An Israeli bounces into the spotlight

Eyal Horn – I always see to it that they announce that I’m from Israel.Eyal Horn’s parents never thought much of their son’s special talent. After all, they reasoned, what possible good could come from being able to bounce a …

Eyal Horn – I always see to it that they announce that I’m from Israel.Eyal Horn’s parents never thought much of their son’s special talent. After all, they reasoned, what possible good could come from being able to bounce a soccer ball on your head a few thousand times in a row?

Twenty-five years later, however, Horn’s mom and dad are taking a different view, happy to be the proud parents of the first Israeli to make it to the NBA simply by using his head, providing some new bounce for Israel’s image abroad in the process.

For the past five years, Horn’s been traveling the world courtesy of an unusual talent for being able to bounce almost anything – from a basketball to a football to a ping pong ball to a marble to the tiny ball inside a whistle – on his noggin. Along the way he’s made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, but is proudest of representing the good side of Israel to the world, and anxious to take what he calls a ‘mission’ to represent his country to an even higher level.

Horn has his old schoolyard friends to thank for his two Olympics appearances and show business career, which has included commercials made in both Israel and the US as well as numerous other appearances, from the NBA All-Star Game half-time show, where he’ll be doing his act again this season in Denver, to charity events at home.

“I used to play ball in the neighborhood like all the kids,” he told ISRAEL21c. “When I was 10 or 12, between games we’d have a contest to see who could bounce the ball longer – first with the feet, then on the head. When it came to feet, I was pretty average, but when it came to bouncing the ball on my head, I discovered I had this special talent.”

“Until the age of 15 or 16, I was busy trying to better my own record – 1,000, 3,000, 8,000 times with my head, with a soccer ball. Once or twice a month I’d say: ‘Hey, I’ve got some time, let me see if I can set a new record,’ and the guys would count and encourage me.”

Mom and dad “didn’t pay much attention to it; they didn’t think it was anything special.” But Horn’s gym teacher did, and started setting up new challenges for his head-strong young pupil. His talent proved useful in the army, too, when Horn delighted his commander who would show him off to his fellow commanders.

“I remember once there was a unit of 50 soldiers, and my commander said to him: ‘As many times as all your guys put together can bounce the ball, he’ll do more.’ They’d bet and we’d win all kinds prizes,” recalls Horn.

By now Horn had turned the bouncing into an act – lying on his back, walking with the ball, ‘dribbling’ a basketball with his head up, down, or under a ladder, and even shooting with it. His high school physical education teacher ended up giving Horn his big break, arranging a halftime appearance at an Israeli basketball league game. The contest was televised, giving him added exposure.

“I’ll never forget the reaction of the crowd,” says the stocky Horn with a grin. “They were in shock. I’ll also never forget that afterwards the owners of the concession stands in the arena wanted to sue me because during my halftime show, no one came to buy anything.”

For eight years, Horn traveled around Israel doing his act, but people kept telling him: Go West, young man, as in Jerry West. “There’s nothing for you here, they’d say, ‘you have to go abroad.’”

American former NBA players in Israel also encouraged him until finally he wowed agent Arik Hoenig, who had the rights to NBA broadcasts in Israel, during halftime of a game Hoenig was broadcasting. Watching the Israeli native whirl around the court, shooting hoops with his head, Hoenig turned to his fellow broadcasters and predicted: “In my opinion, this is the first Israeli who is going to make it to the NBA.”

Hoenig was right. An appearance at halftime of a 1999 Miami Heat-Maccabi Tel Aviv caught the eye of visiting NBA president David Stern, who immediately summoned the startled Horn to his side.

“I have to tell you something,” said Stern, “I’ve been involved in basketball in the NBA for 35 years. The Miami Heat coach Pat Riley is a crazy coach. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him not be able to get his players’ attention during a timeout, because they were all looking at you. And then after a while he got fed up, and turned and watched you, too.”

