Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Beneath Isaiah Miles’ Tel Aviv apartment, like many other buildings in Israel, is a bomb shelter. A small room resembling an unfinished basement with brick walls and a concrete floor. The only difference are the supplies kept down there, and the alterations that make it clear it’s no normal cellar.
“There were big water canisters on the side filled with fresh water in case anything happened,” Miles said. “There were non-perishables in a corner. There were crates on the walls above us, kind of in the corners, so that if the building came down on top of us, we would be able to climb up and get out there.”
It’s a room whose existence Miles shrugged off when he arrived in Israel for the first time last August, a safety measure the former Saint Joseph’s standout and now-seasoned professional hooper didn’t see himself ever needing to utilize.
Nine months later, all hell broke loose.
Stuck inside that bomb shelter in May, huddled with the dozen or so people who lived in the other apartments in his building, listening to the rockets and explosions outside, Miles was no longer a 27-year-old professional athlete. He was a little kid, wanting to be back home in Baltimore.
“I was like, I want to see my mom, I miss my mom,” he said during a phone interview last month. “That’s immediately what I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here, I want to see my mom.’”
Miles (above) greatly improved over the course of his four years on Hawk Hill. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Miles’ hoops career has been a quality one ever since he put it together on Hawk Hill.
A product of Glenelg Country School (Md.) and Milford Mill (Md.), the 6-foot-7 (and change) forward arrived at St. Joe’s in the fall of 2012 full of promise and a little too much baby fat. He spent most of his first two years as a slightly-productive role player. As a sophomore in 2014 he chipped in 3.0 ppg as the Hawks won 24 games and the Atlantic 10 tournament. The following year, Miles moved into the starting lineup, averaging 10.7 ppg and 5.1 rpg, but the graduation of a key 2014 class led to a 13-18 season for the Hawks.
It was Miles’ senior season, the 2015-16 year, when everything really came together. Miles famously dropped Baconators from his diet and 20 pounds from his waistline, then had a career year: 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per outing, with .523/.385/.888 shooting splits; he was named the Atlantic 10 and Big 5’s Most Improved Player awards as well as second team all-A10 honors on a team that won 24 regular-season games and then swept through the A-10 tournament. As if that wasn’t enough, he hit a game-winning 3-pointer to lift St. Joe’s over Cincinnati in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, though they were felled by Oregon before they got a chance to play in the Sweet 16.
Clearly on the radars of professional teams by the end of his college career, Miles got a run with the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league team in 2016 after going undrafted, but ultimately signed in the top French league, LNB Pro A, with JDA Dijon. The year went decently well on the court, as Miles averaged 12.2 ppg and 4.9 rpg, though Dijon only went 12-22; off the court, things were a little tougher.
“I was a rookie, and in my situation…I was the youngest one on my team by far,” he said. “I was 21, 22, the second-youngest dude was 28 and he was with his family, his family and kids.
“On the court was a different vibe, they taught me things, but off the court, the other 50%, coping and adjusting to the lifestyle [...] that was the biggest adjustment. You have so much free time, so much free time. We were practicing two hours out of the day, there’s 24 hours in a day, so what are you doing those other 22 hours? It’s a lot of free time.”
It’s an adjustment that’s a struggle for many quality American college players with NBA dreams who hope to make a name for themselves abroad. Unlike in the NBA, almost all overseas rookies — and most professionals in their first few years abroad — are only on one-year contracts, the teams wanting to make sure the players can adapt to life in a foreign country and the players wanting the ability to move upwards if they can show they can handle it.
Some figure out how to adjust to the new lifestyle and thrive; others who were once considered high-level prospects are out of the game by the time they’re 25. For Miles, it was a mix of working on his game and adapting practices like meditation that helped him through that first year, and beyond.
“There’s only so much Call of Duty and Netflix can do for you for a 10-month span,” he said.
Miles’ journey through some of the best leagues Europe had to offer wasn’t done. He played his second season in Turkey with Usak Sportif, averaging 10.7 ppg, then went back to France for the 2018-19 season to play for Limoges CSP, averaging 9.2 ppg in LNB Pro A games and 10.3 ppg during 14 EuroCup games.
He came back to the United States during the 2019-20 season, signing an Exhibit 10 deal with the Sixers and playing 11 games with the Delaware Blue Coats of the NBA’s G League, averaging 6.1 ppg. Before COVID hit, he signed with Cholet, another LNB Pro A team in France, but didn’t play a game with them.
Though the pandemic was raging across the world the entire summer of 2020, Miles was able to secure a contract with Hapoel Holon in the Israel Basketball Premier League, also known as the Winners League. Based in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv on the country’s western (Mediterranean) coast, the club had last won the league in 2007-08 but finished second in 2017-18 and third in 2018-19, and also competed in both the Europe-wide Champions League and the more local Balkans League.
“I always knew that the seasons before,” Miles said, “when I played with other guys in Turkey and France, their main thing was ‘you have to play in Israel before you retire.’”
