Guni Izraeli
Guni Izraeli Photo by Nir Keidar
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The confetti that rained down on the jubilant Hapoel Gilboa/Galil Elyon players after they defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv for the Super League championship two months ago has long dissipated. Now the team is beginning to grapple with the repercussions of its historic triumph.

The head coach, Oded Katash, departed for Hapoel Jerusalem and most of the players also switched uniforms. The only two mainstays who have remained are Avishai Gordon and Guni Izraeli, who is particularly upset about losing the opportunity to defend the title.

"It really pains me that we didn't continue on together," Izraeli says of his ex-teammates. "I really liked the players who were here. Everyone was friends with one another. There's no doubt that it's not easy losing players like Elishay Kadir, Brian Randle and Jeremy Pargo, but we knew it was going to be difficult to hold onto them. Success increases their value and makes it more expensive to keep them."

"If we had Maccabi Tel Aviv's or Hapoel Jerusalem's budget," he says, "we could have kept them, but that's just not the situation. We have to be realistic."

Hapoel Holon nearly dissolved after winning the championship. Are you worried this might also happen to Gilboa/Galil?

"No. Galil is a strong club. We still haven't finished building up our team so it's difficult to speak of expectations, but we do have a small budget. So I don't think anyone should expect another championship from us. On the other hand, we're going to bring a lot of energy and motivation to the court, and I hope the new players from abroad on the roster will be effective. I still have no idea where we're headed, but I believe in the players that have stayed on and I hope we'll have a team that makes the fans happy."

Why did you decide to stay?

"I had other opportunities that offered more money, but I think Galil is a very good place for me. It's where I grew up and I really love the area. I prefer continuity. The fact that Lior Lubin was named coach also factored greatly into my decision."

Are you angry at your former teammates who left for other teams to make more money?

"No, I'm not angry about that. I can't be angry with such good friends. They're all my friends off the basketball court. I can understand where they're coming from - this is business."

Was your contract sweetened ? After all, you did win the championship.

"Of course they did. I'm very satisfied with my contract."

A trail of success

It seems that wherever Izraeli has done, he has left behind a trail of success. In the last three years, he has won the Super League title twice - once with Gilboa/Galil and once with Holon. Izraeli and Gordon are the only two players in history to have won two championships with teams outside of Maccabi Tel Aviv.

"I think the secret to success is Gordon," he said. "I really value him. He's like a father to me. I learn a lot from him: how to put things together, how to talk to players and coaches, how to take charge. He always exudes calm and a positive attitude. Last season, I really internalized what he was saying."

You always seem active during games, even when you're sitting on the bench.

"When I'm on the bench I like taking part in what is happening. This makes it easier for me to enter the game with energy. It's as if I'm living the game from the bench. I'm not the most talented, nor am I the best shooter. I'm not the quickest player and I'm certainly not the strongest. So my way of helping the team as best I can is to pour my heart and soul into it - be it on the court or on the bench."

You don't think you're talented?

"I think there are players more talented than I."

Izraeli recalls how he nearly left the team in the middle of the season last year.

"When Gal Mekel joined the club," he says, "I was at the top of my form and playing a lot of minutes. When he arrived, I had concerns about my future and I let Katash in on them. He told me that I needed to stay on the team, yet my minutes kept decreasing. I asked the team to release me and Oded told me flat out that he refused to let me go. It was a tough situation for me, but I continued to prove myself and then started getting more playing time. Today I can only thank [Katash] for not letting me leave."

Perhaps one reason you stayed was because they promised you a more significant role on the team?

"There's no doubt I'm going to play a major part, but I'm not very interested as to whether I'll be a starting guard or a back-up. I'm not a 20-year-old player who needs to be told, 'You're in the starting lineup.' What's important for me is to play, but I don't need to play the entire game. I just want to contribute."

This will be Lubin's first season as head coach.

"From my vantage point, Oded and Lubin were like two head coaches. Lior has a positive disposition, he has an inner calm to him, much like Oded. Before I re-signed, I sought his advice. We have a special bond."

Do you think you belong on the Israel national team?

"I can't say that it doesn't hurt me that I'm not there, but I always say that if people think you're not good enough, then you have to work harder to prove yourself. Even after the championship with Holon I wasn't invited to join the team, but that's alright. I'll work hard and I hope that one day it will happen. This is my dream."