Culture / Sporting Life

War and Basketball — Houston’s Emanuel Sharp Plays In the NCAA Tournament As His Brother Deals With Much More In Israel, With Rockets, Fear & 3:30 AM Tipoffs

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 03.22.24

MEMPHIS — Some 6,542 miles away from this NCAA Tournament site, in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa, Derrick Sharp Jr. will sit down to watch his little brother Emanuel Sharp play for the University of Houston in the Big Dance at around 3:30 am in the morning. Derrick Sharp Jr. (who goes by D.J.) doesn’t care that No. 1 seed Houston is tipping off against 16th seed Longwood in the middle of the night where he is. He does not miss Emanuel’s games. In many ways watching his younger brother’s game take off this season has been one of D.J. Sharp’s most reliable joys as he pursues his own professional basketball dreams in a country still grappling with the horrific October 7 attacks that sparked a bloody war with Hamas.

“Seeing the progress is like really emotional,” D.J. Sharp tells PaperCity over the phone from Israel. “Because I was really there from the beginning and I knew he was going to be an awesome basketball player. . .

“Following him from far away is just emotional. Seeing him play on these big stages and going into the Tournament now is just great. . . I stay up to watch his games. All the time.”

Emanuel Sharp’s breakout second season for Houston (he’s more than doubled his scoring average to 12.2 points per game, become a defensive disruptor with 1.5 steals per game and a reliable rebounder, starting in what is arguably college basketball’s best backcourt with Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer) has been something of a salvation for his older brother. When the October 7 attack happened, throwing Israel into a state of shock, chaos, fear and uncertainty, D.J. Sharp turned to following Emanuel Sharp’s season for little bits of normalcy.

D.J. Sharp’s own season came to an abrupt halt, with professional basketball in Israel shutting down for two months in the wake of the attacks. All the Americans in the league returned home. D.J. and Emanuel Sharp’s dad Derrick Sharp Sr. — a legendary former professional basketball star in Israel himself — asked his oldest son if he didn’t want to come back to Tampa too.

“We were worried to death about him,” Derrick Sharp tells PaperCity.

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D.J. Sharp, who like Emanuel grew up in Israel and spent the bulk of his formative years there, decided to stay. He’s been playing pro ball in Israel since 2016, has built a life in the country. Considers it home. He wouldn’t leave his friends and family behind. Which doesn’t mean staying was easy.

When the basketball season did resume in Israel, it restarted without anyone in the stands. Having that many people together in an arena was considered much too risky. Sirens going off, warning of potential incoming rocket fire, became a regular part of everyday life.

“Nobody knew what really was going to happen,” D.J. Sharp says. “The games started with no crowds because we didn’t know if sirens were going to go off anywhere. You couldn’t have a lot of people in public in one place. You know what I mean?”

D.J. Sharp lays out this reality in the most matter of fact way. He knows that most Americans have little concept of what life is like in this region, with so much pain, suffering and fear on both sides. His own close friends back in Florida often struggle to understand.

Maybe you think the NCAA Tournament game is insignificant juxtaposed against the real horrors of the October 7 attack of Israel (including hostage taking and sexual violence) and the continuing brutal counter attacks in Gaza. Of course, anyone who thinks that is right in so many ways. But D.J. Sharp will tell you that watching his little brother Emanuel do his thing for Kelvin Sampson’s Houston team — and talking over Instagram regularly with his brother, often just talking hoops — can be the best part of his week.

The attacks and the aftermath make the idea of NCAA Tournament pressure seem sort of silly too. Especially when you see your brother dealing with so much more.

“It was scary,” Emanuel Sharp tells PaperCity. “Especially with my brother being over there. The entire situation is terrible. Both sides. My prayers go out to all the victims.”

Emanuel Sharp loves his brother. Is touched that “he stays up and watches a lot of my games.” Israel being seven hours ahead of North American Central Time is not close to enough of an obstacle to stop D.J. Sharp from seeing his brother play in the NCAA Tournament live. Starting with this Friday night 8:20 pm local (3:20 am Saturday in Haifa) approximate tip in the FedEx Forum,. D.J. Sharp will be in front of a screen, screaming for every 3-pointer and defensive stop from Houston’s No. 21.

If his cheering happens to wake up a few of his neighbors in the middle of the night. . . well, they’ll understand the joy.

For Emanuel Sharp is almost as big a deal in Israel these days as his dad used to be. Emanuel played for the Israel national team in the FIBA U16 Division A Tournament and it turns out that Houston has been adopted as one of the more popular United States college teams in the country thanks to his presence on the roster.

“The last three years it’s been a lot of people coming up to talk to me about Emanuel almost every day,” D.J. Sharp tells PaperCity. “Even my coaches. My teammates. Other (basketball) players around in Israel. Or just normal people that I see.

“People asking me, ‘Oh, I hear your brother is at Houston. I see that the team is winning a lot and everything.’ ”

UH’s Winning Reaching Israel, D.J. Sharp’s Brotherly Advice & an Elementary School Baller

Yes, Kelvin Sampson’s winning UH juggernaut more than translates in Israel. People often tell D.J. Sharp that he and Emanuel look a lot like each other. They certainly each play with a similar swagger, pumping up the crowd and their teammates after a big shot or a big stop.

