Doron, Suez-Karni: Israel's basketball ambassadors

When you think about basketball hotbeds, the usual suspects come to mind. Places such as the cornfields of Indiana, the horse farms of Kentucky and the asphalt courts of New York City.

So how about the central coast of Israel?

That's right, Israel. That country in the Middle East, populated by about 6.5 million people in an area slightly smaller than the size of New Jersey.

Two women whose homes are only about 10 miles away from each other along the Mediterranean Sea are changing the way Israelis look at basketball.

And the way the basketball world looks at Israel.

Shay Doron is a junior at Maryland and an All-American candidate. Liad Suez-Karni is a senior All-Big East selection at Villanova.

Their story is about your average, typical Jewish girls who leave home to chase a dream. They travel around the world to play basketball. With a little help from a couple of Catholic schools.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Shay Doron was born in Israel and spent the first three years of her life there. She then spent part of her childhood in the United States before returning to the Middle East.

By the time she reached high school, Doron was among the best basketball players in Israel.

But she faced a future in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to play basketball while pursuing her education. At the age of 18, she would also have to join all of her countrymen and women by serving a two-year stint in the military.

She had to make a fateful decision about whether to stay home or go back to America to get an education -- and hone her basketball skills.

"She was so dedicated to the game," Shay's father, Yuda Doron, said. "She was outstanding in Israel but the time had come for her to move forward. That meant a trip back to the U.S. It was her decision and we agreed to come with her."

"In Israel you have no choice but to join the Army when you are 18 years old," said Shay, who's averaging a team-best 16.4 points for sixth-ranked Maryland. "I wanted the opportunity to proceed with basketball. Over there it is very hard to play while you are going to school, so I decided to come to New York and pursue my dreams. My parents made a tremendous sacrifice for me."

Liad Suez-Karni, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, started playing basketball in Israel the same way many American girls learned the ropes: She just tagged along when her big brother went to the court.

"Our whole family is very athletic," said Suez-Karni, who matched her career high with 26 points in a win Tuesday. "My mom and dad played sports. My brother, Maoz, is three years older than me and when he started playing, I started playing right out in our backyard. I joined a girls' basketball team in the second grade and my whole town of Even-Yehuda loves the game."

In her younger days, Suez-Karni remembers watching UConn men's games on Israeli TV. The whole country was watching the Huskies' Israeli star, Doron Sheffer. She and her brother were mesmerized by the big crowds, the electricity on the college court and the level of play in America. They wanted to be a part of that and the seed was planted.

"I spoke to some women who had played in the States," said Suez-Karni, who's averaging a team-high 15.6 points for 10-4 Villanova. "They told me they loved it in the U.S. and had a great experience. It's been my dream since I was 12 years old to come here to play. It's hard to play ball and go to school in Israel, so America was the place to go."

If you are Shay Doron and you are traveling a great distance to be the best, you have to play with the best. In New York City, that means Christ The King High School, home to the top prep basketball program in the country and currently ranked No. 1 in USA Today's high school poll.

It also happens to be a Catholic institution and not your typical destination for a teenager from Israel. But basketball would bring the two together.

"It was a situation that I made the best out of," Doron admits. "Everyone at Christ The King was great to me, and we all kept a sense of humor about the differences in my religion. It never hurts to get perspectives on other religions and ways of life. And I am happy to say that I got the highest grade in my religion classes!"

Doron excelled on the court as well as in the classroom. Christ The King's alumni include former Tennessee legend Chamique Holdsclaw and UConn great Sue Bird. Shay followed in their footsteps, attracting the attention of some of the top programs in college basketball. Her next stop would be College Park, Md.

"I liked the coaches at Maryland," Doron said. "Brenda Frese has the same drive to win and succeed as I do. I wanted to be a part of what they were building. It's a greater accomplishment to build something from scratch. I wanted that challenge."

Now in her junior season, Doron has been a major factor in the Terps' construction project. They have gone from a team picked to finish eighth in the ACC her freshman year to the nation's sixth-ranked program in both top-25 polls. Her dreams of a national championship and a spot in the WNBA are not that far off.

