Basketball / Onward and Upward?

Hapoel Tel Aviv is licking its wounds after failing to reach the Super League - but there's still a chance it will play in the top tier next season.

In 1998, Gilad Simhoni, who was then just 31 years old, decided to call it quits after just nine seasons in the Super League. Ten years later, he would make his return with Hapoel Ussishkin, which at the time was in the fifth-tier B League.

"Actually, I was the first to sign up," he recalls. "I was a member of the board of directors, I owned eight season tickets, and I played on a volunteer basis. In the B League, I was in the starting five. When we moved up to the A League, I came off the bench. In the second-tier league, I had an even smaller role."

asbury - Seffi Magriso - May 18 2011
Seffi Magriso

After four years at Ussishkin, which meanwhile took on its original name Hapoel Tel Aviv, Simhoni decided to retire a second time.

"I had four amazing years," he says. "There were players who ended their careers in an empty gym with no fans present. I got to end my career in front of a supportive crowd while playing with quality athletes. A mediocre player could not ask for a better way to end a career."

This season, Simhoni, 43, averaged just over five minutes of playing time per game. Yet the general manager, Uri Shelef, would not accept his retirement. "Gilad who is a role model for any young player," Shelef, the brother of former Maccabi Tel Aviv star Gur Shelef, said. "His importance to the team can't be measured in statistics, and certainly not in words. I only wish that Israelis today had the same work ethic that he has."

"This isn't a person who dedicates his entire life to basketball," Shelef said of Simhoni. "Still, he puts in more time than 22-year-olds in practice shooting the basketball or just playing one on one. After his first practice in the third-tier league, one player came up to me and said, 'He bites me and pinches me.' These are things that aren't taught today. You can't find a better role model than this. He lifts everybody upward. We will do everything in our power so that he doesn't retire."

Simhoni appears to have made up his mind. "Basketball is moving forward," he says. "The time has come to give the more talented youngsters a chance to play."

The veteran guard had contemplated retirement before, yet he was simply waiting for the opportune time.

"I wanted to end my career with a good taste in my mouth," he said. "I wanted to quit when the team made it to the Super League, but even though we didn't make it, the crowd was far more impressive than we were on the court. When the fans stand and applaud and show their appreciation the way they did, it's far more significant than winning a playoff series. We all wanted to win, but Habik'a played better than we did. It's not a failure to lose to a team with a bigger payroll and more experience. Failure is losing one's identity."

Shelef is not quite as philosophical about his team's inability to reach the top flight. "We failed because we wanted to advance to the top league, but even if we don't have excuses there are reasons we didn't make it," he said. "We had three key players suffer injuries during the most critical stage of the season. Matan Naor did not return from injury, Adrian Uter needed a bit of time to get back to top shape, and Gal Eitan played with one healthy shoulder. He didn't even take painkilling shots."

"With the lineup that we had going into the finals, Habik'a was simply better," Shelef said. "Besides, their payroll is much bigger than ours. They have excellent Israeli players, three of whom we wanted to acquire last summer - Noam Matalon, Itay Lev, and Itay Greenboim. But they received contracts that were almost twice what we offered. We managed to sign Adrian Uter and Brian Asbury simply because we promised them bigger contracts once we got to the Super League."

"Hapoel doesn't have an unlimited budget because it is funded by the fans," Shelef said. "But even though we knew that Habik'a would have a larger budget, it didn't preclude us from thinking that we could get to the Super League. Even before the final, we didn't even contemplate a scenario where they would beat us, but alas the reality was different. There's no doubt that we failed. Nobody is trying to hide this."

Hapoel coach Sharon Avrahami is no stranger to leading teams to higher leagues. He was at the helm of Afula and Kiryat Ata when both those teams managed to reach the top flight, and he also steered Hapoel to the second-tier National League. This time around, however, Avrahami was bested on the sidelines by Habik'a boss Avi Ashkenazi.

"Ashkenazi is an excellent coach, but in the State Cup we beat two Super League teams that also have excellent coaches," Avrahami said. "Matan Naor's injury changed the way we played defense. This really cost us in the final against Habik'a."

If management elects to retain Avrahami, the coach plans to add more players to the roster. "During the season, I wanted to add another player," he said. "There were a few who wanted to come to Hapoel, but in the end it was decided not to add any more. We are the only team in the National League that did not add to our roster. In hindsight, this really hurt us because of the injuries. A big team needs a large roster."

Despite the loss to Habik'a, Hapoel could very well find itself in the Super League if the administration decides to expand the number of participating teams to 12. Simhoni is clear as to where he stands on this issue.

"It will be good for Israeli basketball if Hapoel plays in the Super League," he said. "I think we are ready. There are certainly hurdles to overcome, but I think that if we build a quick, smart team we can manage with a smaller budget."

Yet even someone as optimistic as Simhoni doesn't have a solution to another major problem - the inadequate playing facility that hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv. "Hadar Yosef doesn't even hold half the number of people who want to come watch the games," he said. "The municipality has not remedied the injustice of razing the Ussishkin arena. The Hapoel board members will decide where we play."