“I can’t wait to see Emanuel play in the NCAA Tournament when he’s not all nervous,” Shead, Houston’s All-American point guard, says. “When it’s not his first time. I’m excited to see it.”

These Sharp brothers — besides D.J. and Emanuel, Gabriel Sharp plays for Kalamazoo College and Derrick Sharp Sr. says that the youngest (10-year-old Noah Sharp) is determined to be even better than Emanuel — love their basketball. D.J. Sharp has been encouraging Emanuel to not settle for threes, to punish teams in the mid-range too and he loved seeing how much Emanuel used his pull-up game in UH’s Big 12 Tournament semifinal win over Texas Tech.

“That’s what makes it so emotional,” D.J. Sharp says. “Because I know it’s part of my blood doing that. You know what I mean? I knew he was going to be like that (as a player). And it just makes me so happy. And seeing the name Sharp on his jersey — everybody’s talking about it.

“I can’t explain how much I’m happy. . . It’s like my little brother is doing what I was always thinking he was going to be doing. What I’ve seen years ago.”

D.J. Sharp plays shooting guard like his little brother — University of Houston standout Emanuel Sharp.
D.J. Sharp plays shooting guard like his little brother — University of Houston standout Emanuel Sharp.

The now 27-year-old D.J. Sharp is seven years older than Emanuel, but that never stopped the younger brother from competing. When Emanuel Sharp was still just in elementary school, he’d play pickup basketball against the high school aged D.J. Sharp and that entire group.

“He’d play with us,” D.J. Sharp laughs. “And he used to play like a normal high school player (as an elementary schooler). If he was on the court, there was no difference when he had the ball. That’s when everybody knew he’d be something else.”

D.J. Sharp and his high school friends never took it easy on Emanuel. In fact, they’d try to punish him on the court. And usually still end up getting scored on. Now, Emanuel Sharp still leans on his older brother half a world away for advice and pointers.

“It’s great knowing that I’ve got a figure like that who I can look up to,” Emanuel Sharp tells PaperCity. ” And get to ask questions about his professional career. I love him. I played against him since I was younger. Every time I go home (in the summer), I work out with him.

“It’s just a blessing.”

“Following him from far away is just emotional. Seeing him play on these big stages and going into the Tournament now is just great. . . I stay up to watch his games. All the time.” — D.J. Sharp on his brother, UH guard Emanuel Sharp

Derrick Sharp Sr. still catches every game D.J. Sharp plays for Maccabi Haifa on Livestreams, still offers coaching advice to his oldest. He and Emanuel’s mom Justine Ellison Sharp — who played pro basketball for 10 years herself in Israel — will be here in Memphis for this NCAA Tournament weekend. Derrick Sharp won’t offer Emanuel that many coaching tips though. He figures Kelvin Sampson has that covered.

“What Coach Sampson has done for him, as well as other players, with his defense is remarkable,” Derrick Sharp, all the boys’ first coach, says. “And overall coaching — outside of basketball, inside of basketball. They just made him a better person.

“And that’s why I wanted him to play for Coach Sampson.”

Derrick Sharp Emanuel Sharp
When Derrick Sharp won a championship for Maccabi Tel Aviv, his then young sons D.J. Sharp and Emanuel Sharp were right there. Derrick Sharp holds up the trophy as Emanuel Sharp (bottom center) dances with joy.

Basketball In Israel and a Family Game

Derrick Sharp used to bring his sons up with him for the trophy ceremonies when his Maccabi Tel Aviv team won. This now proud dad played in Israel for 18 seasons and is remembered for knocking down big shots, like the leaning triple he hit at the buzzer to force overtime in the EuroLeague semifinals in 2004, the year Emanuel was born. Now. Derrick Sharp finds his own thoughts often returning to Israel, to what happened on October 7 and since.

“It hurts my heart,” he says. “. . . We’ve got so many friends and family there. So it’s still a pain in my heart to see what’s going on. It’s just terrible.”

One of Derrick Sharp’s sons is over there in Israel, playing on, with no one surprised when the rocket warning sirens blare anymore, trying to help lift his team out of last place in a condensed schedule, unsure what will happen next beyond the court. Another gets to enjoy the big stage and bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, one of the best players on a team that could win it all.

“It was scary. Especially with my brother being over there. The entire situation is terrible. Both sides. My prayers go out to all the victims.” — UH guard Emanuel Sharp on his brother being in Israel during the October 7th attacks

D.J. Sharp and Emanuel Sharp are oceans apart, but still as connected as ever. Talking hoops late at night or early in the morning Houston time, lifting each other up.

“I told him to sometimes not to settle for three,” DJ. Sharp says. “To sometimes take the mid-range if the defense gives it you. Try to get into the game with a drive and get to the line. And just balancing out the two pointers and the three pointers. And have a good efficiency like that.

“And I don’t know, I guess it helped him. Because I’ve really seen him take some mid-range shots after that. And drive more.”

The excitement in D.J. Sharp’s voice now more than comes through over the phone. A brother’s pride reaching across time zones and all those miles apart. D.J. Sharp can’t wait to watch his little brother play the game they love in March, in a world that often seems caught in madness.

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