Miami Midnites Chase Semi-Pro Basketball Dreams One Blowout at a Time

George Gray, all five feet eight inches of him, flies up the court like a Chihuahua released from a cage. He bursts through midcourt, dribbling at hyperspeed, and weaves around two towering defenders near the goal. Just before slamming into another, an enormous center beneath the rim, he spins instinctively to his right and leaps, completing a near-360 as he releases the ball with his left hand.

Everyone in the arena holds his breath as the ball arcs toward the backboard. Gray's body slams the ground hard as the shot kisses glass. For a fraction of a second, the ball hangs above the rim. Then it drops. Two points, Miami Midnites.

"Big maaaaan Gray!" the announcer booms.

One regular starter works at Home Depot; another works at the Y; the head coach is a high-school teacher.

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With five minutes before the half, Gray's basket extends the Midnites' lead over the Palm Beach Knights to more than 20; later they would extend the lead to more than 30. Lopsided score lines are nothing new for the most dominant professional sports team in Florida: Last year, the Midnites' first season, they easily won the Florida Basketball Association title and made the championship series in the 57-team American Basketball Association, outgunning squads everywhere from the Bronx to Calgary. This FBA season, the Midnites are already 9-0. The team's ambition, according to the general manager, is to be "the best minor-league team in America."

Not that the Midnites' breakout success translates into professional glamour: The team plays home games out of the David Posnack Jewish Community Center, a 40-acre complex amid suburban Davie's strip malls, where tickets cost $10 and the players compete for parking spaces with seniors arriving for aquatics classes. Away games are often played in dank high-school gyms.

Midnites players earn roughly $800 to $1,200 a month, so many of them hold second jobs. One regular starter works at Home Depot; another works at the Y; the head coach is a high-school language arts teacher. Some games draw only a couple dozen fans — including friends and family — and even many Davie residents have no idea the team exists.

But the humility of the Midnites' circumstances belies their undeniable talent. All of the players, including Gray — a former Dade County player of the year — were once high-school stars. Their six-foot-ten power forward is a former Israeli national player with a European title. Another once suited up for the University of Miami and recently finished a stint in the NBA D-League. But for all their talent, many have also struggled, confronted with everything from unstable homes to academic challenges to physical ailments.

"Our persona of our team is guys that have been counted out in life," head coach Damon Wilcox says. "They've been dealt bad hands. They've had promises broken to them on and off the court... If that's our persona — what people feel about us and think about us — then, hell, that's how we're going to play."

For them, a green Midnites jersey means more than a team to play for. It might be a last chance, either to hang onto fading glory or to cling to the elusive dream of playing big-time pro basketball.

"I know this opportunity to be able to play for the Miami Midnites team is opening the door for me," Gray says. "I'm dreaming big... and nothing's going to stop me. Nothing."

One afternoon in 2003, George Gray burst into the coaches' cramped office behind the Northwestern High School gym, his face contorted in anguish. The freshman had just seen the piece of paper plastered to the gym wall announcing the roster for the Bulls' JV squad. His name wasn't on it.

Even for a 14-year-old, Gray was unusually small — not even five feet. But his hustle was limitless: He dived after loose balls. He sprinted back full-tilt on defense. He never gave up on plays. As the tryout roster dwindled from 60 to 30 to 20, Gray kept getting called back. But on the third and final cut, he was dropped. He marched straight to head varsity coach Sam Watts to ask why he hadn't made it. Watts told him that the coaches had loved his attitude and hustle but that he had missed out by a single spot. The coach encouraged Gray to come back next year.

"He wasn't trying to hear that," Watts remembers.

"You can't measure his heart. You can't measure it in inches."

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Instead, Gray peppered the coach with suggestions about coming on as a manager or water boy — anything to get near the court. Finally, Watts said the coaches would think about it and told the young man to return in a week. Gray cried as he walked home, but the next week, when he showed up in Watts' office again, the coach had news: Another player had broken his leg. Gray didn't have to be a water boy; he would be the 15th man.

"And that's when my basketball career started, man," Gray says.

Gray, as much as any Midnites player, has always known adversity. He was raised in rough surroundings and struggled academically. He lit up scoreboards and won over coaches, only to be overlooked by scouts because of his size. Now 26, he's finally playing on his first pro team — and eagerly splitting his guts on every possession. "You can't measure his heart," Wilcox says. "You can't measure it in inches."

