ALBANY, N.Y. — Michal Assaf knew it could happen. She just was hoping it wouldn’t be so soon.
Assaf, a freshman guard on the University of Maine women’s basketball team, played what may be her last game for the Black Bears at Albany on Saturday afternoon.
She must depart Tuesday for her native Israel, as she has been called up for active military duty.
“My mom called me a couple days ago and told me that a friend of ours told her that I can’t [get a deferment],” she said Saturday night as UMaine bused back to Orono after suffering a 71-39 loss to Albany.
Assaf said she really hasn’t had time to fully process the news.
“You can really understand when I say that everything’s happening so fast,” she said. “I at least wanted to finish this year [at UMaine]. Leaving in the middle of the year, right after the conference games started, it’s difficult.”
There were lots of tears after Saturday’s game.
“It was an emotional locker room for her after the game. It was her last game with us,” said UMaine head coach Richard Barron, who offered that Assaf is the first player he has ever lost to military service.
Barron explained that all Israeli citizens may be activated for military service once they reach their 18th birthday. It is a duty Assaf, who turned 18 on Oct. 31, takes seriously.
“I’ve got to say I’m proud to serve in the military,” Assaf said of her minimum two-year term. “I’m happy to serve in the military, I’m just not happy about doing it now.”
She said in spite of only spending 4 1/2 months at UMaine, she has developed a special bond with her teammates.
“I love my team. I’ll miss everybody. They’re my other family,” Assaf added.
Assaf said her father, Modi Assaf, also served in the Israeli army.
“My father has fought in wars and he even got injured in one of them,” she said.
Assaf had hoped to receive a deferment of her military service for the duration of her time studying at UMaine. It is something her family had attempted to procure for more than a year.
“I can’t even imagine how hard they’ve been working,” she said. “They had a really hard time trying to get this delay. We didn’t give up, but we ran out of options.”
Barron said the escalation of Israel’s conflict with Palestine and the volatility of the political and religious situation around the Middle East have led to fewer military deferments.
He said Israel’s mandatory military service requirement is something that defines the country.
“We’re very proud of her and very supportive of what she’s doing,” Barron said, calling it a noble cause.
The UMaine coach spent two weeks last spring recruiting in Europe and the Middle East and wound up landing six players from six different countries. As a result, he pays attention to what is happening overseas.
“We follow it very closely,” Barron said. “I think we’re all very aware of what’s happening not only in Israel but in other parts of the globe where are players are from. I hope there will be some stability in the region and tensions will die down.”
Among the other ways an Israeli woman can avoid military service are getting married and leaving the country permanently.
“I really don’t want to get married because of it or stay here forever,” Assaf said with a laugh.
Assaf has enjoyed her time in Maine and had hoped to be part of the resurgence she believes the women’s basketball program will enjoy.
“It’s been an amazing year,” said Assaf, who was playing an average of 7.3 minutes per game. “Even though we’re struggling right now, I know that this team has a lot of potential. I know that this team will win and they will win a lot.”
Returning to UMaine after her two years of military service is an option, although Assaf has no idea what might happen in the meantime.
“I just want to say that coach Barron and the coaching staff were amazingly supportive in offering me to come back after my military service,” she said. “I’m really flattered. I’m speechless.”