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

In the days after Oct. 7, in which Hamas militants killed around 1,200 people, Yarden Garzon struggled to eat and sleep. The outbreak of war in Israel and the Gaza Strip was all-consuming to her, as she watched the news from Bloomington, Ind., where she’s a sophomore guard. Yarden, who was born and raised in Israel, worried about her friends, her family, her country. “I think I was more nervous than my mom,” Garzon said. “It was really scary the first week.”

Garzon’s parents have been half a world away from her, staying put in their home in Ra’anana, Israel, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv about 50 miles from the war’s epicenter. Still, over the last two months as the death toll has risen, her family has spent time in the house’s bomb shelter. Sirens warning of air strikes pierced the sky.

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

She stayed. But it has been 82 days since the world shifted for the Garzons. Since then, they have played key roles for their respective schools. Both have started every game and are averaging double-digit points. They’re also dealing with grief.

Growing up, they knew what to do when sirens blared. The sound didn’t ring every day or week — Yarden describes her childhood as peaceful — but Lior says they were always ready for whatever might occur. Her father, Eitan Garzon, recalls a game in which his daughters were playing when sirens went off. Everyone scurried to shelters, but play eventually resumed as normal.

Both Garzons have long gravitated to basketball, even when presented alternatives. As a child, Lior danced and swam, Eitan said. She also tried judo and tennis. Yarden was a talented painter and played volleyball. Nevertheless, the region’s outdoor courts appealed most. “After all, in all the routes that I send them in, they go back to the basketball,” said Eitan, who also played while growing up. Their success has become a point of pride — both Lior and Yarden represented Israel at last summer’s European Championships, which were held partially in Tel Aviv — and a launchpad to travel the world.

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

“I just clear my mind when I focus on basketball,” she added.

But if she has her phone in hand, it becomes difficult to ignore news from the region. Lior has tried convincing her sister, who already had a daily habit of watching the news, to take regular breaks and not necessarily track every minute update. Lior concedes that early on she felt anxious during practices, wondering, “What if something is happening right now?”

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

Untangling the situations in their two worlds has been next to impossible. Lior drew a Star of David on both of her Nike sneakers. On the left shoe, in Hebrew she wrote, “You can never kill our spirit.” In the handshake line after Oklahoma State’s loss to Colorado in early November, Buffaloes coaches told her they were thinking of her and her family.

She teared up when at an Oklahoma State football game earlier this season, a moment of silence was held for the thousands who had died amid the fighting. Her teammates made her a gift basket, full of milk chocolate Hershey Kisses and a Starbucks gift card. “To realize other people care and know what you’re going through, to have this moment, I think that was really special,” Lior said.

At Indiana, a section of fans who attended their early December game against Stetson wore blue shirts that read “We Stand With Yarden” on the front and with the Star of David inside a basketball. Assistant coach Rhet Wierzba, who hosted Yarden for a Shabbat dinner shortly after the war broke out, has worn a lapel pin of the Israeli flag on his jacket to support the sophomore. Hoosiers players also posed for a picture holding the flag just days after the initial attack. “The small things we can do that she knows how much she is loved,” Wierzba said.

Yarden Garzon, a sophomore at Indiana, has received support from her teammates as she copes with the conflict in her home country. (Courtesy of Indiana University Athletics)

Before Indiana’s season-opener on Nov. 9, Yarden took a black Sharpie and wrote “Bring Them Home” on tape wrapping her left wrist, with the name Noam Avigdori, a 12-year-old girl who at the time was being held hostage, written underneath. Avigdori is back in Israel, after being held for 50 days, but Yarden has continued raising awareness for those who have been taken.

The gestures, Eitan said, are done without any prompting. “It comes from them, not us,” he said in a phone interview. Still, their parents send photos and videos of the acts to their Israeli friends. They are small displays of support. “The little things is the big things,” Eitan said. Even brief moments of joy are still moments of joy.

Eitan says he and his wife often talk with their daughters more than once a day. They try to stay calm and reassure them of their own safety. But both “take it very hard,” Eitan said. “It’s different to talk about because we just need to touch or to hug them.” Lior said having Yarden in America helps, however. “We feel like (we’re) in the same boat,” she said. The sisters text daily, about happenings at school, about their respective programs and about the war. Community has been key.

It took Lior a while to focus on basketball. Even the sport she’s played since childhood couldn’t distract her. “Like why would I enjoy it when people literally (are) fighting for their life right now?” she asked.

However, more than a third of the way through the season, she’s found herself enjoying the season. She’s drawn 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 nobody can actually kill our spirit,” she said.

The words are written on her sneaker. With every step, she moves forward.

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