Gray grew up in the projects of Liberty City, at Lincoln-Fields and Pork 'n' Beans, where 10-year-olds are just as likely to see bullet holes and memorials as math books. Maybe half the kids he grew up with, Gray estimates, "didn't make it" — they went to jail, succumbed to drugs, or were killed.

When Gray was young, his father was incarcerated. His grandma — known and loved in the neighborhood as "The Candy Lady" — and his mom, Jacqueline, were strict. He spent long afternoons playing football and discovered basketball only after his mom put him in a summer camp at Gwen Cherry Park. "I was so horrible, man," Gray says. "I traveled. I dribbled the ball with two hands. I had no idea what I was doing."

But Gray was hooked. He practiced dribbling on the concrete outside his apartment, and Jacqueline bought him a miniature hoop so he could practice his shot. In sixth grade, he played on the middle-school team, but in eighth grade, when basketball had already become the most important thing in his world, she pulled him out after a subpar report card. "She told me I wasn't going to play basketball until I deserved it," Gray remembers.

His freshman year at Miami Northwestern, a longtime high-school basketball powerhouse, he came off the bench only late in the JV games. But because he was so small and energetic and somehow still racked up points, he soon became a fan favorite. "We want George! We want George!" the crowd would chant.

Gray's junior year, he was on the varsity team, coming in off the bench as a prolific sixth man. He was still a shrimp: Watts once told him to stand in the sun and pour water on his head, like a plant. ("I tried it. Then I gave up on it," Gray says.)

But tiny or not, the feisty guard was already displaying the extraordinary quickness and ball control that would become his trademark. It was enough to catch the eye of Clyde Darrisaw, a legendary local basketball coach who had mentored local-born pros like Udonis Haslem. "I told his coaches he's going to be a special kid," Darrisaw remembers.

One day in late fall 2006, before his senior season, Gray glanced out from the sweaty high-school weight room and saw his coach staring up at the school's past championship banners. Watts had never made it to the state tournament as a coach. Gray watched Watts for a few seconds, then joined him on the empty hardwood floor. "Coach," Gray said, "I'm going to get you there."

And he would. The Bulls would go on to make the state semifinals, with Gray as their heartbeat, averaging 20 points a game and playing tenacious D. Gray was named Miami-Dade coplayer of the year — but he wouldn't be moving on to college ball.

Gray grinned at his friends, who didn't know he wasn't graduating. He smiled to cover his humiliation.

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Throughout the year, Gray had been recruited by several Division I programs, including Stetson and Florida International University. He settled on Division II Morehouse, in Atlanta. But with graduation just months away, the star guard learned he wouldn't be eligible: His sophomore year, he'd failed the reading section of the FCAT. He took the test several more times his junior and senior year, always passing math but narrowly failing reading. In March of his senior year, the last time the test was given before graduation, he failed again.

On graduation day, Gray wore a white cap and gown, just like all of his classmates. He walked across the stage and shook the principal's hand. But the folder he received contained no diploma. Gray grinned at his friends, who didn't know he wasn't actually graduating. He smiled to cover his humiliation. "It was a façade," he says.

Instead of playing college ball, Gray took a job stocking shelves at Walmart, where he worked hard and earned a promotion. Darrisaw encouraged him to join an adult league — where he dominated games — while his mom begged him, often in tears, to try the FCAT again. That fall, he finally relented, and studied for weeks. When test day came, he woke at 6 and walked to his old high school, lying to younger classmates about why he was there. Several weeks later, when he got the results, Gray learned that he failed again. "I did that for you," he told his mom. "Now let me just go on."

She didn't pressure him to try the test again, but she did persuade him to enroll in a private charter school course. There, Gray made good grades and months later passed a graduation exam, making him eligible to attend college. He was also burning up the highly competitive adult league, convincing Darrisaw that he should already be overseas. "He's a short guy," Darrisaw says, "and some of those guys got to work a little harder to be seen."

At one game played at Florida Memorial University, he finally was. An FMU coach approached Gray and later offered a scholarship. "I couldn't believe it," Gray says. "I thought I'd be working at Walmart forever."

