A Basketball Life Comes Full Circle, the story of Ayal Hod
On Monday, March 10, 1986, The Commentator, Yeshiva University’s student newspaper, published an article titled “The Hod Towers”. It was the very beginning of the story about Lior and Ayal Hod, two brothers who emigrated from Israel to the United States and became household names in the Jewish basketball world. Ayal Hod, 46, and the founder and president of Top Gun, a clothing line for men and women, will travel back to Israel this summer to play basketball, but not how he had originally planned back in the 80’s.
Ayal grew up in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, playing basketball with his one-year older brother, Lior, at the parks near their home. Always on the small side, he developed his fundamentals and instincts for the game along with a tremendous drive to win. These skills allowed him to make the junior varsity team and eventually the varsity at Cross Keys High School in Atlanta, Georgia, where the Hod brother enrolled upon their move to America. Their parents moved back to Israel leaving Lior and Ayal to support themselves and they both worked odd jobs through high school and college to cover rent. Lior says they took care of each other and developed an entrepreneurial sense that has followed them both into their professional lives. Being a year younger and a foot shorter than his older brother, Ayal was frustrated watching Lior get all of the awards and recognition while he was just the younger brother constantly looking up, literally and figuratively. Instead of letting it get to him, he went home and worked harder. He lifted weights late at night so he could physically catch up to Lior. “While Lior may not realize it,” Ayal says, “he was a big part of me being able to ultimately maximize my potential.”
Following high school - and a few growth spurts - while Lior decided to go play for Yeshiva University, Ayal took a scholarship offer from Coker College in South Carolina. Ayal had skipped a grade when he came to America. Had he played another year of high school basketball, he likely could have received higher level division one scholarship offers. He enrolled at Coker College where an early injury set his playing time back along with his aspirations to play in the NBA. Realizing that he could utilize his drive to succeed in the business world, he transferred to Yeshiva University in 1985 where he could major in accounting at Yeshiva’s Sy Syms School of Business and join his brother playing for Coach Jonathan Halpert of the Yeshiva University Maccabees. Being away from their parents and comforts of home, Ayal says about Coach Halpert, “I am grateful that I had someone like Coach Halpert in my life not just as a coach, but as a father figure as well.” In the summers, the Hods would return to Atlanta where they would play in pro-am summer leagues with NBA players. Lior says in order to survive on the court the brothers used to speak to each other in Hebrew. The communication that nobody else understood gave them a tremendous edge. Lior says, “By ourselves we were good, but together, we were like three players instead of two.”
Describing Ayal’s career at Yeshiva is quite simple. He scored 1,807 points in his career. A number that stood ahead of his brother Lior’s 1,541 as first on the all-time scoring list at Yeshiva from 1989 until 2002, when another Israeli player, Yossy Gev, surpassed the mark with 1,871 career points. He was not all about scoring though. On February 22, 1989 Ayal Hod entered the NCAA record books by grabbing 35 rebounds in a game versus Vassar. That number remains fifth on the list of rebounds in an NCAA game of any division since 1973. In their combined five years at the University, the “Hod Towers”, as they were named in the 1986 article by The Commentator, successfully turned the Yeshiva program into a winner. Before his senior year, Ayal was approached at a summer league game by legendary St. John’s University coach, Lou Carnasecca, about transferring to play for St. John’s. However, with only one year of eligibility remaining, Ayal stayed at Yeshiva to finish out what was a storied career that changed the Yeshiva basketball program.
For Ayal though, winning was not just about basketball. He set out challenges for himself in every aspect of life and fought to conquer them. Lior says this character trait is one that was ingrained in the brothers from a young age. “Whenever someone would set a bar,” he said, “we decided we will go ten feet higher.” While he was not going to be an NBA player, Ayal received offers from a number of the top professional teams in Israel and Europe. It was at that point that he was faced with a tough decision. Now post-college and holding a degree in accounting, Ayal had to decide whether to return home to Israel and get paid to play basketball, or complete his citizenship in the United States and use his degree and drive to succeed to build a career and life in the U.S.
