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

In the days after Oct. 7, in which Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people, Yarden Garzon struggled to eat and sleep. The outbreak of war in Israel and the Gaza Strip devastated her as she watched the news from Bloomington, Indiana, where she is a sophomore guard. Yarden, born and raised in Israel, worried about her friends, her family, her country. “I think I’m more nervous than my mother,” Garzon said. “She WAS really scary the first week.”

Garzon’s parents have been halfway around the world away from her, staying in their home in Ra’anana, Israel, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv about 50 miles from the epicenter of the war. However, in the last two months, as the death toll rose, her family spent time in the house’s bomb shelter. Sirens warning of air strikes rent the sky.

Of Garzon’s three siblings, only his older sister, Lior Garzon, lives 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 biggest seasons,” Lior said. “I didn’t know what to do. To stay. To come home, be with my family. “It was really a question of what to do.”

Remained. But it’s been 82 days since the world changed 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 also deal with pain.

As they grew up, they knew what to do when the sirens sounded. The ring didn’t ring every day or week – Yarden describes his childhood as peaceful – but Lior says they were always ready for whatever might happen. Her father, Eitan Garzon, remembers a game his daughters were playing when the sirens sounded. Everyone ran to the shelters, but eventually the game resumed normally.

Both Garzons have long gravitated to basketball, even when presented with alternatives. As a child, Lior danced and swam, Eitan said. He also tried judo and tennis. Yarden was a talented painter and played volleyball. However, it was the open-air courts in the region that appealed. “After all, every path I send them to, 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 held partly in Tel Aviv – and a springboard for traveling the world.

When Yarden enters 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.”

“I clear my head when I focus on basketball,” he added.

But if he has his cell phone in his hand it becomes difficult to ignore the news coming from the region. Lior tried to convince his sister, who already had a daily habit of watching the news, to take regular breaks and not necessarily follow every minute of the updates. Lior admits that she initially felt anxious during workouts, wondering, “What if something was happening right now?”

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

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

She was moved when, during an Oklahoma State football game earlier this season, a moment of silence was held for the thousands of people who died in the fighting. Her teammates prepared a gift basket for her, filled with Hershey Kisses milk chocolate and a Starbucks gift card. “Realizing that other people care and knowing what you’re going through, having this moment, I think it was really special,” Lior said.

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

Yarden Garzon, a sophomore from Indiana, has received support from her teammates as she navigates conflict in her 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 the tape wrapped around her left wrist, with the name Noam Avigdori, a 12-year-old girl who all The era was held hostage, written below. Avigdori returned to Israel after being held for 50 days, but Yarden continued to raise awareness of those who were abducted.

The gestures, Eitan said, are performed without any prompting. “It comes from them, not from us,” he said in a telephone interview. However, their parents send photos and videos of the acts to their Israeli friends. They are small demonstrations 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 often talk to their daughters more than once a day. They try to stay calm and reassure them of their safety. But they both “take it very hard,” Eitan said. “It’s different to talk about because we just have to touch them or hug them.” Lior said having Yarden in America, however, helps. “We feel like (we’re) in the same boat,” he told her. The sisters text daily about what’s happening at school, their respective programs, and the war. The community was key.

It took Lior some time to focus on basketball. Not even the sport she has practiced since she was little can distract her. “Like, why would I enjoy it when people (are) literally fighting for their lives right now?” she asked.

However, more than a third of the way through the season, she found herself enjoying the season. She drew 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 no one can really kill our spirit,” she said.

The words are written on his sneaker. With every step he moves forward.

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