In college, Gray was a standout. He was named the Sun Conference freshman of the year and throughout his career averaged more than 20 points a game — the Lions' leading scorer. In December 2013, he walked across another graduation stage, this time receiving a diploma for a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Soon after, he took a job at a shoe store.

But all he really wanted to do was continue playing basketball.

The Midnites are probably the only basketball team in the world whose roots can be traced to Israeli baseball. The Israeli Baseball League, or Ligat ha-Beisbol ha-Israelit, was created in 2006 with six teams and mostly foreign-born players. As the league was forming, the effort caught the eye of Jeffrey Rosen, a Brooklyn-born diehard sports fan and fervent Zionist who had made a fortune after selling his family's toy and stationery business.

The Ligat floundered within a year, but Rosen, an original league investor, still fell in love with Israeli sports, especially after watching a Euroleague basketball game featuring Maccabi Tel Aviv, the country's preeminent franchise. "I saw the feverish passion by the fans," Rosen says. "And I knew immediately I wanted to get involved in Israeli basketball."

In July 2007, Rosen bought Maccabi Haifa, a once-great professional basketball team that had long been relegated to lower divisions, promising to restore the team to greatness. Even he was surprised at how quickly the team turned around: After one season, Haifa reclaimed a spot in the Israeli Super League, the country's top division. The next year, they made it to the finals, barely losing to Tel Aviv. In 2013, Maccabi Haifa won the championship. Along the way, Rosen somehow turned his team into a global brand, with scrimmages against NBA teams, including the Lakers, and Haifa's own documentary show.

But in Israel, Rosen struggled to come up with a farm system for his burgeoning franchise. Interested in doing something closer to home, the businessman, who lives in Aventura, began putting together plans for a South Florida minor-league club. The new team, he decided, would be called the Midnites, after Miami's celebrated nightlife, and its focus would be finding "diamonds in the rough" — local or nonlocal talent that could be developed and eventually sent to Haifa or other overseas teams.

"Down the road, I envision our Midnites team playing against international competition," he says. First, though, they would need a league.

"We don't worry about what they did in their past."

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The original American Basketball Association was founded in 1967 with 11 teams, including the Indiana Pacers, as a flashier alternative to the NBA. Known for its iconic red-and-white basketballs, the ABA had longer shot clocks, three-pointers, and slam-dunk contests, but after a decade, the league dissolved, with some teams absorbed into the NBA.

In 2000, advertising mogul Joe Newman and former ABA executive Dick Tinkham decided to resurrect the defunct league, and by 2013, the ABA had dozens of small-market teams in places such as Texarkana and Muskegon. When the Midnites' organization called, Newman was thrilled. "I'm Jewish, OK. So to me, to have an Israeli [parent] team... I said, 'How in the heck can I not have that?'?"

Over the next six months, the Midnites began to take shape. Rosen hired Federico Brodsky, an Aventura-based former Argentine professional standout and the longtime head scout for Maccabi Haifa, as general manager. Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, a former FIU coach who had won five Florida high-school state championships, was hired as head coach. Wilcox, Miami Edison Senior High's celebrated veteran coach, came on as assistant.

Using the staff's encyclopedic knowledge of local hoops, the team signed a flurry of players, most with Miami ties and all with their own long, halting basketball journeys: There was Nigel Spikes, a 24-year-old, six-foot-11 Fort Lauderdale native returning to competitive basketball after suffering a freak heart attack; Freddy Edouard, an undersize 23-year-old Haitian-American who once "kind of got kicked out of school" in Queens and brought a Dennis Rodman-like energy and defensive presence; Orane Chin, a 26-year-old Jamaican-born small forward who had played in Denmark and Argentina; Cedric McGowan, a 29-year-old Miami Northwest alum who had worked his way from a Texas junior college to the University of Cincinnati to a pro team in dusty Mexicali.

"We don't worry about what they did in their past," Wilcox says. "We treat them [based on] how they operate when they're here with us."

Before their first game, the Midnites also signed one recent college grad working at a shoe store, who oozed talent and heart but seemed, perhaps because of his size, perpetually overlooked.

Gray had known Brodsky for years through summer basketball leagues. The GM had always told him that he'd be in touch after he finished college. "And he kept his word," Gray says.

