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A former hostage now free to cover the Miami Heat

This time last year, he was a captive of Muslim extremists, the Israeli soldier for whom Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would ultimately trade more than 1,000 Arab prisoners to secure his release.

Now a free man, Gilad Shalit is in South Florida starting the next chapter of his life — as a sports writer — doing a practice interview with a University of Miami football player, taking in a Dolphins training day and most importantly joining the cadre of credentialed media at AmericanAirlines Arena.

It all may seem like a screwball story line: Jewish soldier taken hostage at age 19 emerges at 25 to launch a sports writing career by suddenly showing up in Miami to watch LeBron James lead The Heat to the NBA championship.

And it is, except there’s a rub. Watching sports, says Shalit, got him through his five dark years as a hostage of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Gaza Strip.

Alone, in a lockup Shalit won’t describe or discuss, his Palestinian captors at first gave him a radio to tune into games and emotionally escape. Later, captors and captive would sometimes sit together and watch soccer — which both cultures call football — on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel.

“It’s an amazing story, humbling,” says Mike James, the University of Miami running back who let Shalit interview him this past week, in a surreal sort of reversal of training camp practice. Shalit shyly asked questions for about 10 minutes, said James, who coached the Israeli on how American football works. “Anything I can do to help someone to get their dream,” James said.

For Israel, Shalit embodies the unspoken promise of the lengths to which the government will go to bring a captured or fallen soldier home. Hamas fighters from Gaza staged a raid into Israel in June 2006, breaching the border through a tunnel to kill two other member’s of Shalit’s tank unit before dragging Shalit, a corporal, back into the Palestinian territory.

His time in captivity became a cause célèbre in the Jewish world. It ended eight months ago. Netanyahu, who insists Israel does not negotiate with terrorists, sealed a complex swap with Egyptian and Palestinian interlocutors that freed 1,027 prisoners in stages in exchange for the release of Shalit, the lone live soldier in enemy hands.

Shalit’s return was celebrated but he stayed out of the public light until this past week when he came to town with Arik Henig, a well-known Israeli media figure who’s helping the recently discharged soldier chart a new career.

Henig — a sports essayist and TV documentary maker —helped Shalit sign with the leading newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, and the two are co-writing a weekly article about sports. The paper unveiled their new collaborators last week in a big spread showing the two men shooting hoops under the headline “The Game of Life.”

They turned up in Florida this week and, with the help of the Israeli consulate, began Shalit’s apprenticeship as a sports reporter.

“The idea is that he’s the cub reporter being sent with the veteran reporter in order to break him in,” says Chaim Shacham, Israeli consul general, who was surprised by the duo’s decision to turn up in Miami in time for Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

“We tried to get him exposed to as much of the sports industry as possible,” said Shacham. “He talked to owners. He did college sports. They mostly were interested in basketball, but they did some football as well.”

Shalit, for his part, shunned interviews, deftly dodging indiscreet questions from those who pressed him on how he survived.

Instead, he left his first article, a question-and-answer format he crafted with Henig, to speak for itself.

“In captivity, I preferred not to speak. I simply kept quiet,” he wrote.

“Between me and the guards we had only one thing in common: sports. It was just easier to talk about football [soccer]. That’s how I opened up. I’m sure that the sports distanced them, too, from daily problems.”

As Shalit, who emerged emaciated from his years as a captive explains it, watching sports ultimately let him transcend the circumstances of his imprisonment. But on only one occasion was he allowed to see his country’s Hapoel-Tel Aviv team compete in playoffs, against a team from Lyon, France. For the most part he watched European soccer.

“Sport is like an escape. It’s an escape from your daily problems and troubles,” Shalit wrote. “It gives people a moment of peace, to disconnect. In general, I imagine that a lot of the people of Gaza love sports, and they’re interested in these European teams because it distances them from the everyday.”

Shalit, for his part, comes off as painfully shy, bewildered by the attention. When he stopped in at the Dolphins’ training camp in Davie, the would-be reporter left a mark on rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

“It was really eye-opening for me to visit with a person that has been through that kind of experience.” Tannehill said in a statement provided by the team. “I really respect that he was able to live through that ... It really put things in perspective for me.”

In Henig, Shalit has found a mentor who is squiring him around the world and espousing the ethos, says the consul general, that sports “is a universal language that overcomes all sorts of different cultures and different agendas.”

The road trip that will next take them to Kiev for EURO 2012, the European soccer championships, effectively ends a period of self-imposed seclusion for Shalit.

His arrival in South Florida has caused a sensation. A waitress at Moe’s Deli in Aventura recognized him. Members of Miami’s Jewish community jostled to pose for pictures with him at a small reception put on by the consulate. These were the people who lobbied former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz to declare Shalit an honorary citizen in 2009, a gesture to signal that the world had not forgotten the man who was denied visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“I consider him the Israeli John McCain,” said Rabbi Eliot H. Pearlson. During Shalit’s years of captivity, Pearlson kept a photo of the young soldier on display in an empty chair alongside his lectern in Temple Menorah in Miami Beach.

“This young man really does embody the feeling of true Zionism: No matter how bad things are, you persevere and then you get up and go moving again.”

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