From Air Force to Air Jordan


Kathia Noriega

Ofek Sirkis directs teammates on defense at Skyline College on Wednesday Nov. 16.

On the first day of school, Ofek Sirkis from Israel didn’t know how to get to Skyline College from his home. Five minutes after he left the house his phone died, and subsequently he realized his fuel tank was running dangerously low. Sitting almost 8.000 miles from friends and family with no GPS, for the first time in his life Sirkis felt truly lost.

22-year-old Ofek Sirkis left friends, family, and a position in the Israeli Air Force behind to study abroad. Living with his extended family in Palo Alto, Sirkis is now a flourishing forward for the Skyline Men’s Basketball team, with his athletic success fueled by the lessons he learned in the air force.

In Israel it is obligatory for high school graduates to serve in the army – for girls it’s two years, while it’s two years and eight months for boys.

Before coming here, Sirkis had lived in Israel his whole life. From 2019 to 2021 he served in the Israeli air force. With a big smile on his face, Sirkis said that this was probably the best time of his life.

Most of his days in the military base were spent in the weight room as a personal trainer, where he helped pilots and soldiers in important positions to become bigger, stronger, and healthier.

“I did whatever I was asked to, whether it was to help with some bullsh*t – sorry…,” Sirkis apologizes with a charming smile. “… Help with some stuff in the kitchen or helping to carry something heavy to the commander of the air force. But day-to-day I was in the weight room.”

Ofek Sirkis measures 6-foot-5 and weighs 210 pounds, yet there is nothing intimidating about his happy blue eyes, open body language, and friendly smile. “Wholesome, charming, and athletic” are the words international student program manager Clair Yeo-Sugajski uses to describe Sirkis.

As the conversation continues, Sirkis says that his time in the army has taught him three main lessons.

“First of all, you have to be on time. If someone asks you to be there at 6 in the morning, you gotta be there on time, no matter what,” Sirkis says. “I was 20 minutes late once, and as a punishment, the commander told me I had to stay in the base for two weeks instead of going back home. And I learned the hard way,” he said, laughing.

The second lesson Sirkis learned in the air force was to respect people who had already achieved great success in their life. Working day-to-day with pilots was a big privilege for the Israeli who, back then, was just a teenager because of the extreme difficulty of completing the pilot study.

The third and most important lesson for Sirkis was to appreciate life.
“I learned in the army that life is important, and you don’t need to take it for granted,” Sirkis said. “Some people lose their life just because they’re protecting their country, so you gotta appreciate life. The tough time for some is the dream for other people.”

While in the air force, Sirkis played Division 3 basketball in Israel, which set him up for college offers. Then in the summer of 2021, he was recruited to play for Fort Lewis College, a four-year school in the mountains of Colorado. But a lack of playing time meant a transfer to Skyline College felt like the natural move for Sirkis, who has family in the Bay Area – a decision that made head coach for the Skyline men’s basketball team Justin Piergrossi very happy.

“Ofek has a lot of skill and a very diverse skill set, so he’s a very good passer, and he sees the floor very well,” Piergrossi said. “He’s a skilled shooter as well, he works hard at that craft. He’s a good mid-range and three-point shooter. And just overall the diversity of his game – he’s equally good with the ball in his hands and when the ball’s not in his hands because he really has a great understanding of the overall game.”

With his big frame, Sirkis is a natural fit for the forward position. But according to teammate Sean Richardson, the Israeli is much more than just muscles.

“He’s passionate,” Richardson said. “A leader that pushes others to do good. And that not only makes himself better but everyone else around him better too.”

Sirkis’ love for basketball came first and foremost from a passion of winning: “I love the feeling of winning. The fact that you worked hard, and you can see the results.” And while he seems calm and composed off the pitch, that’s not always the case when he’s playing.

“Whenever he has missed a couple shots, he’ll shout something in Hebrew, and it’s pretty funny,” Richardson said with a laugh. “Nobody understands what he’s saying besides himself.”

When speaking of Sirkis’ personality traits, the head coach believes Ofek has something in his locker that not a lot of young people have.

“He’s a very responsible and mature young man,” Piergrossi said. “I trust him. I can tell that when we get in big situations in games, that it doesn’t impact him that much. So, I would assume that his life experience thus far helps him on the basketball court.”

Back in the gym, Sirkis is showing off Skyline’s impressive basketball court with adjustable stands and references all over the walls to Skyline’s great history in college basketball. When sitting down to complete the interview, Sirkis talks about a Mediterranean restaurant in San Bruno, where he often comes to eat.

Even though Sirkis is a dedicated athlete, he’s still a real foodie. When asked about the biggest cultural differences between the US and his home country, his initial response is about cuisine.

“First of all, the food. Food here is bad and full of cheese and oil,” he said, laughing. “But as someone who really likes food, and good food, the variety of different kind of food here is amazing. I’ve never lived in a place that has so many types of food. Since I came here, I’ve tried Indian, Korean, Chinese. So, it’s really cool that you have a lot of options. But Israeli food is still the best!”

It’s not just the food that Sirkis misses. Living halfway across the world from his home country means that he rarely gets to see his family and the friends he grew up with. Out of all the sacrifices, one, in particular, stood out to him.
“Life is short, and some of my family members are old already,” Sirkis said. “I wish I could be closer to them.”

At the same time, Sirkis has no regrets – he knows he’s on the right path toward his goals. The 22-year-old aspires to get a university degree and ultimately go on to play professional basketball.

Skyline Men’s Basketball has had a decent start to the season with four wins in seven games. The next chance to watch Ofek Sirkis and the rest of the team in action will be on Dec. 2 against Gavilan College!