U.S. billionaire aims to turn pet team into a powerhouse
Basketball powerhouses have come and gone over the past decade. First, there was Hapoel Tel Aviv that vanished and made a comeback only to disappear again. Meanwhile, this season featured a revived Hapoel Holon. The next big thing, if one is to believe the hype, is Maccabi Haifa, the newly promoted team from the second tier owned by Miami-based Jewish-American billionaire, Jeff Rosen.
Maccabi Haifa was one of the original eight teams that formed the basketball premier league in the 1953/1954 season. Its rivalry with Hapoel Haifa drew nationwide attention at the time. But in 1992/1993, Haifa was relegated to the second tier and two years later to the third. It bounced back to the premier league but after two seasons the then Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna decided to unite it with Hapoel Haifa into one team. That experiment failed miserably: Hapoel fans banned the team and Maccabi fans were indifferent. First it played in blue, then green. It participated in the final four twice before being relegated at which point it was disbanded. Club officials decided to reform Maccabi Haifa using its existing subsidiary team Maccabi Bat Galim as a base. The new team qualified for the first league in its first season and was then purchased by Rosen.
Bouncing back from defeat
Rosen immediately announced his intention to transform Maccabi Haifa into a top team in Israeli and European basketball. Haifa's budget was the biggest in the second tier but its hopes were almost lost after it lost six times in the first 9 rounds. "At one point I thought we wouldn't make it," says coach Avi Ashkenazi.
But Haifa did not give up: It bolstered its defense by bringing in Uri Kookia from Nahariya and Jason Straight. Even Deon Thomas started to give something in return for his salary, which is the highest in the league. Haifa finished fourth and went on to beat its rivals in the playoffs in front of 3,500 fans. Therein lies the real cause for celebration, the return of the fans.
On top of regular ticket sales, this season Haifa sold 150 regular and 70 VIP season tickets, a large amount for a second tier team. "I was astonished we filled the auditorium," said a club official. "Such an atmosphere doesn't exist anywhere in Israel, not in Tel Aviv's Nokia Auditorium or Jerusalem's Malha."
Indeed, Haifa plans on maintaining its following by becoming a force to reckon with in the premier league next season. "We want to be in the final four," Rosen has said, and allocated funds that will give the team a budget of 2.5 million dollars, one of the biggest in the top tier.
Coach Ashkenazi, who will continue to stand at the helm, feels the team does not need to make grandiose statements. "We shouldn't think about immediate success, but do things right so that the team will be stable in the long run," he said.
Meanwhile, Haifa is showing an interest in every Israeli player on the market. Of the current team, only Kookia, Straight and a few others will remain. Next season the team hopes to sell 1,000 regular and 250 VIP season tickets. Former basketball player Tomer Steinhower, who grew up in the team, believes its goal is obtainable. "Haifa residents long for a major basketball team," he says.