In the Jewish year 5758 (that’s 1997 for all the non-Jews), the WNBA was founded by Jewish NBA commissioner David Stern. Since the league’s creation, there has been a whopping five Jewish WNBA players. Here is the definitive ranking of the best Jewish basketball players in WNBA history.
5) Shay Doron
Israeli-born Shay Doron was drafted by the New York Liberty as the 16th overall pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft. Doron played seven games, starting two of them and playing a total of 35 minutes in the WNBA.
In those 35 minutes, Doron scored 10 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, and had 3 steals. The Liberty made the playoffs in 2007 and Doron played a couple of minutes against the Detroit Shock.
In 2008, Doron left the WNBA went back to Israel to play professionally. Over the course of the 2010s, Doron played in Israel with stints in Romania and Turkey.
After growing up in Israel, Doron moved to New York during high school and played for the catholic school Christ the King in Queens (Sue Bird also went to school there).
Doron spoke about the difficulties of moving countries in high school as the defining moment in her life in an old WNBA feature “Time Out”:
“Leaving Israel to finish high school in the U.S. for my basketball dreams because my entire family lives in Israel and I loved living there. It was very hard to leave that behind and start all over again in the middle of high school… not to mention that it is a Catholic school and I was the only Jewish person there!”
After high school, Doron played college ball for the University of Maryland and won a national championship in 2006.
In the WNBA “Time Out” feature, Doron was asked who she would most want to play one-on-one with. Doron responded with “Becky Hammon, because I feel like we have similar playing styles and I have been watching her since the WNBA came out.”
The 35-year old Doron currently plays basketball for Maccabi Ashdod in the Israeli Female Basketball League.
Doron holds the distinction for being the first Israeli to play professional basketball in the United States. Doron made her WNBA debut two years before the NBA’s Omri Casspi, who made his debut in 2009 for the Sacramento Kings.
The third overall pick in the college portion of the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft, Jamila Wideman spent four seasons playing in the ‘W’. Wideman is the daughter to black writer John Edgar Wideman and Jewish lawyer Judith Ann Goldman.
After playing college ball for Stanford, Jamila played for the Los Angeles Sparks, Cleveland Rockers, and Portland Fire. She averaged 2.2 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game for her career. Wideman averaged 16.6 minutes on the court and started 27 out of her 84 career games.
Not only did Wideman play in the WNBA, but she also played professionally in Israel for Elitzur Ramla in 1999 and 2000. She won the national championship. In 2005, Wideman played professionally in Spain.
Wideman’s character as a person really stands out, exemplified by her commitment to civil rights. During Wideman’s time in the WNBA, Wideman founded “Hoopin’ with Jamila”, a youth mentoring program that combined basketball skills clinics with a reading and writing program for young women of color incarcerated in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles.
However, Wideman’s work didn’t stop there.
After her playing career, Wideman earned her law degree at NYU Law School. She became a staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama where she litigated on behalf of death sentences individuals in state and federal courts. After, she worked as an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, providing representation to the incarcerated and low-income population.
In 2018, Wideman was hired by the NBA as Vice President of Player Development. Wideman leads outreach and collaboration with the league-wide network of team player development directors, manages partnerships with external organizations, and expands the NBA’s Career Crossover program. Wideman remains in this position in 2020.
If any of the Jewish ballers in the WNBA exemplified the experience of the American Jew, it’s Nancy Lieberman.
In 2015, Lieberman wrote in The Players’ Tribune: “Before the national championships, before the WNBA, before becoming an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings — before all that — I was just a poor, skinny, redheaded Jewish girl from Queens.”
Lieberman was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust but she lost great grandparents.
Lieberman said in 2010: “I am 100% Jewish. My father’s parents were deeply religious, we had two sets of silverware when we went and ate over there. My mother’s side observed the major holidays. It was more relaxed. I went to Hebrew school as well.”
Lieberman played sports at a young age, playing little league baseball, football, and basketball. Lieberman wrote in The Players’ Tribune, “I used to go into my mom’s purse and I would take a dollar or two without her knowing it and I’d walk into town, I’d take the A train by myself from Far Rockaway, change trains in the city and get off at 155th and 8th Avenue and I would go into Rucker Park.”