Ayal turned down the offers to play professionally and decided to pursue a career in acting and specifically appearances in commercials on television. He appeared in a Domino’s Pizza commercial with hall of fame coach Bobby Knight, a Wendy’s commercial with hall of fame coach Chuck Daly, and a New Balance commercial with NBA star Derrick Coleman. He even appeared in a Law and Order episode on television. In 1991 though, he received a major break when he landed his biggest commercial yet. Literally.
Ayal co-starred with hall of fame basketball player and big man, Wilt Chamberlain in an Easy Spirit shoes commercial. The payment and residuals from this commercial lasted until Chamberlain came out with his famous book detailing just how much fun he had throughout his career. However, the five years of steady income from this commercial allowed Ayal to gear up for his next challenge. Each year he revisited the idea and dream of playing basketball in Israel and each year the success and contacts he was building in the United States kept him from chasing that dream. At this point though, he was ready to take his skills and contacts to the next level and start his own business. Much like he always was on the basketball court, Ayal would be in control.
Over the years, he continued to receive offers to return to Israel and play professionally, but more and more he grounded himself to his life in the United States. In 1994 he married Janet, and together the two of them have six children. Athletics, as one could imagine, has followed the genealogical path. Ayal and Janet’s oldest child, their daughter Ashley, who is eighteen, is a professional ballerina working with the prestigious American School of Ballet in New York. His oldest son, Dillon, who is eleven, plays AAU basketball in Great Neck, New York, where the Hod’s currently live. He currently plays on an AAU team along with Allan Houston, Jr., son of the former Knicks’ star, a dear friend of Ayal’s. Ayal met Houston through a business deal that the two of them worked on along with Allan’s wife, Alex English and Penny Hardaway. While the business did not pan out, what came out of it was a lifelong friendship between Houston and Ayal that Ayal likens to having a younger brother. Houston says of his longtime friendship with the Hod family, “They are just good people. Our kids have baby pictures from when they were born and now they are still playing together.”
Speaking of Dillon Hod, Ayal tells a story about the day he was born. Allan Houston had asked Ayal to entertain none other than Alex Rodriguez with front row tickets to a Knicks game. As game time approached, Ayal received a call from Janet that their first son was ready to be born and he would need to skip the game and join her at the hospital. After the game ended, Houston called Ayal wondering where he had been and why he would possibly leave Rodriguez sitting all alone at the game when he was supposed to be there. Ayal ended up meeting up with Rodriguez and Houston for dinner that night where Rodriguez picked up the bill and the three of them spent the night celebrating the birth of Dillon Hod.
Ayal spent many summers playing in the Pro-Am summer basketball leagues along with a wide range of NBA and other professional players. Some of the players he competed with and against included, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Kevin Willis, Alex English, Marc Jackson, Chris Mullin and Gus and Ray Williams. In fact, one summer, Ayal made the Pro-Am all-star game along with eight NBA players. He recalls the first play of the game receiving a pass off a strong cut to the basket and scoring the first two points of the game. As he was contemplating the fact that a Jewish kid from Yeshiva University had just scored the first points of this all-star game that included so many professional basketball players, he turned around and realized the assist came from none other than Marc Jackson, former Knicks great and third all-time in assists in the NBA. Even though he continued to turn down professional offers, Ayal made sure to continue to play high level basketball. At the same time, he was building a network of contacts that would help him as he took his penchant for success into the business world.
One year, Ayal grabbed Houston to play with him in an adult summer league during the Knicks’ offseason out on Long Island. The result? They won the league of course. When asked what it was like to play with Ayal as a teammate, Houston did not even pause before replying, “Shot it every time he touched it.” Houston said while he was used to being the one taking the shots, Ayal “made me play like a point guard.” When asked jokingly in a follow-up whether this prepared him for playing with Latrell Spreewell, Houston again offered no hesitation and responded, “Not like Spree. Spree played some defense.” Houston then came out of humor mode for a moment and spoke of Ayal’s love for the game as well as his hard work and understanding of the nuances of basketball.
