Once every few years a new star rises on the Israeli basketball scene only to fall not long thereafter. Alon Stein is only 26, but has already been through the rise and the fall.
When Stein was 14 years old he scored 60 points in the final of the State Youth Cup. His precocious talent created great expectations at a very young age and the need to meet those expectations were a major part of his career - and perhaps one of the main parts in its disappointing outcome.
Stein joined Galil Elyon when he was 17. Looking back, he says people lost their sense of proportion and blamed him for the team's problems.
Stein isn't bitter that he hasn't fulfilled his promise. "Obviously I have thoughts about what could have happened had I reached the heights people expected of me, but the differences between the game at youth level and full club level are significant."
Stein didn't make the grade at the full team level and the answer to why isn't simple. After all, he had no shortage of talent and there was no lack of people wanting to help, but something seemed to be missing - self confidence.
"If I had played with the same confidence I played in Germany last season I would have been a leading player. I have no doubt of that. I would have had a starting place in any team in the country, with the exception perhaps of Maccabi Tel Aviv."
At the age of 16 Stein joined Maccabi's youth team and shone despite playing with players two years older. In 1995 and 1996 he played for both the national youth team and the under 21s, alongside Oded Katash and Gur Shelef who were four years older.
In the league Stein opted to to play for Galil Elyon. He was only 17 when he was given the position of playmaker with Oren Amiel in the young team being built by David Blatt. In his first year Stein averaged 5 points a game. In his second he doubled his tally to 10.2 points per game, but has since failed to reach double figures.
He played another two years with Galil, averaging 9.8 and 8.4 points, before joining league newcomers Maccabi Kiryat Motzkin in 1999. As lead playmaker, Stein averaged 7.1 points per game and the team dropped to the second division.
Although the blame didn't rest solely on his shoulders, Kiryat Motzkin's failure signaled the beginning of his demise.
Stein went back to Galil, but received very little court time from coach Erez Edelestein. In the middle of the season he rejected an offer to play in the Italian second division, a move he now regrets.
Stein's career continued to decline, but then came an offer from Arik Shivek, his former coach in the national youth team, who signed him on for a two year spell with Hapoel Tel Aviv. Stein played a leading role in Hapoel's return to the Premier League, but last summer uncertainty about his position at the club led him to ask for a release from his contract.
Stein joined the German second division club Ulm, which had courted him a year previously. Ulm was once a leading force in German basketball when it was coached by Charles Barton in the mid 1990s, but dropped to the second division three years ago.
His new status as a foreign player has done nothing but good for Stein. "Guy Godes told me that from the first minute I must never forget that more is expected of me as a foreign player. When I arrived in Germany I made a mental switch. I tried to become more aggressive, like I used to be. They took me on as a leading player and let me play freely. I knew that I was allowed to make mistakes and suddenly found myself doing things that I don't remember doing previously."
Stein scored 17.1 points per game and was the club's second highest scorer. He added 4.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game and netted a career-high 40.7 percent for three point shots. But despite his outstanding season the club just missed out on promotion, finishing third in the league.
Stein says the level of play in the second division in Germany is higher than in the Israeli premier league.
"Germany is a basketball powerhouse - third in the World Championship, fourth in the European Championship. Even in the second division there are players that make the draft. In our games we were watched by scouts from San Antonio, Dallas and Boston. In the first division arenas of 3,000-7,000, the seats are full every game no matter what position the team is in. In the second division as well, most of the arenas are full."
Another difference Stein notes between the deteriorating state of Israeli basketball and the game in Germany is the atmosphere. "Nobody curses there. When the away team is presented nobody boos. In an away game against one of our promotion rivals, the presenter called out my name. I walked out to the center of the pitch and one of my team mates pulled me back and explained that he was calling out my name because it was my birthday. The crowd stood and applauded. It was a wonderful feeling."
Ulm wants to keep Stein on, but he prefers to move to a first division club and has held talks with Ludwigsburg and Karlsruhe. Stein says he isn't ruling out the possibility of playing in Israel although he seems to have tired of the local basketball scene.
"I've played for leading clubs, made it to the playoffs and the State Cup final. I want to progress in Europe. If I make it to the top leagues I will feel that I have met my own expectations."
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