The franchise immediately established itself as a force in the FBA. In May 2014, the Midnites won their first game, against the Florida Flight, by 29 points. Their next game, they beat the Tampa Bay Rebels by 14. Then they pounded the Palm Beach Knights by 46. They finished the regular season 11-1, their only loss coming to the Rebels by a single point. In September — in front of perhaps three dozen fans on the Posnack Center's metal bleachers — the Midnites won an FBA title. But after such a lopsided season, the celebration was muted. The players casually slapped hands; the fans who remained clapped politely. "They really rose to the occasion," Coach Rodriguez said in a postgame interview, his voice monotone.

The ABA season would begin soon. The Midnites sensed, perhaps, that the occasion would be much bigger.

On November 22, with Wilcox now head coach, the Midnites won their first ABA game, 106-94, against the Orange Park-based Southcoast Fire. They won the next game, too, and the next. Soon they were 12-0 and had vaulted to number three in the league's power rankings. "Once we were in the middle of the season, it was kind of like wildfire," Wilcox says. "Each game got bigger and bigger."

The team also kept building. They signed Will Frisby, the University of Miami veteran who was coming off a successful season in the D-League; Kenny Bellinger Jr. — AKA Spiderman — a "freak athlete," in Brodsky's words, with a megawatt smile and 41-inch vertical; Keion Palmer, a six-foot-11 string bean who came from a tough background and had been hanging around the gyms of South Miami after college didn't work out. The team also signed Yoav Saffar, the former Israeli star, who was pushing 40, had suffered injuries, and was busy with another career — yet still hungry to play.

It was Gray, though, who emerged as the team's leading scorer. On January 3, he notched 42 in a 155-86 rout, helping earn free tacos for all the fans in attendance. The next night, in another blowout, he finished with 61. "I was like, This is going to be big for my career," he remembers thinking. "I'm going to get a little more publicity... hopefully from people from overseas."

The Midnites finished the season 18-4. In the playoffs, they beat the South Florida Gold 135-111, earning a trip to Shreveport for the ABA Final Four. On the plane ride to Louisiana, the team was excited, but nobody more so than Gray — it was his first time flying. "It was the greatest experience," he says. "Just being up there was like a peace of mind."

The Midnites won two of three, earning a crack at the title against perennial league powerhouse Shreveport-Bossier Mavericks. In the first game of the best-of-three series, the Midnites took a 12-2 lead. But then they got blown out. They lost that game by 28. They lost the next by 24.

After the game, the hosts sent Cajun food — catfish, shrimp, green beans — to the Midnites' locker room. But Gray had no appetite. He grabbed a bottle of water and strode out of the arena, not even waiting for the team bus. He walked alone the two hours back to the hotel, trying to process the loss.

The Midnites, including Gray, had been hampered by injuries, but the reality was they had simply run into a better, more polished squad. "We saw a unified team that had a system in place," Saffar says. Brodsky, the GM, vowed personnel adjustments. The Midnites' first season had been tremendous — but losing in the finals wasn't good enough.

"That won't happen again," Brodsky says.

Late in the third quarter against the Palm Beach Knights, Yoav Saffar catches the ball in a crowd of defenders. He tries to pivot free but loses control of the dribble and then his body; his huge frame crashes to the ground. When he rises a few seconds later, he tenderly inspects his left hand and wrist.

When the period ends, all the players except Saffar clear to their respective benches, and a half-dozen beaming kids rush the basket to throw up their own shots. The big forward ambles to the free-throw line and picks up a ball. He pulls it to shooting position and slowly, methodically releases. Then he shakes out his wrist. Staring straight ahead, oblivious to the swarm of children, he takes several more shots, each time inspecting his wrist. The kids pay no attention to the ex-European champion standing over them like a real-life giant.

If Gray best embodies the up-and-comers on the Midnites starving to hustle their way into big-time pro contracts, Saffar represents the other end of the semi-pro spectrum — a superstar in the twilight of his career, trying to ride a few more highlights before he's forced to hang up his jersey. "I love the game," he says, "even though it hurts me every time I go on the court."

The Midnites' most seasoned player grew up in Bat Yam, a small city on the Mediterranean Sea just south of Tel Aviv. By the time he was a teenager, he was already unusually tall — north of six-foot-six — and had emerged as one of that country's top prospects.

