Israeli sisters find strength, support and a safe place in college basketball

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In the days after October 7, in which Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people, Yarden Garzón had difficulty eating and sleeping. The outbreak of war in Israel and the Gaza Strip was all-consuming as she watched the news from Bloomington, Indiana, where she is a sophomore guard. Yarden, who was born and raised in Israel, was worried about her friends, her family and her country. “I think she was more nervous than my mother,” Garzón said. “It was really scary the first week.”

Garzón's parents have been half a world away from her, staying at their home in Ra'anana, Israel, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv about 50 miles from the epicenter of the war. Still, for the past two months, as the death toll has risen, her family has spent time in the home's bomb shelter. Sirens warning of air raids pierced the sky.

Of Garzón's three siblings, only his older sister, Lior Garzón, is also in the United States. She is a senior at Oklahoma State and a preseason all-conference honorable mention forward for the Cowgirls. “This is one of my most important seasons,” Lior said. “Not know what to do. Stay. To go home, be with my family. It was really a question of what to do.”

She stayed. But 82 days have passed since the world changed for the Garzóns. Since then, they have played key roles at their respective schools. Both have started every game and are averaging double-digit points. They are also dealing with pain.

Growing up, they knew what to do when the sirens sounded. The sound didn't play every day or week (Yarden describes his childhood as peaceful), but Lior says they were always ready for anything that might happen. His father, Eitan Garzón, remembers a game his daughters were playing when the sirens sounded. Everyone ran to the dugouts, but the game eventually resumed as normal.

Both Garzóns have long gravitated toward basketball, even when presented with alternatives. When he was a child, Lior danced and swam, Eitan said. He also tried judo and tennis. Yarden was a talented painter and played volleyball. However, the region's open-air courts attracted the most appeal. “After all, every route I send them, they come back to basketball,” said Eitan, who also played while growing up. Their success has become a source of pride (both Lior and Yarden represented Israel at last summer's European Championships, which were partially held in Tel Aviv) and a launching pad for traveling the world.

When Yarden walks into Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall or Cook Hall, Indiana's practice facility, he tries to focus on the sport. The gym, he said, is “like that safe place.”

“It just clears my head when I focus on basketball,” he added.

But with your phone in your hand, it's hard to ignore news from around the region. Lior has tried to convince her sister, who already had a daily habit of watching the news, to take regular breaks and not necessarily keep up with every minute update. She lior admits that from the beginning she felt anxious during practices and wondered, “What if something is happening right now?”

Lior Garzón writes a message in Hebrew on his sneakers before games at Oklahoma State. (Courtesy of OSU Athletics)

Disentangling the situations in their two worlds has been almost impossible. Lior drew a Star of David on both of his Nike sneakers. On the left shoe, he wrote in Hebrew: “You can never kill our spirit.” In line to shake hands after Oklahoma State's loss to Colorado in early November, Buffaloes coaches told her they were thinking about her and her family.

He cried when, at an Oklahoma State football game earlier this season, a moment of silence was held for the thousands who had died in the fighting. His teammates made him a gift basket filled with Hershey Kisses milk chocolate and a Starbucks gift card. “I think it was really special to realize that other people care and know what you're going through, to have this moment,” Lior said.

In Indiana, a section of fans attending their early December game against Stetson wore blue T-shirts that said “We Stand With Yarden” on the front and with the Star of David inside a basketball. Assistant coach Rhet Wierzba, who hosted Yarden at a Shabbat dinner shortly after the war broke out, wore an Israeli flag lapel pin on his jacket to support the sophomore. Hoosiers players also posed for a photo holding the flag just days after the initial attack. “The little things we can do let her know how much she is loved,” Wierzba said.

Yarden Garzón, a sophomore at Indiana, has received support from his teammates as he navigates the conflict in his home country. (Courtesy of Indiana University Athletics)

Before Indiana's season opener on Nov. 9, Yarden took a black marker and wrote “Bring Them Home” on a ribbon wrapped around his left wrist, with the name of Noam Avigdori, a 12-year-old girl who at the time moment I was being held hostage. , written below. Avigdori is back in Israel, after being held for 50 days, but Yarden has continued to raise awareness for those who have been kidnapped.

The gestures, Eitan said, are made without anyone telling him to do so. “He comes from them, not from us,” he said in a telephone interview. Even so, his parents send photos and videos of the events to their Israeli friends. They are small signs of support. “The little things are the big things,” Eitan said. Even brief moments of joy are still moments of joy.

Eitan says he and his wife usually talk to their daughters more than once a day. They try to stay calm and reassure them about their own safety. But both “take it very seriously,” Eitan said. “It's different to talk about it because we just need to touch them or hug them.” However, Lior said having Yarden in the United States helps. “We feel like we're in the same boat,” he said. The sisters text daily about what's happening at school, about their respective programs, and about the war. The community has been key.

It took a while for Lior to focus on basketball. Not even the sport that she has practiced since she was little could distract her from it. “Why would she enjoy it when people are literally fighting for her life right now?” she asked.

However, for more than a third of the season, he found himself enjoying the season. He has gained strength from feeling added purpose. “I think my mind right now is thinking this is the best way I can represent Israel, just showing how strong we are and that no one can kill our spirit,” she said.

The words are written on his sneaker. With each step, she moves forward.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos of Yarden and Lior Garzón: Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, Michael Hickey/Getty Images, courtesy of OSU Athletics)



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