As a four-year varsity player at Amherst College, Yram Groff was confident in himself and the strong American team as he traveled to Israel for the first time in his life to take part in the Maccabiah Games.
But the trip would end up giving him much more than a chance to play basketball on the international level.
Groff, 45, now an orthopaedic surgeon in the Pittsburgh area, played professional basketball in Israel partially as a result of his participation in the Games. And, if that wasn’t enough, he met his wife while in Israel.
“Playing basketball in Israel, it was like a dream,” said Groff. “The way things worked out with meeting my wife was like a fairy tale.”
Groff had a successful career playing for Amherst. As a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, Amherst won the New England Small College Athletic Conference championship in his junior year in 1988 and Groff was named the conference player of the year.
“When he was a high school player, he was a 6-foot-3 and ¾ inch center, so he was a perimeter player,” said Dave Hixon, Groff’s coach at Amherst. “When he came to college it was perfect.”
“He had great post moves, he had very big hands, so he could score if they put a smaller quicker kid on him,” Hixon added. “But he also developed his outside game — his outside shot — so if they put a bigger player that could play him in the post he took them outside.”
After his graduation, Groff played with the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games, which claimed the silver medal.
“I’d never been to Israel, so that gathering and those two and a half or three weeks for me really changed my association, my thoughts about Israel and my religion,” Groff said. “Growing up in Tampa, Fla., [I was] kind of loosely affiliated with my shul, but having been [in Israel] is compelling, the connection.”
Israeli teams scouted the Maccabiah Games for prospective players. Groff did not expect to play basketball in Israel, planning to return home and go to medical school; but first, he wanted to take a year off. He actually hoped to play professional basketball in Holland for a year because he had family in the country.
But when he got the offer to play for Maccabi Tiberias of the Israeli Basketball Federation, he found the proposal quite intriguing.
“I didn’t want to go at first,” Groff said. “They kind of persuaded me that if I just showed up and saw the town that I would really love it and they were confident that I would stay.”
The team flew Groff in for a weekend and he immediately knew that he wanted to stay.
“As soon as I got there it was a beautiful place, and the sun was shining, whereas in Holland it was getting colder and colder,” Groff said. “So I stayed there for the year.”
During that weekend visit to the city, Groff also met Merris, the woman he would eventually marry. Her family owned a small travel agency, and she was working there at the time when Groff went to buy a ticket back to the United States.
“We went in there and spent a fair amount of time just buying a ticket and I realized later the reason it took so long just to buy a ticket was because the team was negotiating the payment of the ticket saying ‘we’ll pay you tomorrow for a ticket today,’ ” Groff said. “I wound up meeting my wife there on that first weekend.”
Maccabi Tiberias, Groff found out later, was in tough financial straits. But that did not affect the way the team treated Groff during his time there.
“They gave us a beautiful apartment on the hillside that overlooked the Sea of Galilee, so every morning you wake up and there’s this incredibly gorgeous view,” Groff said. “I got paid a salary; they gave me a car; they did all my laundry and while I was there, I went to class [and] I learned how to speak Hebrew.”
The team only practiced for a few hours every day, so Groff had plenty of free time to tour the country.
During that time, he indulged in some other activities. He got his scuba diving license and dove in the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. He also met a group of people that went paragliding and he joined them.
“It was kind of like a prolonged vacation doing all of these things that otherwise I’d never had the chance to do,” Groff said.
After the year in Israel, Groff returned to the States; this time, to Pittsburgh to begin medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, and Merris came with him. It was their first time in the city, as Groff grew up in Tampa and Merris was Israeli.
That summer, they went back to Israel and got married. The couple returned to Pittsburgh in the fall so that Groff could continue his studies.
After his second year at Pitt, Groff decided to take another year off and the couple moved to Israel. Groff did orthopaedic research at Rambam Hospital in Haifa and, to support himself and his wife, signed a one-year contract to play with Hapoel Z’fat, another basketball team.
After that year in Israel, the Groffs came back to Pittsburgh and Yram completed his last two years of medical school at Pitt, graduating in 1995.
He opened Groff Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in 2001, where he has practiced ever since. He splits his time between his two offices in Shadyside and Monroeville. He also works in several area hospitals.
The couple has four children: Destin, Dylan, Etai and Maya. Destin is graduating from high school and will continue her father’s legacy at Amherst, where she will be on the swim team next year. Also, like her father, she will compete in the upcoming Maccabiah Games for Team USA.
Groff is anchored in Pittsburgh now, but he will never forget his chance to play basketball in Israel.
“Just being able to play and getting paid relatively well, having free time to see the country and do other things, you couldn’t have planned it any better,” Groff said.
And, of course, he couldn’t have planned on meeting Merris along the way either.
“I often laugh about it because it took so many little twists and turns that kind of brought us together,” Groff said. “It was more than just a coincidence, or so it would seem.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)