How far would you go to pursue something you love? Would you move across the world and leave your friends and family? Well, Mary Silberman would. Traveling a whopping 35 hours from Shear Yeshur, Israel brought Mary to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she plays the game she now loves.
Mary first picked up a basketball in 2005. At that moment, she knew that she found something she could be passionate about for the rest of her life. Growing up, she played pick-up basketball with her two older brothers, her twin brother, and her father.
“It was very competitive,” Mary said.
When asked who was the best player in her family, she does not hesitate. “I was. They would probably disagree. When we are playing one on one, I am winning,” Mary says with a laugh and smile.
After learning the fundamentals of the game and growing as a player quite quickly. In 2013, she competed on the U16 Israeli national team. Mary then made it to the second division in Israel, only one step away from the Premier League.
At 18 years old, she started to look into either moving up to the first division, playing in Europe, or competing for an American university. However, her life took an unexpected turn in 2015.
The clock ticks down.
The crowd cheers.
Mary Silberman receives the ball, leading a fast break.
Just when Mary is about to pass, an opposing player comes barreling towards her and rams right into Mary.
She falls to the ground and grabs her knee.
At that moment, her life is turned upside down.
Mary had smashed her knee in multiple places. For three years, she went through two surgeries and therapy. She hoped that she would be able to get back to playing basketball. However, the damage was irreversible and it became clear that at some point, she would need to get a knee replacement.
Doing everyday activities, Mary can move and walk around just like most. But due to the knee injury, she gets sudden pain in her knee and limps for days if she goes too hard.
It was an emotional time for Mary.
“I called [basketball] the love of my life. It was the thing that I did the best and with all my heart,” Mary said.
After she realized her leg no longer could handle stand-up basketball, people pointed her in the direction of a different way to keep playing the sport.
A coach named Eran Levite met up with Mary and introduced her to wheelchair basketball. He reignited her passion.
“Thank God I met him,” Mary quickly added.
Before even giving wheelchair basketball a chance, Mary knew she did not want to play the sport just for fun. If she was going to play, she wanted to maintain her competitive personality and challenge herself. After trying a few other sports such as hand cycling, she refound her love for basketball and came to embrace the wheelchair version of the game
Mary and Coach Levite worked together for days on end to develop her technique and make her the best player she could be.
“I spent hours with him working one on one to develop and then going home on my free day to also develop,” Mary said.
Mary adapted her existing basketball skills and applied them to the wheelchair game.
“I already came in knowing how to shoot because I had been playing for 10 years. I needed to learn how to do wheelchair control, how to push, how to turn, all the stuff,” Mary said.
In stand up basketball Mary was one of the shortest players on the court. “Now in my chair, I am not one of the smallest. I think I blocked maybe 3 shots in my whole able-body career and now I can block 3 shots game,” Mary proudly said.
While in Israel she competed in the 3rd division National League with Ilan Haifa, where she became a National League Champion and Cup Champion in 2019. Mary ended up switching teams to join Majd Al-Krum and again won a National League Championship and Cup Championship.
After starting to rack up the stats, Mary looked into bigger opportunities for herself in wheelchair basketball. Mary and her coach worked to find something that she could do to grow in wheelchair basketball, but Israel does not have a Paralympic team. They found out that one male wheelchair basketball player moved to pursue college basketball at the University of Texas Arlington and they thought Mary could follow the same path.
Mary sent the University of Alabama an email saying that she wanted to come to play basketball for them and attached a highlight reel. Soon, she was on a Zoom call with head coach Ryan Hynes, who offered her a scholarship.
Mary then made the voyage all the way to Tuscaloosa along with her beloved purple sneakers. She proudly professes purple as her favorite color. But there is reason to believe that crimson might make a claim for that number one spot.
For with the Crimson Tide, Silberman got the opportunity to play in the 2021 National Championship and helped them win it. On the court, she causes "chaos", which was her favorite part of her stand-up basketball game.
“When I played able body, I would just go all in and was very chaotic. I could go one on three,” Mary said. “I gave out passes that people do not usually pass.”
Mary can do everything. She can block shots, shoot, pass, and disrupt an offense. Bringing in all the skills from her stand-up days, Mary fakes out opponents with no-look passes and other moves rarely seen in wheelchair hoops.
“Our style of play is playing defense really hard, run, and to be the fastest transition team. To be very disciplined on offense and defense and just run. You can back pick, get easy buckets, and transition,” Mary said.
Unlike some teams, the coaching staff for the Crimson Tide is open-minded. They allow the team to change things on the fly if they find an opportunity. This trust that the coaches display to the team and the supportiveness of the team make it feel like family for Mary.
“I think that something that is really special here is it is actually like a family. You actually feel like people have your back,” Mary said. “It is also interesting because everyone is accepted, no one is left behind. It is very special. You can see on the court that we are having so much fun because we spend so much time together. It also the whole organization from the managers to the strength and conditioning coach to the announcer every is so supporting and caring.”
Over cooking and puzzles, Mary often bonds with her teammate and roommate, Lindsey Zurbrugg, (Team USA Paralympian, and CBT's first cover story feature) Amongst Mary's favorite foods are hummus and tofu. When Mary cooks tofu Zurbrugg and the others make fun of her, but she knows that they like it.
“They can disrespect it as much as they want, but they keep eating it,” Mary said.
While Mary might be a better cook than her roommate, she does not even attempt to compete with Zurbrugg's sock game. "Nobody has more socks than Lindsey." Mary conceded.
Zurbrugg noted that Mary has a slightly different and arguably more impressive collection: languages. Silberman speaks Hebrew, English, Spanish and German. Were that not enough, she also receives tutelage in French from another teammate.
This season Mary got elected as team co-captain, but the title is not what matters to her.
“At first I did not really see the point in having that title. Just because you have the title of captain does not mean you are the leader. Also, you have all kinds of leaders on the team,” Mary said. “Me being the captain is not really I am the captain so I do this and that and being myself.”
However, Coach Hynes believes that Mary deserves the role of captain because she pushes her teammates to get better on and off the court. Her personality lights up any room that she enters.
“It is rare to find Mary without a smile on her face. She has a very infectious laugh, and she laughs a lot,” Hynes said. “I can honestly say that Mary is one of the best people I know and a hell of a ballplayer.”
Mary might also be one of the smartest. She had a rather impressive GPA last semester: 4.0.
While Mary has wonderful support in the U.S., all the way across the world, her mother and biggest fan, watches every single game. Most of her games are played at one or two in the morning Israel time, but her mom has not missed one yet.
As for her dad, well, Mary would like it known that it is definitely alright that he is not crazy enough to wake up at 2:00 a.m. "I know he's very proud," Mary added.
Her parents love and support pushes her to keep following her dreams. Mary's mom tells her that if you don’t ask for something, the answer is already no. “When what you have is a ‘no,’ there’s nothing to do but try to make it a ‘yes’!” (Or as Mary's mom would say in Hebrew: !את הלא כבר יש לך, רק אפשר להרוויח את הכן.)
Through all of the challenges and the hardship of her injury, Mary persevered and kept her head up.
For assistance, she often listened to an Israeli song with a title that roughly translates to "This Too Shall Pass."
“When I was struggling when I was injured, I kept listening to this song and the point of the song was that it is getting better. Those are hard times; you’ll get through them. Everything is going to be alright. It was very difficult to believe it, but it was actually true,” Mary said. “Being open-minded, when one door closes another one opens is actually true.”
Though that quote makes for a perfect conclusion, Mary has learned from her time in Alabama that there is only one acceptable way to end. And that, of course, is with: "Roll Tide!"
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