Miles (above) celebrates with his teammates after winning the 2020-21 Balkan League title. (Photo courtesy Isaiah Miles on Twitter)
Miles arrived in Israel in mid-August 2020, several months before the Winners League season was scheduled to begin. He actually took a pay cut to come to Israel as European clubs were suffering from a lack of attendance and sponsorships during the pandemic. While he didn’t share the exact details of the finances, Miles said the number was about what he made in his rookie season in France.
The games actually tipped off in November, and Miles was doing his thing: through 22 games, he was third on the team in scoring (12.1 ppg), shooting 44.4% overall and 42.9% from 3-point range.
He was especially effective in the Balkan League, a multinational league of teams from Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Israel. Hapoel Holon won its first-ever Balkan League title, downing BC Academic Plovdiv (Bulgaria) 91-75 in the championship; Miles scored 18 points in both the semifinals and championship and earned Final Four MVP honors for his efforts.
It was a great feeling, Miles said, but it wasn’t quite as good as winning the A-10 title at Barclays Center his senior year.
“Overseas, you can only really post on social media of how you’re doing,” he said. “If I don’t post on Instagram, really no one knows what happened. Back at home, all my family and all my friends were there to watch me play.”
But while things were going well on the court, the region was about to experience its latest explosion of violence in a long-running conflict.
The political, religious, and ideological struggles that have consumed Israel since its post-World War II creation are too deep, tangled, and intricate to go into in one story. The present reality is a region with daily tension between a tiny, militaristic and US-backed country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the nations and people who’ve inhabited the area for thousands of years, who continue to find themselves pushed out of their own homes and neighborhoods. Throughout the years, there have been many attempts at cease-fires and de-escalations, but none have ever been permanent.
The latest outbreak of sustained violence came in early May, when protests over the Israeli treatment of Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah were met with increased resistance and further evictions and discriminatory treatment. By May 10, Israel was launching airstrikes into Gaza while Hamas was firing back with rockets, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome missile system.
It was those rockets that caused Miles and his neighbors to pile into their shelter, night after night, hearing the Iron Dome do its job the best it could. Best estimates of its capabilities put it at around 90%; Israel estimates about “60 to 70” rockets still struck populated areas. Israeli airstrikes leveled buildings across Gaza, including office buildings, apartments, and a building that housed Associated Press journalists.
“You hear the explosion of the bombs [...] hearing the Iron Dome shoot the missiles out of the air was scary in itself,” he said. “A bus was blown up, direct impact blown up, probably a few yards from my house.
“That scared the shit out of me, that scared the hell out of me in itself. Yeah man, I was scared.”
At first, Miles said, his neighbors stayed calm, having been through such situations numerous times over the years. They helped him down to the shelter the first time he needed to use it, and helped keep him calm by talking about their daily lives amongst each other while the sirens wailed outside. But even that only lasted so long.
“[When] it got serious for me was when the rockets, missiles were coming and people were talking, but you heard one loud explosion and immediately, all the women and children started busting out crying,” Miles added. “And like, screaming. And me, thinking like ‘okay, you guys live here, you experience it a lot. If you find something wrong and you’re starting to cry, I’m going to react immediately.”
At first, Miles was determined to stay through it, to finish out the season. The team cancelled several games and practices, shutting down for a couple weeks during the most intense periods. Eventually, there was only so much Miles could handle.
“I was pushing through as much as I could, I was like one day it’s going to be done, one day it’s going to be done, but the pressure on it...they kept cancelling practices and games because the war was going on and the missiles were getting shot at us every day,” he said. “At that point I wasn’t thinking about basketball, my mind wasn’t in basketball, I wasn’t there mentally [...] I suffer from really bad anxiety, so my anxiety was ramped up. I was having trouble sleeping. I’d be watching TV and would hear a sound on TV and would think it was the siren, and my heart would be racing.
“My parents, my girlfriend would call me every five or 10 minutes, just checking on me, crying on the phone, begging me to come home.”
On May 18, Miles was able to get an El-Al flight out of Tel Aviv, direct to JFK airport in New York City. He’d negotiated out of his contract, forgoing the final couple months of pay for the ability to leave on good terms. When he landed, he met his mother Tammi at the airport, the two driving back to Baltimore together, finally safe and on familiar ground.
“Oh man, just like, a breath of fresh air,” he said. “A breath of fresh air. I was so relaxed, I could breathe and be calm.”
Miles hopes to play ball in Israel again, he said, if the situation ever calms down enough for him to feel safe going back. In the meanwhile, he’ll be continuing his career in a country to-be-determined, training over the summer until the next contract comes around. His summer plans included a move to Arizona with his girlfriend, and working with a familiar trainer out in the desert heat.
No matter where he goes, he’ll be thinking about his former neighbors and all those who have to live every day in a reality he was lucky enough to be able to escape.
“Without getting too political and without getting too invested or picking a side, because I know how touchy that subject is over there, I feel bad for both parties, I feel bad that both parties have to live in that, constantly,” he said. “When you see kids who have no idea what’s the situation going on, you have three, four, five-year-olds that have no idea what’s going on, they have no idea the situation, and they have to pay for it, just because of where they’re living...that was tough to take in in itself, for me, but like I said, on both sides. Children were killed on both sides.
“It was tough for me, it’s sad. America — every country has its vices, and no country is better than the other, but I’m happy that I’m able to not experience that on a daily basis.”