Basketball / Maccabi Tel Aviv at the Garden / The glory of making the pilgrimage to NYC has its price
Tipoff tonight against the Knicks raises questions whether exhibition games with NBA teams wear out players.
Any relationship between the NBA and the Euroleague is tenuous to non-existent. The NBA plays an 82-game regular season schedule, the Euroleague just 14. The NBA is stocked with 500 of the top players in the world, among them some 70 elite Europeans; the Euroleague is filled primarily with American and European players who aren't talented enough to make a living in the world's best basketball league. The NBA generates a billion dollars annually in revenue, the Euroleague less than one hundred million.
However, there's one team that insists on keeping the loose connection alive and to use almost every opportunity to play against NBA teams: Maccabi Tel Aviv. "We are the first European team to play against an NBA team and the first to defeat an NBA team," Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi pointed out three days ago, hours before his team departed for New York. "And," he added, "we were the first European team to win on North American soil."
Since its arrival in New York, the team has done some public-relations work ahead of its game tonight at Madison Square Garden, dubbed the "Mecca of basketball" by the legendary Michael Jordan.
Mizrahi has the honor of making his first pilgrimage to the arena's parquet at age 68, but he and his team's history in the U.S. goes back much further. In 1978, Maccabi defeated the then-NBA champs Washington Bullets 98-97 and since then has played 11 different teams for an overall record of 4-10. It's most famous triumph was in Toronto against the Raptors two years ago, when Anthony Parker buried the winning basket with one second remaining.
The main benefactor of that win was Parker himself, whom the Raptors signed a year later for $12 million. Maccabi, forced to part with one of its great stars, was compensated $1.5 million. It was a rare instance of money changing hands following a meeting between a European squad with an NBA team.
That was certainly big money compared to what Maccabi will earn tonight. "We'll take in somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000," a club official estimates. The official notes almost all the gate receipts will go to Migdal Or, an Israeli non-profit organization that supports orphans and struggling families in the North.
MSG should be practically standing room only, not too surprising considering the number of Jews and Israelis in New York and its environs. Were Maccabi to operate an international marketing division, it could leverage its appearance in the Big Apple into tens of thousands more dollars in merchandising revenue. But, as it seems now, Maccabi will have to settle for the glory of the game, on condition it doesn't get humiliated tonight.
Is it worth it?
If the money is negligible, then what exactly is the impact of facing NBA teams? Last season, Maccabi played four games - two in Europe, one in Cleveland and one in Toronto - losing badly in all of them. The consensus among management and the coaching staff was that the crowded schedule and grueling travel it caused, hurt Maccabi at a most critical juncture in its preparations for the season. "My team became very tired," then-coach Neven Spahija complained before the Euroleague opener against Malaga.
Another staff member expanded: "Our preparation last season was simply horrible, and the biggest mistake of all was the four games against NBA teams. We were a completely new team which had only played exhibition games against minor teams from Slovenia, and suddenly we're forced to get on the parquet with the best teams in the world. They gave us a clinic. When we lost by 25, that was a respectable result. It influenced the players, and looking back there's no doubt it really hurt us in the first two-three months of the season."
Management decided at the beginning of last season it wouldn't put the team through the same trauma again, which is the main reason why Maccabi is not part of this season's NBA Europe project going on right now.
Some Maccabi members would even pass on going to New York. Coach Oded Katash was asked this week if he would rather focus on practice or playing exhibition games in Europe than go to the Big Apple. "Maybe yes, but we have to take into account the club's needs," he said. On the other hand, Maccabi general manager Zvi Sherf believes "every game against an NBA team is beneficial, period. I wish we'd play an NBA team every year. All the great teams in Europe play against the NBA, and I think it's a welcome thing."
Katash, by the way, fell in line yesterday. "When the NBA and Europe unite, then Israel will be in this league," he said.
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