Tel Aviv Boy Becomes a Man in Samara Outback

Take an Israeli guy from his Tel Aviv haunts and its beaches and place him in a bleak Russian city and he is unlikely to be happy. But after three years of rotting on Maccabi Tel Aviv's bench, even playing for a small basketball team in Samara felt like a welcome respite for center Yaniv Green. Samara, a city of 1.5 million people, has put together a basketball team budgeted with a handsome $8 million. Still, even that failed to draw much attention from the locals.

"There were three to four good players at Samara and the rest is better left unsaid," Vladaimir Muzachev, a Russian journalist, recalls. During his time there, Green averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds in 23 minutes, but the team was eliminated from the Eurocup and failed to make it to the Russian playoffs. "That team wouldn't have made it anywhere even if Shaquille O'Neal were playing for them," Muzachev says. "No doubt, Green was, particularly in the beginning, very dominant and his time at Samara must have been a unique experience."

At one point, the player's spirit broke. Alex Scales, a teammate of Green's, told the Israeli during a training session that only the two of them could pull it out of the dumps. Valery Tikhonenko, the team's coach, said that Green was one of his key players in teh team and did what he was asked to do. "Sometimes you had to shake him up a bit because it brought out the best in him," Tikhonenko says.

But others say Green was a disappointment at Samara. "He received a fat contract, partly because of his great performance in the European Championship, where he led in rebounds," Zorav Chitya, another Russian journalist, said. "Something must have gone wrong, because Green didn't really register in the league. They expected more out of him."

One theory claims Green's relative lack of success stemmed from a series of petty injuries that plagued him. Another says he was too prone to pick up fouls early in the game. "Sometimes he would pick up two fouls in the first quarter and then another in the second and we'd have to bench him for a long time," the Samara coach says. "If we could have got three more minutes out of him per game, then we would have made the playoffs."

Coach Arik Shibak, who coached Green when the player was only 18 years old at Bnei Hasharon, says he is a strong center, a good athlete and is excellent on the defensive side, but that his weaknesses are offense. "His scoring is not steady and he can't go drive from the left and the right equally well," Shibak said. "But this past year he spent in Russia has made him much more stronger mentally."

And how will Maccabi Tel Aviv make use of him? He may indeed play more minutes because of the so-called Russian Law, a rule that limits the number of foreigner players teams are allowed to use. But just to be on the safe side, he better hold on to one of the thick, fur hats he was known to wear during his time in Russia just in case. Sometimes it gets pretty cold sitting on the Maccabi Tel Aviv bench.