Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv big man Roman Sorkin has an idea of what to expect from his first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoff game at home thanks to his run to the NCAA Final Four with the Oregon Ducks.
Roman Sorkin, Maccabi: 'We want to make the fans proud'
When Maccabi takes the floor for Game 3 of its playoff series against Real Madrid on Tuesday night in front of a sold-out crowd at Menorah Mivtachim Arena, the electric atmosphere might overwhelm some EuroLeague rookies. Sorkin will not likely be among them.
The 25-year-old big man has already played in front of much bigger crowds. Sorkin was a member of the University of Oregon team that reached the 2017 NCAA Final Four. Those games were played at the University of Phoenix Stadium, an American football venue in Glendale, Arizona, where 77,612 fans attended the semifinal, making it one of the biggest crowds in basketball history.
"It took us like 10 minutes to walk from the locker room to the court!" Sorkin recalled.
His path from a small basketball program in Israel's periphery to the heights of university basketball began while Sorkin was watching television as a youngster.
"I watched a Nike commercial about college basketball and it was before I started taking basketball seriously. It stuck in my head," Sorkin explained. "And then I started liking basketball more when I was growing up. When I was 16, I really started watching it and I just wanted to be a part of it, of the culture of training and everything."
When Sorkin was finishing high school, he didn't feel that he was ready for the rigors of professional basketball: "I wanted to take my time and work on myself and I thought that [playing in college] would be best for me."
With his combination of size and speed, several schools were interested, especially after he dominated at the 2014 Division B U18 European Championships in Bulgaria. Oregon came calling and Sorkin was ready to sign on – "I felt like it was the right place for me and I kind of stopped looking and talking to other colleges," he said – but there was an unexpected obstacle.
Even though he finished school in May, the 2014 Gaza War shut down the Israeli educational system and he was unable to get the scores from his matriculation exams to send to Oregon. He started working out with Maccabi Ashdod and waiting.
"It was frustrating, not knowing what was going to happen. But then I'm happy that it all worked out," Sorkin said.
He joined the Oregon Ducks midway through the next season, in January 2015, and his minutes and production grew from season to season. Not only was Sorkin developing his skills on the court, but he was also growing off it.
Sorkin's family is from Belarus and emigrated to Israel when he was a small child. He grew up speaking Hebrew and Russian. Mastering English would be another challenge.
"I learned English in school here [in Israel], but it took me about four months to be able to actually have a good conversation with people" at university, he said. "When you study in school, it's just on paper, reading and writing. But to speak actually with a person was really hard for me at the beginning. But it got better because you have to; you only speak English and everybody is only speaking English around you."
Sorkin played on some very strong teams at Oregon, where he was a teammate of current Olympiacos Piraeus guard Tyler Dorsey and Gran Canaria guard Dylan Ennis. The highlight of his time with the Ducks was reaching the NCAA Final Four.
"It was the most amazing experience I ever had. There were so many fans. The whole event was so crazy. We had a private jet. We just landed and it was like the president arrived. We were walking on a carpet for the Final Four. Kobe Bryant came to talk to us. It was just an amazing experience," he recalled.
"I remember I was sitting on the bench and I was looking towards the fans and there was some sort of elevator going up and down. It was so big. People looked like ants, they were so little and there were so many of them."
Alas, his team lost in a nail-biter to eventual champion North Carolina. After spending four seasons at Oregon, he returned home to Israel in 2018 and began his professional career with Maccabi Haifa, playing three seasons there before signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season.
Looking back on Oregon's Final Four run, Sorkin said, "It motivated me to keep going and want to play pro… Having those fans and that environment is what keeps you motivated to work and play hard in every game."
Sorkin's first EuroLeague campaign has seen him progress from playing sparingly in 17 games to suddenly posting a season-high 13 points in Maccabi’s next-to-last regular-season game, a surprise 24-point win on the court of standings leader FC Barcelona.
That momentum has carried into the playoffs, where despite his team's 0-2 deficit against Real, Sorkin is averaging 7.0 points. 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks for a per-game performance index rating of 7.5 that almost triples his regular-season average.
Now, as Maccabi faces a do-or-die game to stay alive in the playoffs and extend the season, Sorkin can lean back on his college experience to prepare for these big moments and to put it all in perspective.
"The goal is to go as far as we can," he summed up. "We want to play in those most important games where everybody is watching, get trophies, bring joy to the fans and make the fans proud. At the end of the day, that's what we want to do."