not if you’re the Michael Jordan of Israel, hand-picked by the Knicks to help Patrick Ewing in one last lunge at a title. Handcuffed by a salary cap, the team went scouting in out-of-the-way places for undervalued talent. In Tel Aviv, they found Kattash, a six-foot-four, rail-thin point guard who now hopes to become the first Israeli ever to play in the NBA.

Kattash arrived in the U.S. at the end of June, expecting to be in preseason camp by now (it’s been postponed because of the NBA lockout). He’s not even officially signed yet with the Knicks – hence his workouts with Williams, with whom he shares a trainer. They meet several times a week to run sprints, lift weights, and scrimmage with local college players.

If Kattash’s NBA dream is on hold, however, his training as a media-savvy American athlete is proceeding nicely. Just 24 years old, he already knows how to handle the media, offering only pat, noncontroversial statements about team play. “I like to play smart,” he says in his thick accent. “If I play with Patrick, I pass him the ball, because I want to win.”

Of course, passing is not the only skill Kattash will need – there’s also sitting. According to pro scout Mark Crow, Kattash is good enough to contribute immediately, but chances are he’ll ride the pine for a while. Kattash undertstands. “I’ve never sat on a bench before,” he says. “I guess I have to try it.”

When Kattash does make it onto the court, however, Williams believes, he’ll take the league by surprise. “First, I thought, ‘Another little white guy from Europe.’ But I started watching him do the herky-jerky and crossing my brother over, going behind the back and stuff, I said, ‘This kid got some Allen Iverson in him.’”

Where Kattash has to prove himself, says Crow, is on the other side of the court. “He’ll have problems defensively, like European players do,” says Crow. “But he’s good enough with the ball that he can get his own shot. He’s a steal.”

Kattash’s handlers salivate at the promotional opportunities that are likely to rain down on a major Jewish pro athlete in New York. Derek Jeter makes a nice pitchman for Florsheim Shoes, but imagine what the company would give to have an Israeli Knicks player sporting a pair of its wing tips. “If I make it in New York,” he says, “all the Jewish people would be excited, and it would be good for them.”

Is Israel Good for the Knicks?