"He was very, very impressive technically," says Rami Hadar, who coached Saffar on the under-18 team of first-division Hapoel Holon and who now coaches Maccabi Haifa. At the beginning of Holon's nine-month season, Hadar says, the skinny kid from Bat Yam was raw. By the end, he had transformed into the squad's top player: a one-in-10,000 combination of incredible size, athleticism, and great outside shooting.

Saffar went on to play nearly a decade in that country's top professional league, including three seasons for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the biggest sports franchise in Israel. With the help of future NBA players Anthony Parker and Sarunas Jasikevicius — and assistant coach David Blatt, the current head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers — one year the team won the entire Euroleague. In 2003, as captain of his country's national team, Saffar also led Israel to a European quarterfinals — the country's best result in decades — cementing his status as a national star.

"He had a sweet stroke. He could run the floor... He [had] a high basketball IQ," says David Pick, an Israeli sports journalist and longtime Saffar fan. "If he was playing now, in modern basketball, he'd be in the NBA."

But the big man's career was cut short. He struggled with injuries and retired after the 2003-04 season, when he was only 28. "Of course it was devastating," he says, "because you are getting to the highest achievement of your career and you are not able to participate in the game in the way you dream."

He enrolled at a suburban Tel Aviv university, where he earned a bachelor's in finance, and then moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where he earned an MBA in 2010. It was there that Saffar also discovered the passion that would become his second career: sushi.

"Salmon cucumber roll with teriyaki sauce," recalls Taek Lee, who was an executive chef at Pod, a high-end sushi place near Penn's campus. "He's walking [in], we start making that roll."

During Saffar's frequent visits to the restaurant, the Israeli basketball star and the Korean-born chef became close. A couple of years later, Saffar called Lee one day and told him he had a plan to open his own restaurant. Lee thought he was joking. "How do you know about the restaurant business?" the chef asked.

But Saffar was serious. He described his business plan and eventually persuaded the 20-year restaurant veteran to come on as executive chef. Sushigami, Saffar's restaurant, opened at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise in early 2013. "In the future, I see 500 locations, and not just in America," Saffar told New Times shortly after the opening.

The Midnites put on a real show, running full-tilt fast breaks and dishing SportsCenter-worthy alley-oops.

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Two years on, the restaurant has been a success, but Saffar decided he wasn't done with basketball. Last season for the Midnites, he came on as a frequent starter and often put in double-digit scoring nights. But his most important role is as a mentor to the younger guys, dispensing advice about what it takes to realize a professional career. "He's kind of like an uncle of the team," Wilcox says.

It's because of that combination of experience and raw talent, the coaches say, as well as some key roster adjustments, that the Midnites have rebounded so well from the ABA championship loss.

The Midnites were 4-0 when they hosted the Knights at the Posnack Center. After the team's strong promotion, the gym was practically sold-out: More than 300 fans crammed into the bleachers, some even standing along the corners of the gym. A jazz band with a tuba played during breaks, and a local youth dance squad performed at halftime.

But it was the Midnites, of course, who put on the real show, running full-tilt fast breaks and dishing SportsCenter-worthy alley-oops. "They're whooping the Knights!" one fan, Ana Palermo, a Hollywood resident who had come with a friend, exclaimed with glee. "I think they could stay on the court with the Heat — I really do. They might even beat 'em!"

By midway through the fourth, with the Midnites' victory long sealed, most of the fans had filtered out, and the Knights were frustrated. After one whistle, a scuffle developed near half-court, centered around Frisby, the former UM player, one of the biggest bodies on the court.

A half-dozen players from each team and multiple coaches, gesturing and arguing, spilled onto the court. The game stopped while the referees consulted about penalties. Fans danced on the sidelines while the jazz band played Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love." After nearly ten minutes, the announcer mumbled about technical fouls and "multiple ejections" — two Knights players, as well as Frisby and Freddy Edouard, were being kicked out.

Frisby was calm as he walked into the dim lobby of the Posnack Center. He said a Knights guard had started the scrum. "After he pushed me, he felt he needed to say something... 'Beep, beep, beep.'?"