In 1996, Ayal founded Top Gun, a manufacturer and retailer of leather and apparel outerwear. He has successfully transitioned the company into a complete lifestyle fashion brand that includes retail , wholsale, and global distribution of apparel and accessories for both men and women. Of course, never straying far from his basketball roots, Ayal partnered with Houston, to help develop the retail side of Top Gun’s business. The brand has grown to include seven retail stores and a large national and international distribution network. Top Gun has been known over the years as a “heritage brand” of outerwear, but the future of the brand resides in a broader, cleaner and more sophisticated interpretation of the name. Ayal has plans to expand the brand name even more in the future. He plans to once again tie in his love for basketball with a sportswear line at Top Gun in the near future. The theme for the new line seems to come right out of Ayal’s everyday life, “To be the best, you must train like the best.” It is always tough to enter a new market but with the perseverance and will to win that he developed on the basketball court, who would bet against him? “He is a person with a positive nature,” Houston says, “he makes people want to be around him both personally and professionally.”
Ayal’s brother, Lior, has also achieved remarkable business success. He is President of ELLLKAY LLC, a company he co-founded in 2002 in Northern New Jersey, and has grown the business to more than 60 employees, becoming a nationwide leader in the healthcare information technology sector. The company offers solutions for major laboratories and EMR companies connecting them to more than 25,000 physician practices. Entrepreneurship, hard work and success seem to be common in this family.
Basketball has always been a part of Ayal Hod. Everything he has done has in some way connected to the sport. That is why this summer he will finally return to his place of birth to compete in the game he loves. Only it will be in a way he never imagined. Ayal will travel to Israel this summer to compete in the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel. He will represent the United States of America as a member of the forty-five and over basketball team. Ayal will be part of a United States team that will bring over one-thousand people to Israel to compete in different sports at all different age levels.
The Maccabiah Games are the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition. They accentuate the traditions and values of Maccabi, emphasizing the centrality of the State of Israel in the life of the Jewish people. The Maccabiah Games take place every four years in Israel. The “Jewish Olympics”, as they are often called, are Maccabi World Union’s largest and most famous enterprise and after the summer and winter Olympics, is the world’s next largest sporting event. This summer’s Maccabiah will include approximately seventy countries competing in thirty-seven different sports. Over thirty-thousand people are expected to witness the Olympic-like opening ceremonies in Jerusalem on July 18th.
Shockingly, Ayal has not been back to Israel in over thirty years. Despite all the years of planning to go back and play professionally, his family and business have kept him in the United States. His brother, Lior, has been back a few times and says that he is “glad that Ayal is finally going back. Hopefully he will continue to return there many times after.” This Maccabiah experience is one Ayal is looking forward to in many ways. As to how he feels about going back to Israel and competing for and representing the United States of America, he says, “It’s a very weird feeling because I should really be on the other side. I am very anxious to go and measure myself against these former professionals who played for many years at such a high level. It will be nice to see, in a way, what I could have done had I chosen to return and play in Israel years ago. The ‘what if’ has been there in my mind for over thirty years.” Lior added, “I wish I could be there to watch him play. I wish I could go and play too, but my legs don’t agree. I am extremely proud of Ayal.”
When asked about Ayal’s return to Israel as a member of the U.S. team, Allan Houston commented, “It must be very emotional for him to go back to where his original identity lays and have this dual identity now with the U.S. and Israel. It’s like playing in the Olympics. It’s about a lot more than basketball.” To add to the nostalgia, Ayal will be given his old jersey number, 32, when he returns to play this summer in the Holy Land.
A lifetime of success on and off the court, friendships and contacts built through positivity and warmth, and leadership by example are all character traits that Ayal Hod will bring with him this summer as he tries to lead the United States of America’s forty-five and over team to a gold medal in basketball. As a man who has made basketball and the lessons of the game a big part of his life off the court, he will finally return to his roots, in an ironic twist of his original intentions, to once again compete on the court.