Why J.J. Hickson failed in Israel

After less than two weeks in Israel, J.J. Hickson packed his bags and was on a 10 a.m. flight back to America.

Despite an upcoming matchup against a Rishon Lezion squad that knocked the team out of the playoffs last season, Bnei Herzliya had such an issue with Hickson’s attitude and behavior that they sent him home 24 hours before the game.

Though he arrived with tremendous hype as one of the more acclaimed NBA players to play in Israel, Hickson’s stint in Israel will be remembered as a failure and will prove to be a cautionary tale for international teams looking to sign NBA players during the lockout.

Hickson may be loaded with athleticism and talent, but he also a kid who has the same concerns that many young people have when they go to study abroad. It seemed like a great idea from afar for Hickson to come overseas, play a few games, make a few bucks and enjoy the lifestyle of a foreign country.

Little did Hickson anticipate that like many 23-year-olds, he would struggle to adjust to a new culture and would miss his family. Hickson’s flight had a delay that caused his bags to arrive in Israel three days late, and as an American who had the same issue when I came to Israel five years ago, I can vouch that it is extremely frustrating and certainly not the ideal way to start off in a new country.

During Hickson’s second week with the team, his main concern wasn’t attempting to adjust so that his team could do better than a 39 point defeat in their second game, but rather, he was more focused on how small his apartment was. On Friday, just 30 minutes before practice, Hickson called the team informing them that he would not be attending practice, after seeming aloof in most of the past week’s practices.

Bnei Herzliya plays in one of the nicest cities in Israel, in close proximity to the beach and to a great night life, with Tel-Aviv only a fifteen minute drive away. I’ve seen the apartments Bnei gives to its players, having worked for the team last season, and while they may not be the most luxurious pads in the whole city, they are apartments that would typically be reserved for those with upper-middle class salaries.

Hickson simply couldn’t handle the daunting prospect of living an upper-middle class lifestyle.

As with many players who were McDonalds All-Americans who went on to be first-round picks as teenagers, Hickson only knows a lifestyle of luxury. It is difficult for a player who has been praised and coddled his whole life to travel across the world to play in a gym that may be the size of a high school gym, for a team with less than ten men working on the basketball staff, and with a per diem that consists of a bottle of water and a chicken sandwich. There is no one to get your rebounds during a shoot around (unless you ask me nicely!), no one to carry your bags to the bus, and no state-of-the-art practice facility.

To come overseas and succeed, Americans need to leave their sense of entitlement at home, and come with a humble attitude, ready to learn and work hard.

That’s not to say that all top prospects can’t succeed outside the NBA, as players who keep themselves from becoming spoiled and maintain the right attitude have shown that they can excel outside of the US.

I’ve gotten the chance to see that type of attitude up close and personal with former Georgetown Hoya, Brandon Bowman. A preseason candidate for college player of the year, and widely regarded as a mid first-round pick after his junior year, Bowman opted to stick around for his senior season before eventually going undrafted in 2006.

Bowman has found success overseas over the past five seasons by always maintaining a great respect for his opponents, no matter what country he is playing in. Despite being a player whose obvious career goal is to land in the NBA, Bowman is familiar with practically every league overseas, and has built up a wealth of knowledge of non-US players through watching tons of basketball. Not only does this type of attitude help a player understand his opponents better, but it also helps a player get along with his new teammates who appreciate when Americans show respect for their league. In addition, this type of attitude can rub off on other American players, which serves to build cohesiveness between the Americans and their non-American teammates.

Hickson’s time in Israel may have been a difficult situation, but there are no hard feelings.

Izy Chinio, the respected CEO of Bnei Herzliya said that, “While Hickson may have had issues with his apartment, this wasn’t the reason he went home. He just was a kid who was very homesick and had a tough time keeping his focus on the court while having to make a quick adjustment to Israel. Hickson is a great kid, and I am sure he will have plenty of success in the NBA in the years ahead of him.”

When asked about the decision to let Hickson go only the day before a game, Chinio continued, “While Hickson could have been available to play on Sunday, he made it clear that he did not think he could be 100 percent focused on the game as would be distracted by how much he missed his father and grandmother. We felt it wouldn’t be fair to the team and the fans if Hickson would play if he knew in advance that he wasn’t going to remain with the team.”

While waiving Hickson the day before a game may seem like a questionable decision for Bnei Herzliya, the move likely will help the team on the court. With Hickson, the team showed no defensive intensity, and with a star player who showed no interest in learning how to play with his team, there was little chance Bnei could have executed a solid game plan with Hickson on board.

With Hickson gone, Bnei can go back to running their offense through Baylor product, LaceDarius Dunn, who has proven to be a serious weapon thus far. While having an NBA player may make the headlines, without the right attitude, it won’t help in the standings.

AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a  basketball blog, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel.

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  1. says

    How unfortunate that ANOTHER American bred basketball product fails in international basketball. Are we as a country, that arrogant and ignorant to be able to adapt culturally in a foreign land? Hickson proves why, although it sounds good on paper, not everyone is capable of playing overseas. My fingers are crossed that we don’t hear a story about Deron Williams being sent home…. My gut tells me that the three Thuggets that went to China will be back before their contracts are up.

  2. such sweet thunder says

    Great article, A.J. You know, you have instantly become my favorite writer covering the European beat for NBA fans. I’ve been looking for an outlet with these types of stories — you can’t find them on ESPN, Yahoo Sports or any of the like. Who’d have thought that just a couple months after launch Sheridan Sports would be one of the first sites I got to for basketball news?

    I think it’s important to mention that J.J. Hickson is a middling player in the NBA. He played an outsized role last season on a team that was designed to fail, and hopefully, garner the number one draft pick, which they did. I also think Hickon’s game is much better suited for the NBA than European basketball. That is to say, Hickson could have helped a team in the Ligat HaAl if he didn’t have outside distractions, but it was never going to be an easy transition for him. It looks like his adjustment did him in.

    • says

      I actually think Hickson’s game is MORE suited for Israeli league basketball than the NBA. It was his attitude that was the issue. Players who have the game of a center but the body of a power forward usually thrive in Israel. Unfortunately players who don’t want to be here typically fail.

      • such sweet thunder says

        I understand your point. I’ve watched Ibaka slowly grow into a defensive-orientated center on Real Madrid when he plays power forward for Oklahoma.

        I made the comment because J.J. Hickson doesn’t strike me as the type of player who has the innate creativity to function well in a partially structured offense, or the ability to create stops outside of defensive schemes. If I’m allowed to make an overly-broad generalization: the European game seems to rely less on system play than the NBA. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I heard that Hickson was cut.

        A good contrast for Hickson may be Brian Scalabrini, who is killing it for Benneton Treviso. Scalabrini doesn’t have the size or foot speed to function well within NBA systems, but he sees the court well, can handle and shoot, and has the innate ability to improvise outside of sets.

  3. Why chris Sheridan is failing says

    Chris I give you credit for picking a side an sticking to it. However, I don’t give you credit for not predicting doom after games were cancelled. The hardline owners seem dead serious and I doubt theyre using negotiating tactics. They def are using it to a certain extent but they are really testing the players’ bank accounts until theyget what they want. I appreciate your work but your rosy outlook is misleading tge fans and killing your credibility.

  4. mookie says

    I’ve heard a number of stories like this is the past few weeks, NBA players don’t know how good they have it. As has been stated, they enjoy BY FAR the best life of the major professional sports in America

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