When Israeli-born small forward Deni Avdija, 22, agreed on a four-year, $55 million contract extension with the Washington Wizards last month, it was widely expected that he would assume a larger two-way role this season.
But as was quite evident to dozens of Hawks fans at State Farm Arena in the late evening of Wednesday, Nov. 1, following Atlanta’s 130-121 win over Washington, Avdija, currently the only Israeli NBA player, sees his role as being so much more than an effective player on both ends of the court.
Moments after the final buzzer went off, Avdija, who finished with a season-high 22 points and 5 rebounds, remained on the court, Israeli flag draped across his broad shoulders, to join members of Atlanta’s Jewish community and his fellow Israeli supporters in a rendition of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” in light of the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza. Many of those fans were chanting Am Yisrael Chai (“Long live Israel”) during the game and some even had the opportunity to briefly meet with Avdija following the recital of “Hatikvah.”
For Avdija, who afterwards posted on Instagram, “Been a long time since I was moved like this,” the brief yet emotionally charged communal experience was a means of catharsis during these terrifying times. The longest-tenured player on the Wizards’ roster has been playing for the Israeli national team since he was 16, has many friends who are currently serving in the Israeli army, and personally knew several countrymen who were slaughtered in the Hamas attacks. NBA games may provide a fleeting respite from the horrors in his homeland, but the ongoing war naturally continues to weigh on him.
When speaking to The Athletic a couple days after inking the four-year pact, Avdija, who holds dual citizenship in Israel and Serbia and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv before being drafted by the Wizards with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, remarked, “I’m (watching) on the news every day. I’m praying for my people. I’m checking on my friends. It’s a situation, it’s got to end. And it’s really tough for me. And my mind, sometimes, is there. But I’ve got to keep it professional. I’ve gotta do my job. And when I have the chance to stand with Israel and stand with my country, I will.”
Perhaps in the weeks ahead, there will be more chances to engage with NBA fans across the country in a similar fashion.