Throughout high school, Lieberman played amongst men at Rucker Park, the park notorious for developing future NBA legends. It turns out Rucker Park would create a WNBA legend too.
Lieberman became one of the best women basketball players in the country playing for Far Rockaway High School. In 1975, Lieberman was named to Team USA in the PanAm Games, where she won a gold medal. As a senior, Lieberman won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics. Lieberman won Gold at the 1979 FIBA World Championship and Gold at the 1979 Jones Cup in Taiwan.
Lieberman played college ball for Old Dominion University from 1976-1980 and won two national championships and a bunch of awards for being the best college women’s basketball player. She broke many of the school’s records that she holds to this day.
After college, Lieberman wanted to play professionally, but there was no WNBA yet. In 1981, Lieberman played in the Los Angeles Lakers Summer Pro League amongst NBA prospects, playing under Pat Riley.
In regards to her appearance at the Lakers Summer Pro League, Lieberman told The Desert Sun in 1981 that, “Playing in the NBA is not my motive, but if something of that nature would happen, I’d have to think about it. I’m just working to improve my game. Currently, I’m under contract to the Dallas Diamonds in the women’s basketball league.”
The Dallas Diamonds were part of the first women’s basketball league in the United States, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), which operated from 1978 to 1981. When the WBL disbanded, Lieberman played in a men’s league called the United States Basketball League, where she became the first woman to play for a men’s professional team, the Springfield Flame of Massachusetts.
In 1988, Lieberman was the first woman to play for the Washington Generals, the opponent to the Harlem Globetrotters.
When the WNBA was created in 1997, the 39-year old Lieberman had a shot at playing with the best female ballers in the world.
Lieberman said in 2015: “I was fortunate to eke out a year at 39 years old, while my contemporaries, like Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski and Cheryl Miller, didn’t get that opportunity. And I know they would have loved to have had that chance.”
Lieberman played for the inaugural Phoenix Mercury coming off the bench. She played 25 games and averaged 11.2 minutes on the court. She averaged 2.6 points, 1.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists for the Mercury. She retired from the WNBA after one season and served as head coach and general manager of the Detroit Shock from 1998-2000.
Lieberman covered women’s basketball on ESPN after her WNBA career. However, Lieberman would return to the WNBA in 2008 at the age of 50, playing one game for the Detroit Shock. She is the oldest WNBA player in league history. She played nine minutes and had two assists.
In 2009, Lieberman became the first female coach of a professional men’s team, becoming the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Developmental League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. She covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for Fox Sports Oklahoma in their studio show “Thunder Live.”
In July 2015, she was hired by the Sacramento Kings to be an assistant coach, the second female assistant coach in NBA history (Becky Hammon was the first). Since leaving the Kings in 2017, Lieberman has been a broadcaster for the New Orleans Pelicans. She also coaches in the BIG3 as head coach of the team Power and won the championship in 2018.
Lieberman’s son TJ Cline plays pro basketball in Israel.
Lieberman is apart of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Nassau County Hall of Fame, St. Louis Jewish Hall of Fame, and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. In the history of Jewish woman basketball players, nobody has made a greater impact than Nancy Lieberman.
2) Alysha Clark
The Seattle Storm’s three-point stud and defensive wizard Alysha Clark found out playing professionally in Israel that she was Jewish. Clark’s grandparents on her mother’s side are Jewish, but she was raised going to church by her black father and non-practicing mother. At the time, Clark did not understand that having Jewish grandparents meant her mother was Jewish, which meant Alysha herself was Jewish.
After finding out that she’s Jewish, Clark went to Miami to find a rabbi who would vouch for the Jewishness of her family. Once the rabbi confirmed Clark’s family tree, she received Israeli citizenship on the condition she would play professionally there.
From 2011-2013, Clark played for Ramat HaSharon. From 2014-2016, Clark played for Maccabi Bnot Ashdod. When asked about her experience playing in Israel, Clark said, “I love all the salads for breakfast and hummus, I am the biggest hummus snob now.”
