As he sat on the bench during Israel's victory over Italy in the first game of the EuroBasket 2011 qualifying round last week, Tal Burstein seemed to relish his role as team captain.
"Guy, get them set up on defense!" he screamed to his teammate Guy Pnini. "Yuval, be patient!" he hollered at guard Yuval Naimy. It seems the national team, which faces Latvia tonight in the second game of its qualifying campaign at Yad Eliyahu in Tel Aviv, has its leader once again.
Burstein, 30, recently signed a three-year deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team from which he departed in a huff just one year ago. Given the way his last season in yellow unfolded - most of the time he was placed on the bench - the swingman now seems as if he has something to prove.
"I didn't return to Maccabi with an attitude of 'Give me playing time and a spot in the starting lineup,'" Burstein said. "I'm not one of those players who signs with a team after it promises playing time. That's something you have to earn."
Last year, the Petah Tikva native was given a fresh start with Spanish club Fuenlabrada. In retrospect, his time in Spain was just the tonic for a proud athlete who felt disrespected by his former club. His stay there did not begin auspiciously. The team did not have high expectations for Burstein, who arrived in camp a short time before the start of the season. He was not in basketball shape, while his new teammates had already acquainted themselves with one another in practice.
The Israeli's inconsistency was another Achilles' heel. While he made a positive impact in some games, there were others in which he simply could not perform well.
"Mentally, I needed an adjustment period," he said. "I had to face difficulties that I didn't experience in Israel."
"From a professional standpoint, we played a different brand of basketball," Burstein recalled. "For the first time I was a foreigner on a foreign team, and it took me time to adjust. This forced me to see things in a different light and to accept them in a different way. After a few months, everything worked out."
24 minutes a game
In the start of 2010, a new coach was named to lead Fuenlabrada. As a result, Burstein was given a more prominent role on the team, which was also beset by injuries to some of its best players. While the final statistics for Burstein were not phenomenal, they were still pretty good: 9.3 points per game, including 38 percent shooting from three-point range, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. Yet the most significant number for Burstein was the 24 minutes per game that he played in Europe's top basketball league.
"When he took the reins, the team achieved much better results," said national coach Arik Shivek, who watched all of Burstein's games in Spain. "It really infuriated me to hear all sorts of people say things about him without ever having seen him at all."
While courting Burstein this offseason, Maccabi coach David Blatt made clear that the team views him as an important piece of the puzzle.
"It was important for me to hear David explain how he sees things and how I fit in from a professional and a social standpoint," Burstein said.
As to whether Burstein can compete against the behemoths of the Euroleague, Shivek thinks it's a slam dunk.
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