Jamie Skeen admits he knew virtually nothing of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before two years ago. To him, war was in some faraway place like Iraq. He certainly didn’t envision war would come to his doorstep.
But earlier this year, Skeen, the star of VCU’s 2011 Final Four run, found himself caught in the crossfire of the decades-old conflict. Skeen is currently playing for Maccabi Ashdod in Israel’s top division. In the middle of one November practice, team owners abruptly sent players and coaches home and told them to prepare for rocket attacks.
Skeen ran to the locker room to gather his clothes. That’s when they heard the first warning siren, which signals incoming rockets.
“When you hear the siren, you have 20 seconds to get to the safe room,” Skeen says, referring to a reinforced structure within many residences and buildings in the region.
He rushed back to his apartment and his girlfriend, Whitney. The next morning, Skeen says rockets began scorching through the air five and six at a time as people began their daily commute. The rocket attacks would persist for eight days. He says one rocket landed a short walk from his apartment.
“When one lands, your whole apartment building shakes,” he said.
Located on the Mediterranean Sea, 25 miles south Tel Aviv, Ashdod is home to Israel’s largest port and a more than 200,000 people. With its ample coastline and warm Mediterranean climate, the city is known for its thriving beach community.
But Ashdod is also less than 25 miles from the Gaza Strip, well within range of Hamas rocket fire. In November, as violence between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel flared up, Ashdod found itself caught in the middle. Hamas rocket attacks in southern Israel are not uncommon. But the Nov. 14 assassination a Hamas military leader touched off an eight-day escalation of violence on both sides. In a little over a week, Hamas fired an estimated 900 rockets into Israel.
In recent years, Israel has developed a rocket protection system called the Iron Dome, which targets rockets and mortar shells and launches a missile to intercept them in mid-air. Although the Iron Dome has been reported to have a success rate up to 70 percent, that means potentially hundreds of rockets are still left to rain down on southern Israel.
Skeen played in the Israeli Super League last year in Ashkelon, which is about 15 minutes south of Ashdod. Although Ashkelon is closer to Gaza and more susceptible to rockets, Skeen says he only heard rocket fire once last season. It did not prepare him for November’s attacks. After a day of shelling, Skeen and his girlfriend were evacuated to Tel Aviv.
Although he says he never feared for his life, the violence took its toll.
“It was a little uncomfortable because my girlfriend was scared,” Skeen, 24, said. “It makes me feel like I’m not providing a comfortable household for her.”
Despite the ongoing conflict, Ashdod continued to hold practices in Tel Aviv and other locations. While the violence may have jarred Skeen, it’s become a way of life for many in the region.
“Israelis, they act like this is part of their culture,” Skeen said. “They act like everything is okay and try to downplay it to make us Americans feel comfortable. They tell you have a better chance of getting into a car accident than getting hit by a rocket.”
One day, warning sirens blared during practice, and Skeen says one of his American teammates was reduced to tears.
“He was worried he wasn’t going to see his son again,” Skeen said.
Two of Skeen’s American teammates, Kenny Gabriel and Chris Allen, eventually walked away from their contracts and left the team. At one point, prompted by a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv where he was staying, Skeen made up his mind to leave Israel. He drove back to Ashdod to pack up his apartment and for more than two hours while he collected his things, the sounds of rocket fire filled the sky. The Charlotte, N.C. native called his agent and told him he wanted two plane tickets home. The next day, Hamas and Israel agreed to a cease fire, and Skeen decided to stay, for now.
Although life has returned to normal in the following weeks, Skeen doubts he’ll return to Israel next year. In the meantime, he’ll keep trying to advance his pro career. This season for Ashdod, the 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 10.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in about 23 minutes per game.
Skeen, who has also played in France, was a member of the Chicago Bulls Summer League team this summer, but rarely saw the floor. He averaged 9.2 minutes, 1.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in five summer league contests. He still holds out hope of an NBA career, but says, “It seems like the window is slowly closing.”
Even if he never realizes his NBA dream, Skeen says he’d be happy to continue his professional career abroad. Where that will be remains to be seen.