In 2010, Clark was drafted 17th overall to the WNBA by the San Antonio Silver Stars. However, she did not make their roster. Clark made her WNBA debut in 2012 with the Seattle Storm. Over the course of nine seasons, Clark has averaged 6.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and a career 3P% of .398.
Clark is considered one of the best defenders in the WNBA. Clark was named to the WNBA All-Defensive First Team in 2020 and All-Defensive Second Team in 2019.
She is also an elite three-point shooter who lead the WNBA in 3P% over the last two seasons. Clark shot .481% in 2019 and .522% in 2020.
Clark has won two WNBA Championships with the Storm in 2018 and 2020. Clark is easily the best Jewish three-point shooter in WNBA history and the league’s biggest hummus advocate.
1) Sue Bird
Sue Bird is undeniably the best and most decorated Jewish basketball player in WNBA history. Born to a Jewish Russian father on Long Island, NY, Bird played high school ball in Queens for Christ the King (like Shay Doron).
Bird told the Washington Jewish Museum about her religious background.
“I wasn’t really raised anything. My dad is Jewish, his whole side of the family is Jewish. My mom is Protestant-Christian. I did Christmas stuff just as much as I did Hanukkah stuff. I didn’t go to church, I didn’t go to temple, I wasn’t Baptized, I didn’t have a bat mitzvah or anything like that, but I still had doses of both religions. It was kind of cool, I got the best of both worlds. I got to celebrate Easter with one side of the family, and then we’d have Passover dinner on the other side. I don’t necessarily identify one way or the other, I have both inside of me.”
Bird played college ball for UConn and holds many of the school records. She won two NCAA championships with Connecticut.
The Seattle Storm drafted Bird No. 1 overall in the 2002 WNBA Draft. Over the course of her career, Bird is an 11x All-Star, 5x All-WNBA First Team, 3x All-WNBA Second Team, and the all-time leader in assists. She has won four WNBA Championships (2004, 2010, 2018, 2020) with the Storm across three decades (2000s, 2010s, 2020s). She is one of the best and most well known WNBA players of all time.
Bird has also excelled representing the USA in the Olympics, winning a Gold Medal in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. She has also won four FIBA World Cup Gold Medals in 2002, 2010, 2014, and 2018. Internationally, Bird is a five-time EuroLeague champion.
If you combine all of Sue Bird’s college and professional championships and gold medals, she has won a total of 19 throughout her career. That is practically one for every year of her career.
Statistically for her career, Bird has averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.7 three-pointers per game.
Like her teammate Alysha Clark, Bird has Israeli citizenship. Bird told the Washington Jewish Museum about her experience in Israel.
“It’s very much basketball motivated. There are different rules, where each team in Europe can only have two Americans. As an American, if you have any kind of ancestors or connection to another country, it can be advantageous for your career if you can get a passport. For myself, with my father being Jewish and still having relatives in Israel, it was an easy connection. When I tell this to people outside of basketball circles, it seems a little odd. But in our world, it’s like very normal. So that’s how it all came about. It was cool, because what I found was in this effort to create an opportunity in my basketball career, I was able to learn a lot about a culture that I probably wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise. Part of it was being just immersed and basically living there for a little bit, and it was one of the best experiences. People have this kind of different image of what Israel is, and what it’s about. And yes, there are military people all over, but there’s so much more. Going to Jerusalem was an amazing experience. I’ve been two or three times. I went to the Dead Sea. I never got to go to Eilot, which I’m bummed about, because I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there. I spent most of my time in Tel Aviv. Gorgeous. There’s so much culture and I’ve made some friends that are lifelong friends. I got to get in touch with my whole dad’s side of the family, the family tree, I learned all about it. It was just an awesome experience.”
Even though Bird is about to turn 40-years old, she can break the WNBA championship record before she retires. Now that Bird has four chips, a fifth would be tied with just Rebekkah Brunson for the most chips in WNBA history. Considering the Storm have the best team in women’s basketball, Bird can easily win again in 2021.
Sue Bird may retire as one of the most winningest players in WNBA history. Not too bad for a Jew from Long Island.
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(AP Photo/John Hayes)