Two days later Horn was on a plane, headed for an NBA exhibition in Italy, paving the way for his appearance at the 2000 All-Star Game. Suddenly Horn was rubbing shoulders – almost – with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Alan Iverson, and other NBA stars. “I’ll never forget when I finished my act, Shaquille O’Neal came up to me, shook my hand strongly and said: ‘Good job, man!’” recalls Horn, doing his best Shaq imitation.

When NBA Entertainment put together a show to accompany the Dream Team to the Sydney Olympics that summer, they took Horn along, earning himself a repeat invitation to the Athens games, where Alan Iverson welcomed back the guy he called “man from Israel.” NBA arena or Olympics stage, Horn always makes sure the PA announcer tells the crowd where he’s from.

“At the beginning of each performance in a big arena, I get goose bumps, but I always see to it that they announce that I’m from Israel. As soon as the announcer says “from Israel” it calms me down, I get an adrenaline rush and self-confidence… I see it as a mission, fulfilling a mission for the country. It’s just like an Olympic athlete who goes to try to bring back a medal. It makes me feel more like I’ve got an obligation, to try harder to succeed to represent my country honorably.”

His NBA and Olympics appearances earned him the nickname ‘The Human Seal’, and invitations to do commercials and TV appearances. In a spot for Foot Locker, Horn changed shirts three times while continuing to bounce the b-ball on his head, each shirt revealing another word of the message: ‘The Big Sale,’ before ending the ad by hitting a three-pointer from way, way out.

Good Morning, America producers couldn’t believe it was real, and invited him on the air to show his talents. The Guinness people heard about him and brought him to Hollywood to appear on their show twice, once where he set the record for longest outside shot taken with his head, 25 feet, and then to register 15 consecutive lay-ups with his kabaza. (Page 203 of the 2004 edition, under basketball.) Now he’s aiming at the highest basket, vowing to raise the new electronic baskets to unseen heights and score on them.

Doesn’t all that bouncing hurt? “Actually, no, because my head’s already used to it,” says Horn, whose head looks pretty much like anyone else’s. “What does hurt is when I bounce marbles on my head, because they’re hard. It’s like you ask a boxer if it hurts. At first it hurts a little, but then your head gets used to it.

“Actually,” says Horn, “what really works the hardest with me in the act are my legs, not the head. Take a look at my leg muscles. It’s all a matter of balance. So by proper use of my legs, I can reduce the pain to my head. I can bounce the ball up to 10 meters in the air with the power of my legs. When the NBA guys see my leg muscles, they ask: ‘How many years you been working out?’ I tell them it’s not from working out, it’s from the act all these years.”

As for his unique talent itself, Horn says he doesn’t even spend much time practicing. “I never practice – it’s just a talent. It’s a different kind of thing.”

After suffering a leg injury a few months ago, Horn literally bounced right back. “It was as if I’d never stopped. It’s like teaching a little kid how to ride a bike. Even if he hasn’t done it for five years, he can still get on the bike and ride. It stays with you. It’s like Uri Geller can bend spoons – I can do this.”

Despite requests by many people, Horn says his talent can’t really be taught. “Just as Geller can’t pass his special gift to someone else, it’s the same with me. God gave me a special gift.”

Horn shares it with others, too, doing charity work several times a week. “You see you make people feel good because of that special talent with which you’ve been blessed,” he says.

Back in Israel, Horn, a father of three who works as a lineman for the Electric Corp., is continuing to refine his act, recently adding a football to his repertoire. Famous locally for a headache pill commercial, Horn is determined to take his talent even further.

“I’m dreaming of the big time,” says Horn, who hopes to appear at NFL, NCAA, or other sporting events, or even taking his act to Vegas or Atlantic City. “I’m waiting for the right person to take me under their wing,” he says, adding he’d very much like to make contact with a US agent who could get him more exposure.

If he does, Israel will only benefit. “I’ll always see what I do as a mission,” he says, “but perhaps it will open up new ideas that can help the country. I’d be happy to mix the two. I’d be very happy if someone at the Foreign Ministry or elsewhere would use me. I think it would help both the country and myself by passing on the message that there’s more to Israel than just guns; there are people with special talents.”