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A difficult journey
by Amir Bogen / June 18, 2005

One day, Nada Rothbart decided take her two children, Robert and Ivan, and flee war-ridden Sarajevo for Israel.

Thirteen years have passed, and Nada now lives in Paris. Ivan has passed away, but 19-year-old Robert, the biggest Israeli-American-Bosnian-Serbian basketball talent you’ve never heard of, intends to make her proud.

Robert Rothbart has drawn some interest from NBA scouts. Despite his young age, it's clear he possesses great potential. The physical features, along with the mental toughness he acquired during his early years, will surely help him in his bid to become Israel’s first representative in the league.

“He is just what the NBA is looking for today, and he is more mature than other young men his age,” Nada Rothbart said. “He still has to become stronger and gain weight, but he is working very hard and I hope in the end he will reach his goal, perhaps even next year. He deserves it. He’s a good kid and he has been through a lot.”

It remains to be seen whether the 7-foot-1 Rothbart will make an impact in sports. But when one considers his difficult childhood in Bosnia, it's pretty obvious he's already a success.

“One day a gun battle took place right on our doorstep,” he recalled. “Soon enough tanks and soldiers appeared, and we could hear explosions in the background for the entire day. We were under siege and could not leave the house. We were forced to stay indoors and starve."

That was just one of many difficult situations. Robert's father ran off, leaving Nada to care for the family alone.

“During the war’s initial phases, Israeli representatives rescued many Jewish residents of Sarajevo, but my mother decided to stay,” Robert said. “In hindsight, it was a mistake. But I can’t be angry with her. We could not have known how things would develop and how bad they would get.”

Eventually, the family managed to escape, and after a brief stint in Hungary, where Nada reconciled with her husband Eli, the Rothbarts moved to Israel.

“I have only good memories from Israel,” Robert said. “I think it is one of the greatest countries in the world.”

Just two years after the Rothbarts landed in Israel, Eli received a lucrative job offer from a Silicon Valley high-tech company, and the family left for the United States. Soon after, Ivan Rothbart died of a bacterial infection.

“With all that I have gone through in life, this was the hardest blow,” Robert said. “Ivan and I were close. The day he died was the most difficult day of my life.”

Ivan’s death destroyed the family. Nada and Eli split up once again, and Robert decided to take his mother’s side during the ugly divorce.

Meanwhile, he began to grow at an abnormal pace – as did his passion for basketball. Robert became the star player at the local high school team, and was even invited to a prestigious Nike basketball tournament in 2000.

In 2003, Robert and Nada moved from the Bay Area to Sacramento, where he took Natomas HS basketball squad to new heights. Representatives from the Kings, including star center Vlade Divac, began to take an interest in him.

“Vlade helped us a lot," Robert said. "I know he will always be there for me.”

Last year, Robert decided to skip college and joined French club Paris Basket Racing.

“It was a rough season for me because I got injured and couldn’t play for six months,” Robert said. “I used the time to work in the gym, and I became significantly stronger.”

He thinks his injury hurts his chances of being selected in the upcoming NBA draft, though.

“But I believe in myself and I will try to prove that I am worthy of becoming an NBA player through individual practice sessions during the summer,” Robert said.

When asked what he can offer NBA teams, he said, “First of all, I am one of the tallest players around, and there is always demand for a player of my size. I have a good outside shot, and I can pass and dribble the ball upcourt. I am a versatile player who can do many things.”

Robert does not consider himself an Israeli basketball player since he didn't play basketball when he lived in Israel as a child.

“But I definitely consider myself to be Israeli," Robert said. "I have a deep connection with the country that saved my life.”

Amir Bogen is Ynet's American sports correspondent

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