Israeli NBA star, Omri Casspi, in training
Israeli NBA star, Omri Casspi, in training. Photo by Sharon Bukov
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Israel’s national basketball team tonight begins a journey that will hopefully end next summer in Slovenia at the Eurobasket, the European Championship. Arik Shivek’s charges will face Montenegro in the qualifying tournament opener.
 
“The draw is one of the most difficult possible,” Shivek said last December, after learning who the opponents were.
 
True, Serbia is probably the strongest team in the tournament, but Montenegro, which headed the Israeli group in the last qualifying tournament, only managed one victory in five games at the championship. Estonia played last summer in the second rank, Slovakia has never risen above it, and Iceland hasn’t played a competitive game in three years. The teams in the first two places of each group, and four of the five third-placed teams will take part in the championship. So is it indeed such a difficult draw?
 
Israel won all three tournaments it participated in this summer, taking eight of nine games. Who were the opponents? Israel beat Romania twice, and managed victories against Austria, Belarus and the Israel cadets. Still, there were noteworthy wins over Ukraine, Belgium and Germany − sans Dirk Nowitzki, but still an excellent team.
 
Did Shivek pick weak opponents on purpose, and will his bluff be called tonight? Not necessarily. None of Israel’s rivals were anywhere as strong as Serbia, but the other opponents were certainly on a par with the teams in the Israeli group. For all practical purposes, and taking into consideration that 24 teams will take part in the championship, the qualifying tournament shouldn’t be too difficult to handle.
 
Israel arrived at the 2009 championship without any foreign-born players, for the first time in a decade. The result: a loss in the decisive game against Jeremiah Massey’s Macedonia ‏(Massey scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds‏), which led to Israel’s ousting in the first round for the first time since 1993. This time around the basketball association was quick to naturalize Alex Tyus, who converted to Judaism in the United States. Judging by his potential and his form in recent games, Tyus might be the most influential foreign-born player on the national team since Lavon Mercer.
 
“Not only is he one of the better naturalized players we ever had on the national team,” says Shivek, “he’s also a wonderful human being.”
 
Regarding the team’s point guard, Shivek declared after the first tournament this summer: “Yogev [Ohayon] is the team’s leading point guard, and all the players know that. He handles the reins.” Ohayon showed that his improvement in all aspects of the game, as evident last season at Maccabi Tel Aviv, was no fluke.
Since Meir Tapiro’s retirement three years ago, Israeli coaches searched for a credible point guard. Zvika Sherf tried 21-year-old Gal Mekel but it was too early. Shivek tried four different point guards before declaring that “Ohayon and Mekel are the team’s point guards, and Yogev is first in line.”
 
After the extremely enjoyable London Olympic Games, and the exciting basketball tournament, including David Blatt’s bronze medal, one cannot help thinking about a possible Israeli appearance at Rio 2016. It’s still very far away, and this  tournament could lead, at best, to the World Championship in Spain in two years, but it isn’t impossible. The first seven teams in Slovenia will automatically seal their place at the championship. A fairly strong Israeli team can exploit the fact that not all European NBA stars attend the Eurobasket a year after the Olympic Games. An impressive qualifying tournament could persuade the Israeli Olympic Committee to reinstate men’s basketball as a favored sport. The potential is there for Rio.