The Eurobasket tournament commencing in two days will be Eli Rabi's third in a row. In the first two he coached, Israel's national women's basketball team lost all its games. This time, naturally, it will be much harder for Rabi to make peace with a winless tournament in Poland. "I want us to keep as close as possible to our rivals, to maximize our potential," says the national coach. "We didn't play poorly in the other two tournaments, but we didn't win. This time we want to win."
Make no mistake - he's not looking to win the final. One win will suffice. Advancing from Group B would amaze him. "Not everything depends on us," he says. "I don't know how to evaluate Britain, but the Czech Republic and Belarus are much stronger than we are. Maybe we'll beat Britain." The Czech Republic is fourth in the FIBA world rankings, while Belarus is 11th, Israel is 39th, and Britain is not among the 72 ranked national teams.
Facing the Czech Republic first, Rabi says he can't begin to think about the third contest against Britain. The team was not in good shape when it started practicing but looks OK now, according to him, similar to where it stood in previous tournaments.
Rabi says the core of the team remains steady around Liron Cohen and Shay Doron. "I called up Michal Epstein again," he says. "I designated her for the four position, different than where she was in past. Noa Ganor and Naama Shafir joined and will expand the rotation. Liron and Shay in any event will score most of the points, but they will get help from Liad [Suez-Karni], Meirav [Dori] and the two Katias [Abramzon and Levitsky]. Levitsky is still not near her best, but maybe she'll have a good campaign. Katia [L.] and Meirav are both 25 already, and in another two or three years, after Liad, Laine [Selwyn] and Liron leave, they will take the reins, and it will be their chance to rise to the occasion and make more of a difference."
On paper, the coach says Israel is closest to Croatia, which is in Group D. He says he does not know what will be with Britain, but next year's Olympic host should not be written off. "In the qualifiers, they finished ahead of Slovakia, which destroyed us in an exhibition game by 30. On any given day, we could win by 8-10 points to teams in the European Championship, and that's our hope."
One weak spot for Israel is not having a dominant center in the paint, says Rabi. "If Belgium beats us by 30, it shows we have certain limitations," he says.
While Israel has beaten some great teams in the qualifiers, it has not won a tournament game in Europe in 20 years. Rabi says the difference is that teams play three games in a row in the championship, and Israel suffers from a short rotation, while teams get to rest four days in between qualifiers. He says this time Israel won't make any excuses for losing.
"We will look at every rival straight in the eye," he says. "Just because we know the Czech Republic is better than us doesn't mean that if we leave we'll feel any different than if the levels were even."
Israel's performance this time around could definitely impact Rabi's future. "The squad for me is not a place of work but a big life challenge," he says. "If you chart the national team in the years I've been with it you'd see a constant rise, and advancing in the Eurobasket would mark another success and show we are doing the right things. If we don't advance, I will be very, very disappointed. I think about everything and am very self-critical, and I don't rule out any options. I signed for three years. If we don't win in the championship, not continuing after this year certainly comes into consideration."
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