February 27, 2024

In the days after October 7, in which Hamas militants killed some 1,200 people, Yarden Garzon difficulty eating and sleeping. The outbreak of war in Israel and the Gaza Strip was all-consuming for her as she watched the news from Bloomington, Ind., where she is a second guard. Born and raised in Israel, Yarden worried about her friends, her family, her country. “I think I was more nervous than my mom,” Garzon said. “It was really scary the first week.”

Garzon’s parents were half a world away, living in their home in Ra’anana, Israel, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv about 50 miles from the war’s epicenter. Still, over the past two months, as the death toll mounted, her family spent time in the home’s bomb shelter. Air raid sirens filled the air.

Of Garzon’s three siblings, only her older sister, Lior Garzon, is also in the United States. She is a senior at Oklahoma State and a preseason honorable mention all-conference forward for the Cowgirls. “This is one of my most important seasons,” said Lior. “I did not know what to do. To stay. To go home be with my family. It was really a question of what to do.”

She stayed. But it’s been 82 days since the world shifted for the Garzons. Since then, they have played key roles for their respective schools. Both have started every game and are averaging double-digit points. They also deal with grief.

Growing up, they knew what to do when sirens sounded. The sound didn’t ring every day or week – Yarden describes her childhood as peaceful – but Lior says they were always ready for whatever might happen. Her father, Eitan Garzon, remembers a game his daughters were playing when sirens went off. Everyone scrambled to shelters, but play eventually resumed normalcy.

Both Garzons have long gravitated toward basketball, even when presented with alternatives. As a child, Lior danced and swam, Eitan said. She also tried judo and tennis. Yarden was a talented painter and played volleyball. Nevertheless, the region’s outer courts appealed the most. “After all, in all the routes I send them in, they go back to basketball,” says Eitan, who also played while growing up. Their success has become a point of pride – both Lior and Yarden represented Israel at last summer’s European Championships, held in part in Tel Aviv – and a launching pad to travel the world.

When Yarden walks into Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall or Cook Hall, Indiana’s practice facility, she tries to focus on the sport. The gym, she said, is “like that safe place.”

“I just clear my mind when I focus on basketball,” she added.

But when she has her phone in hand, it becomes difficult to ignore news from the region. Lior tried to convince her sister, who already had a daily habit of watching the news, to take frequent breaks and not necessarily watch every minute update. Lior admits that early on during practices she felt anxious and wondered, “What if something happens now?”


Lior Garzon writes a message in Hebrew on her sneakers before games at Oklahoma State. (Courtesy of OSU Athletics)

Disentangling the situations in their two worlds was almost impossible. Lior drew a Star of David on both of her Nike sneakers. On the left shoe she wrote in Hebrew: “You can never kill our spirit.” In the handshake line after Oklahoma State’s loss to Colorado in early November, Buffaloes coaches told her they were thinking of her and her family.

She was in tears when a moment of silence was held at an Oklahoma State football game earlier this season for the thousands who died amid the fighting. Her teammates made her a gift basket, filled with milk chocolate Hershey Kisses and a Starbucks gift card. “To realize other people care and know what you’re going through, to have this moment, I think it was really special,” Lior said.

At Indiana, a section of fans who their early December game against Stetson wearing blue shirts that read “We Stand With Yarden” on the front and with the Star of David inside a basketball. Assistant coach Rhet Wierzba, who hosted Yarden for a Shabbat dinner soon after the war broke out, wore an Israeli flag lapel pin on his jacket to support the sophomore. Hoosiers players also posed for a photo with the flag just days after the initial attack. “The little things we can do that she knows how loved she is,” Wierzba said.


Yarden Garzon, a sophomore at Indiana, has received support from her teammates as she deals with the conflict in her home country. (Courtesy of Indiana University Athletics)

Before Indiana’s season opener on Nov. 9, Yarden took a black Sharpie and wrote “Bring Them Home” on tape wrapped around her left wrist, naming Noam Avigdori, a 12-year-old girl held hostage at the time . , written below. Avigdori is back in Israel, after being held for 50 days, but Yarden has continued to raise awareness for those taken.

The gestures, Eitan said, are done without any prompting. “It comes from them, not us,” he said in a telephone interview. Yet their parents send photos and videos of the acts to their Israeli friends. They are small shows of support. “The little things are the big things,” Eitan said. Even brief moments of joy are still moments of joy.

Eitan says he and his wife often talk to their daughters more than once a day. They try to remain calm and reassure themselves of their own safety. But both “take it very hard,” Eitan said. “It’s different to talk about because we just have to touch them or hug them.” Lior said it helps to have Yarden in America, though. “We feel like (we’re) in the same boat,” she said. The sisters text daily, about events at school, about their respective programs and about the war. Community was the key.

It took Lior a while to focus on basketball. Even the sport she practiced from childhood could not distract her. “Like why would I enjoy it when people are literally (now) fighting for their lives?” she asked.

More than a third of the way through the season, however, she found herself enjoying the season. She drew strength from more purpose. “I think my mind right now (thinks) this is the best way I can represent Israel, just to show how strong we are and nobody can actually kill our spirit,” she said.

The words were written on her sneaker. With each step she moves forward.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletics; Photos of Yarden and Lior Garzon: Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, Michael Hickey/Getty Images, courtesy of OSU Athletics)


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