Edouard, more worked up, strode out of the lobby into the parking lot, where he grabbed a fresh shirt from his car. He was on the bench when the scuffle broke out, he said, and hadn't even heard what was said. "If one of our players gets into something, I'm going to be there for sure," he said. "I'm always getting into altercations on the court."

He walked back through the lobby and took a seat in the bleachers with some friends. A couple of minutes later, noticing Edouard, a referee stopped play and kicked him out again. "I'm trying to watch the game!" Edouard protested.

In the final minutes of the game, Palmer banged home a flying alley-oop. Bellinger, his ubiquitous white rec-specs intact, drained a corner three. Gray burst up the floor again, sliding under a defender for an acrobatic layup.

When the buzzer sounded, the score was 120-102, Miami having squandered a much bigger lead. Not that it mattered much. The Midnites were now 5-0.

On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, George Gray walks casually through the patchy courtyard leading to the Lincoln-Fields public housing project, past two little girls chasing after a blue rubber ball. Then he stops. On the ground is a red painted x, surrounded by a collection of more than a dozen brightly colored stuffed animals, white candle stubs, liquor bottles, and an unworn White Sox hat. It's a shrine. "Somebody just died Monday, man," Gray says. "He must have died right here on this x."

The man killed, Gray says, was a 28-year-old who went by the name Bubba. He was a friend from his days playing at Gwen Cherry Park as a little kid. "It makes me want to go harder," he says of the death. "We're better than this shit here, man."

As much as anyone on the Midnites, Gray is bent on continuing a pro career. He's also overflowing with confidence, with a habit of describing himself in heroic terms. "I'm Jesus to the hood," he says at one point, adding he's destined for greatness — even the NBA. "They going to let me in," he says. "They got to let me in."

The odds aren't in his favor. Besides his tiny size, Gray — even if he is rising meteorically — is also several years older than most draft entrants. Asked about the likelihood of ABA players cracking the NBA, Newman, the commissioner, is quick to point out examples of former stars who had, in fact, spent time in his American semi-pro league: Tim Hardaway, Dennis Rodman, Scotty Brooks. He doesn't point out that they all joined the ABA after retiring from the NBA.

"I had a plan B. But as I got older, I realized, Why do you need a plan B, man? Because plan A is going to work."

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The commissioner then acknowledges the forbidding hierarchy of modern pro basketball: There are roughly 360 slots in the world's top league, with maybe 60 new positions opening in a year. Every season, the NBA D-League, designed as a feeder to the NBA, has maybe 250 players; elite Division I colleges such as Duke and Michigan State also send dozens into the potential NBA pool. Then, of course, there are the big international leagues — Spain, Greece, China, Israel — all considered more prestigious than the ABA. "It's sort of like running for the U.S. Senate," Newman says. "It's hard to break that glass ceiling."

Gray isn't deterred. After catching up with friends at Lincoln-Fields, he drives to his father's house nearby. Relaxing at a patio table on his front lawn, the senior George Gray is laconic but happy to talk about his son: George, just like his dad, always had an instinct for basketball. More important, his son has done well, he says, to stay away from the trouble and violence that plague the neighborhood.

"Graduated high school. Graduated college. Now playing for the Miami Midnites," he says in a deep, friendly voice. "Made his father very proud."

The week after beating the Knights at home, the Midnites played them on the road. Miami won, helped by 32 points from Gray. As of presstime, they're 9-0, although they're also down a player. In June, Saffar, forced to travel often because of his business and frustrated by chronic injuries — besides the wrist, he's also had a broken finger and a pulled groin — decided to step back and re-evaluate his role, taking himself out of action for at least several weeks.

"I don't think it's fair to my teammates... to disappear and reappear again," he says.

Teams from several countries, including Maccabi Haifa, have lately expressed a lot of interest in Bellinger, the "freak athlete," but so far no Midnites have springboarded from the team onto an international squad. Brodsky is confident many are on their way, delayed more by professional logistics than ability.

"Some of these guys, they are already really at the level of the second division in Israel," he says. "Some of them first division."

In the meantime, many of the Midnites continue working second jobs. But not Gray, who has decided to train full-time. He has no interest in another career.

"I had a plan B," he says during one practice, standing in the back corner of the noisy gym. "But as I got older, I realized, like, Why do you need a plan B, man? Because plan A is going to work. It has to work."