His friend, Ronli Socolovsky, did brag about him. They have been reunited since Shalit was returned to Israel late last year after five years of captivity.
“He was a very good keeper,” his friend offered. “We were in different classes at Kibbutz Cabri, and his class always won.”
I met Gilad Shalit briefly at a reception Tuesday. It was very clear that he was the beloved brother and son for Jews everywhere who celebrated the trade of more than 1,000 prisoners for this one young man who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and took some shrapnel in the arm in the process.
Shalit, 25, is now taking up his strange new calling as fledgling sportswriter for an Israeli paper. Having covered the N.B.A. finals in Miami, he will be at the European soccer championships final in Kiev on Sunday.
These are assignments that any sportswriter would hustle for, maybe even grovel for. In our brief introduction, I told Shalit that I was jealous of his trip to the Euros. Did he need anybody to carry his bags to Ukraine?
He came to the office of The New York Times on Wednesday afternoon with his buddy, Socolovsky, who is starting his teaching career, to watch the Spain-Portugal semifinal during Shalit’s few manic days in the city — Jon Stewart later Wednesday, and then sorting out conflicting invitations from important people on Thursday.
Shalit, a born multitasker, was sending a dispatch to the home office in Israel and watching the great players on the screen. He flicked his thumbs, like the new generation of sportswriters in every press box, an instant member of the motley band.
A basketball fan and soccer fan before being taken to Gaza by Hamas in June 2006, Shalit held on to his sanity by watching and listening to sports events when his captors provided a television or radio.
Many of us keep our minds busy the same way, under less threatening circumstances. While enduring a stultifying lecture or stuck in commuter traffic, some of us let our minds drift to the free flow of Steve Nash’s fast breaks or the details of the 1986 Mookie-Buckner game. Sports get some of us through. They surely helped Gilad Shalit get through.
“I drew a lot of strength from sports activity, despite the conditions I was under there,” he wrote in his first column. “It granted me a break from the reality I was in.”
He told how his captors allowed him to watch a Champions League match in which an Israeli player scored an acrobatic goal, and everybody agreed it was superlative soccer. For the moment, they were all just fans.
Now some of the most compelling sporting events in the world are suddenly available to Shalit, who has agreed to write a weekly column for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli tabloid. His co-author is Arik Henig, grizzled friend of Israeli politicians, television producer, man-about-the-universe. They’re an odd couple, no doubt.
On Wednesday, they explained how their collaboration began about a month after the big trade that sprang Shalit in October 2011.
“His best friend is my friend’s son,” Henig said. “I heard he was a big N.B.A. fan.” Henig, who carries a photo of himself in 1984 next to a slim rookie with the Chicago Bulls named Jordan, is a longtime friend of David Stern’s and of the global-minded N.B.A.
“I sent him some souvenirs,” Henig said, nodding to Shalit.
“Three thousand dollars,” said Shalit, who does not speak much English but knows numbers like that.
“I invited him over to dinner, and we watched a game, to see if we have chemistry,” Henig said. “I was very impressed with his knowledge of sports. He knew about things that happened while he was in jail. He knows the players better than I do.
“I took him out to dinner so he would gain weight. He gained eight kilos; the big problem is that I gained 12 kilos.” (Those figures translate to 17.5 pounds and 26.5 pounds.)
Asked about their work, Henig said: “It’s like teacher-student, but soon he will be my teacher. It’s like Ping-Pong.”
What the budding collaboration is really like, or where it will go, I cannot say. Shalit did not appear to have designs on being a journalist when, just out of high school, he began his obligatory term in the Israeli military. Now suddenly he gets to see LeBron James of Miami and Iker Casillas of Spain in the same month. He does have his own perspective on life: the lessons of sport — perseverance, optimism, courage — can serve somebody dragged across the border into a cellar for five years.
As a nascent journalist himself, Shalit has been pursued by everybody (including me) who wants an in-depth interview, if not about his captivity and his worldview, then at least about his personal thoughts during his captivity, his family, his aspirations. He has remained mostly silent in the face of the usual conflict between the public’s professed contempt for the news media and the public’s addiction to what the news media provide.
When the newspaper announced that the celebrated former hostage was suddenly a sports columnist, some Israelis grumbled that he was being used, or at least had not paid his dues. However, the publication Maariv recently offered an essay called “The Grace Period Is Over,” by Lilach Sigan, on its Web site.
Give the kid a chance, the article suggested, citing (in a very rough paraphrasing from the Hebrew, furnished by an Israeli friend) our lack of self-awareness about what many of us have become: a bunch of petty people against anyone getting special treatment unless it is ourselves, critical without borders, all the time just complaining — why somebody else, and not us.
Nobody was raising questions like that when Shalit, still gaunt, materialized on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Tuesday, at a reception organized by the Jewish Community Center. The hosts, Jeff and Michelle Feig, opened up their gorgeous full-floor apartment, with its view of the Hudson, and invited New Yorkers to schmooze with Shalit.
One conversation was with Lenny Krayzelburg, born in what is now Ukraine and the winner of four Olympic gold medals as an American swimmer.
“It was obviously great to meet him,” said Krayzelburg, who is Jewish and said he had seen reminders of Shalit at Jewish centers during Shalit’s captivity. Krayzelburg, who runs his own foundation and swimming academy in Los Angeles to teach swimming and water safety, said he was very impressed with Shalit’s sports knowledge.
Doria Kahn, 14, of Manhattan was thrilled to be in the same room with Shalit.
“We always say a prayer for him at our Sabbath meal, but I thought that prayers didn’t come true,” she said. One day in school, Doria heard her classmates saying Shalit had been released; at first she did not believe it.
“Now I know that prayers come true,” she said, with visible emotion.
If answered prayers included a stint as a sportswriter at the N.B.A. finals and the Euro championship, maybe that, too, is part of some vast eternal plan.