One of the most violent and debated-about areas of the world has a close Wildcat connection.
Junior Nof Kedem, who is entering her third season as a guard on the women's basketball team, grew up in Olesh, Israel. Despite the violence that she was close to, she didn't think much of it. For her, that was just the way it was. She grew up and lived with it.
She started playing basketball as a kid, learning from her brother.
"I just wanted to be like my older brother, so I started play," Kedem said. "Then it got serious at some point, and I realized I actually have a talent. Then, I got recruited to a major club team and played there. And from there, went on."
For many successful young athletes, "went on" means playing at a college. But for Kedem, that means playing for the national team from the time she was 14 to today, as well as playing at a collegiate level. From this past summer, playing in Bulgaria for the Israeli national U-20 team, to her favorite national team game against England as a 17-year-old, she's been a force in the international game. The England game especially stands out in her mind.
"We were down 23 – I will never forget that – 23 at halftime," she said. "We're all defeated. We just weren't feeling that game. We started talking in the locker room and were like, 'Okay, we're picking it up right now.' We ended up making a comeback and winning that game at the buzzer."
Her play on the Israeli team got her noticed by American coaches and ended up bringing her to Evanston to play for the 'Cats. It was when she finally left Israel for an extended period of time that she saw the differences between the two countries.
"The Israeli culture is very different from the American one," Kedem said. "We're outgoing, we're louder, we're very direct, straightforward. Sometimes I feel like Americans are... Sometimes I just have to be polite, smile and say thank you."
Ask her the obvious questions about Israel, and her direct personality shows itself.
"Actually, lots of people ask me questions and I'm more than happy to explain and show them, give them the big picture about what's going on," Kedem said. "Because people who don't live it, I don't think they completely understand how it is, life in that situation."
Like most Israeli citizens, Kedem will fulfill her military service (serving in the military is mandatory for most, but Arab Israeli citizens aren't required to serve in the military). Every woman serves for two years and each man serves for three. But because she is an athlete and will be playing basketball in an Israeli uniform, she said her time could be shorter and will not be directly in the violence. She got an extension to play basketball for the 'Cats. As soon as she graduates, she'll head back to Israel to defend her country.
"I love Israel," Kedem said. "I think it is a beautiful, great country. I guess it's different, security-wise, because of where we're at in the Middle East. It's part of my everyday."