NAZARETH, Israel — Long before he was a professional basketball player in Israel’s most prestigious league, Karam Mashour honed his game on one of the only courts in this city: the tiny alleyway between his parents’ house and his grandmother’s. The narrow sliver of concrete and portable hoop came with very specific challenges — duck low if you want to dribble to the right but avoid a collision with the electrical box jutting out from the window, for example — yet Mashour never dwelled on the setting.
There was no point, mostly because there was no alternative.
“Everyone here plays football,” Mashour said. “When my brother and I told people we wanted to play basketball, they said, ‘Why?’”
Mashour’s story, and his current place at the heart of fourth-placed Bnei Herzliya’s roster, is undeniably unusual. In a league full of Israeli Jews, top Europeans and talented Americans, Mashour is the only player of Arab heritage. And, perhaps more pointedly, in a country where more than a fifth of the eight million residents are Arab, Mashour is one of only two to play in the top division in more than decade.
In an interview at his parents’ home here, Mashour said repeatedly that he did not see himself as any kind of pioneer or leader — “I don’t think of myself that way, I just want to be a basketball player,” he repeated often — but his arrival in the league has brought forward the larger question of why basketball has not yet found the same popularity in Israel’s Arab community as it has among the country’s Jews.
According to Hagay Segal, a communications official with the Israel Basketball Association, about 10 percent of the 35,000 registered basketball players in the country are Arab. Of that group, Segal added, a majority are women and youth players, as opposed to adult men.
“It’s just not in our culture, not like football,” said Fadi Mustafa, a leading sports broadcaster who produces Israel’s only Arabic soccer television program. “There are no courts in the Arab sector, no infrastructure. The first time I ever played basketball was when I was 15; we didn’t know the rules, we just threw the ball in the basket. Nobody knew or cared or wanted to know. It was easier to just put down a few stones for goals and play soccer.”
He added: “I remember, they tried to do a basketball tournament once at the community center but had to cancel it. No one wanted to actually play right.”
Yair Galily, a professor who has studied and written extensively on sports and Israeli society, said that basketball played a part in the “Americanization of Israeli culture,” but added that some elements of that shift, including an attraction to basketball, had not taken root in the Arab community.
There is often an element of circular logic to the issue, Galily said: public infrastructure in predominantly Arab cities in Israel is frequently lacking (there are often fewer buses or rail links, for instance) and so, by extension, there are generally fewer courts or organized programs for basketball in Arab communities, too. That means there are precious few high-level players for children to admire, making them less interested in basketball as a sport and making leaders less inclined to push for more courts or programs.
“Think about how many role models there are for Arab children in football,” Galily said. “In basketball, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the number. It makes it hard for a sport to grow.”
That reality is not limited to Israel; when the Dallas Mavericks signed Salah Mejri, a Tunisian center, last year, they gave the N.B.A. its first Arab player since Rony Seikaly, a Lebanese center, retired in 1999.
The history of Arab basketball players in Israel is glaringly thin, too. The first Arab-Israeli to play in the top division, according to the league, was Nizhar Dahi, who played for Maccabi Netanya during the 1987-88 season. Since then, the league said, there have been only three other Arab players in the first division, the most successful of whom was Rafat Chider, who scored a total of 220 points in five seasons. By comparison, Manshour — who is being tipped as a candidate for the league’s rookie of the year award — has scored 155 points in 20 games this season alone, averaging 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. Earlier this season, he scored 25 points against Israel’s most-storied team, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Despite his reluctance to be in the spotlight, Mashour conceded that his accomplishments may increase the likelihood of young Arabs hoping to someday be like him instead of, say, Zahi Armeli or Walid Badir, two of the country’s most famous Israeli-Arab soccer players.
“Football is so big; even my family, they come to the games and they say, ‘Karam scored a goal tonight,’” Mashour said, laughing. “But maybe this will open some doors. I would like to see more people interested in basketball.”
Lior Lubin, a former coach in the Israeli Premier League who now works closely with many of the country’s top youth basketball players, said Mashour’s continued rise could be a critical boost to the development of the game in Arab communities. If Mashour signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, his visibility would skyrocket.
If he were to earn a spot on Israel’s senior national team — a prospect that is unlikely before this summer’s Rio Olympics but could be considered in a few years — the attention would be intense. “The bigger the stage, the bigger the interest,” Lubin said.
Basketball is not completely foreign in Israel’s predominantly-Arab communities or in the Palestinian territories. There is a fledgling Palestinian national team, though the local league there is more akin to a recreational operation than a professional one, and an interfaith program known as Peace Players International, which is designed to use basketball to connect young people in contentious or struggling areas around the world, has had success bringing Arabs and Jews together inside Israel.
But Lubin added that it was not until recently that Israel’s basketball federation began a program targeted at identifying players in predominantly Arab communities. Progress has been slow, he said, but there is a growing attention to the sport that had been missing in the past.
At a recent shooting clinic near Nahariyah, a coastal city in the north of the country, Lubin said 14 out of 40 participants were Israeli-Arab or Druze, an Arabic-speaking sect. . That sort of breakdown would have been impossible to imagine 10 years ago, when Mashour and his brother had to go to Haifa, nearly 30 miles from their home in Nazareth, to find a store that would sell them the basketball hoop that still hangs in the alley beside their house.
When Mashour first joined an organized team, he had to take a bus more than 30 minutes out of Nazareth to reach its practice site. “It was the closest club,” he said.
He had never even considered playing basketball until he was 13, which is when his brother, Saher, introduced him to YouTube clips of N.B.A. stars like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. Immediately intrigued, Mashour began staying up until the wee hours of the morning to watch basketball on the Internet.
He and Saher also began to play, banging into the houses on either side of the alley as they bounced around their makeshift court. Mashour, who stands 6 foot 6 and plays as swingman, showed an instinctive talent early on, but it wasn’t until his growth spurt, around 11th grade, that he said to himself, “That’s it; this is my sport.”
When he was 18, Mashour said his uncle, who lives in Las Vegas, suggested he move to the United States to see if his skills could earn him a college scholarship. Mashour leapt at the opportunity and caught on with a high-level A.A.U. team. Not long after, he was offered a scholarship by Lon Kruger, then the coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Mashour played two seasons at U.N.L.V. (he still frequently wears his team tracksuit) before transferring to Morehead State after Kruger departed. He sat out one season then played two more before returning to Israel last August.
Now, he is happy to be with Bnai Herzliya, a team with a strong fan base and serious ambitions based just outside Tel Aviv. Mashour said he has not encountered much direct attention from fans or opponents because of his ethnicity but said that he did his best to focus only himself as a basketball player.
He knows, though, that the reality is that he symbolizes something greater.
“Sometimes I think about where I am now and where I started, on that court out there,” he said, gesturing toward the alley. “And I wonder if there are other kids here who want to do the same thing.”