Basketball / EuroBasket qualifier / It's good to be older
Yotam Halperin adjusts to being veteran captain of the national team.
In recent years Yotam Halperin was one of two fixtures on Israel's national basketball team, alongside Lior Eliyahu. Omri Casspi joined them for two EuroBasket qualifiers. Now, in the wake of Yogev Ohayon's progress and the addition of Alex Tyus, Israel approaches tomorrow's EuroBasket 2013 qualification opener with promising players at every position.
Ironically, the fixtures are missing.
An ankle injury forced Halperin to join the practice relatively late. He looked mediocre in Israel's four exhibition games. Halperin, 28, says he is not his usual self ahead of the qualification round, adding that his injury is complicated and that is has prevented him from preparing the way he normally does. At the same time, Halperin says he knows himself well enough to declare with certainty that he will be ready when Israel meets Montenegro in Podgorica tomorrow.
The two teams are in Group A along with Serbia, Estonia, Slovak Republic and Iceland.
If he's right, the national team will benefit greatly. Halperin helped Spartak St. Petersburg reach the EuroCup semifinals last season and was chosen to the competition's Second Team. Beyond the stats - an encouraging 46 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the free-throw line but a disappointing 8.9 points per game and 36 percent two-point field goal shooting - one historic accomplishment stands out. Halperin was crowned for the first time in his career assist leader of the competition, with 5.3 per game. Even at the junior national teams Halperin stood out as a scorer much more than as a passer.
Halperin says that a situation arose in which he and American Patrick Beverley were the only point guards on the team. "I played at the two position, but I often had to make the calls," he says. "Whoever knows me knows I love passing and love a team game."
Playing in the Russian and international VTB United League, which includes former Soviet as well as Baltic states, Halperin averaged around 10 points a game. His percentages were high from all ranges. He also averaged over four assists per game, much higher than his career average. However, his numbers couldn't save St. Petersburg from being eliminated in the quarterfinals of both leagues. Halperin left at the end of the season, although the team had an option to keep him another year.
One of the team's executives said Halperin had difficulty breaking out of the reserve role he played with Olympiakos during the 2009-10 season to take more responsibility. However, a local sports journalist said Halperin was great in the games he played and that the team was in trouble without him. He says the team released him probably because of his injury at the end of the season.
Halperin tells a completely different story, indicating that he is the one who did not want to continue. "Two months before I left, they asked me to sign a long-term contract. Everything they told the press later is not the truth and was because they were hurt that I didn't stay." Halperin says he left because the conditions did not meet those of a team in the Euroleague, though he enjoyed his stint. He says the family situation was also hard.
Injuries a new thing
The injuries Halperin suffered were the first to sideline him during his career, which has spanned more than a decade. He says he twisted his ankle badly two days before the end of the season, but a subsequent MRI showed nothing. He started feeling serious pain a month after he returned to Israel and started practicing. Only then was a fracture discovered, and the pain has persisted. Halperin says the injury is bothersome and that it limits him so he has not been able to prepare 100 percent.
Just as he did last season, Halperin looked into the possibility of returning home to Maccabi Tel Aviv this summer, but again it didn't work out. He says tax issues tripped up his plans, as did other things.
Instead, Halperin signed with Bayern Munich. "It's a good place for families," he says. The German league is developing, and that's a challenge for Halperin, the player says. "This team is not one of the lions of Europe, but it's good," he says. "It won't play in European competition, and that's no simple factor. I've always played for teams in European competitions, but I really believe in the team." Halperin says he expects the team to garner European attention in another two or three years.
Halperin played well on the national team in the summers of 2007 and 2008, averaging 15 points a game and making an impact in certain important games. His contribution has been more modest the past three years. He says many players have improved a lot, bringing balance to the team. His role earlier was almost always as a scorer, he notes, adding that he has been more of an all-around player the past few years. He says he is trying to pass more and get other players into the game.
While the injury sidelined him this summer, he enjoyed the honor of being named national team captain. "It's hard to see it on me because I don't express my feelings, but I'm very excited about the situation," he says. "It's huge fun. I've been on national squads since an early age and to be captain of the men's team is a milestone. I've joined a respected list of players." He says it is a little awkward because he has always been used to being on the young side of his teams, but there is something fun about being grown up, he says.
Halperin averaged just seven points a game during the exhibition schedule. Arik Shivek, Israel's coach, says he does not know in what shape his beloved player will show up. "It's hard to know how Yotam will be," remarked Shivek. "He knows how to regulate his body so he will be there at the moment of truth."
Halperin says he is very optimistic about Israel's prospects in the EuroBasket qualification round. He notes Casspi was not in the previous campaign, while Ohayon is improved and Tyus is a significant contribution. He says there is a good balance between experienced and young players and between the positions, noting the team still needs building up.
"It should reach the European Championship next year or in three years in better shape," he adds. "It would be a failure if we don't advance from this group. Serbia is better than us, but I don't think Montenegro is better. I hope it will be a good campaign and we'll advance in convincing fashion. The squad is capable of it."