As a teenager, Suez-Karni watched her brother leave Israel to go to America. Maoz headed to Philadelphia and Kutztown University to study and play. She bided her time and plotted a course to follow him to Philly. After serving her two years in the Israeli Army, Suez-Karni committed to Villanova to play for coach Harry Perretta.

"A friend of Harry's saw me play and that's how they started recruiting me," Suez-Karni said. "Villanova was an easy choice for me. I liked the people, the team and the school."

The course load, however, took a little getting used to.

"I walked into my Intro to Christianity class and knew I was a long way from home," Suez-Karni joked. "The professor was a priest and there was a crucifix on the wall, and I'm thinking, 'I'm definitely in the minority here.'

"At first the priest was careful about a Jewish girl in his class, but it ended up being great and a lot of fun. The experience has opened my eyes and actually strengthened my own faith."

The first year in Philadelphia was a tough one. Maoz was back in Israel and Liad had to leave behind her husband, Amir Karni. She was homesick and missed her husband and her family support system. She also missed basketball, having to sit out a year due to NCAA rules.

In her sophomore season (2003-04), Liad had her husband back and she had the game back. Amir came to the United States and enrolled at Kutztown to take classes. Liad was also cleared to play games for Villanova.

Since then, she has developed into one of the top players in the conference, earning All-Big East honors. This week, she scored the 1,000th point of her career. And now the Philadelphia family also includes Liad's younger sister, who is playing at Kutztown.

Shay Doron attended basketball summer school last year with the world as her classroom. As a dual citizen of both countries, she did double duty as a member of both a U.S. national team and an Israeli national team.

In July, her Israeli team won a European Division championship with a perfect 6-0 record. It was the first such title in the nation's history and set off wild celebrations and unprecedented media coverage.

Then in August, her American squad traveled to Israel for the Maccabiah Games and took home the gold medal. Doron was the most valuable player of both competitions. On the shores of the Mediterranean, her celebrity status had graduated to a whole new level.

"She's like a rock star over there," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I watched tapes of the games, and the broadcasts were in Hebrew. I don't know much of the language, but I do know the announcers kept saying one name over and over: Shay Doron. I could understand that."

Adds Yuda Doron: "Everybody knows her over there. It's a small place, and the coverage of the games was incredible. They put her on the news and in the newspapers, but it doesn't change her. She brings good chemistry to a team, and I think that's her biggest contribution, more than her skill."

Doron loved being able to represent both countries.

"It meant a lot to me to be a part of the Israeli success and the American success," Doron said. "I could never imagine there would be that much support for women's basketball. Some of our Maryland games this winter are now televised back in Israel."

While Suez-Karni enjoys the fruits of her basketball career at Villanova, she often reflects on her time in the Israeli Army. It has given her maturity beyond her years and a better perspective on the world around her.

"The army taught me great life lessons," she said. "I had to learn to deal with authority and people telling me what to do. I had to take orders and accept the things people were telling me. The army life teaches humility and a good work ethic. I have learned to take responsibility for the things I do in life."

One of those responsibilities is to give back to young girls in Israel. A member of the national team since she was 16, Suez-Karni preaches the benefits of the game of basketball and the doors it has opened in her life.

"I like to talk to girls about basketball and about the opportunities they have," said Suez-Karni, who often works kids' camps when she goes home. It's fun to take the time to watch them play and help them out.

"My whole experience has been a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I had to go after. The basketball has been great and has provided me with a whole new way of thinking about the game. I've broadened my horizons and that's what college athletics is about."

Doron has also embraced the chance to show Israeli girls -- as well as young women around the world -- what they are capable of.

"I guess I am sort of an ambassador for basketball," Doron said. "I enjoy the responsibility of taking Israel where her teams haven't been before in Europe. Basketball allows me to showcase Israel to the world as well. It's not a war zone like you see on TV. It's normal living. And the Americans that spent some time there this summer playing basketball all said they would love to go back again."

Doron might one day go back again, too, for an extended stay. Her family keeps a home in Herzelyya. She is a criminology major and has expressed an interest in the Israeli secret service. But her focus right now is on the basketball court.

"To be the first Israeli to play in the WNBA would be quite an accomplishment," Doron said. "I want to take basketball as far as I can. I'll follow it, that's my love, that's my life."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.