Basketball / A New Sherf in Town

After his tumultuous tenure as coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Zvika Sherf has drawn kudos with Russian club Spartak

It was obvious to everyone that Zvika Sherf had had enough of basketball, and all he wanted to do was to get away. After he was handed the reins of Maccabi Tel Aviv following the departure of Oded Katash in 2008, he managed to lead the club to the finals of both the Euroleague and the Super League. In both games, however, his team lost. The blow was a painful one.

"He was embittered and angry," said a source close to Sherf. "Zvika lifted Maccabi Tel Aviv out of the gutter. After he lost to CSKA Moscow [in the Euroleague final], he was treated despicably by the press, as if he had failed against a third-tier team. He was also hurt by the reception from management, which did not support him during the most difficult times. Then there was Moni Fanan's suicide. Fanan was extremely close to Sherf, and the news really hit him hard. He was so shocked at the number of people who turned their backs on the Fanan family."

A short time later, Sherf suffered another setback when he was denied the chairmanship of the Israel Basketball Association's competition committee. Soon afterwards, he was offered the position of head coach of Russian club Spartak St. Petersburg. A desperate Sherf decided to take the job, despite having to be far from home and his grandchildren, with whom he shares a special connection. The Israeli coach signed with a team whose illustrious Soviet-era past has long dissipated.

The combination of Sherf's familiarity with Russian basketball and a desire to prove that he can still coach dovetailed with St. Petersburg's aspirations to revive its glory days. So far, the partnership has been a success. Last week, the club reached the semifinals of the Russian Cup, which it is expected to win. In league play, the team is in a respectable fourth place after winning six of its first nine games. It is only one point behind the two teams tied for first place, Unics Kazan and CSKA.

The only disappointment thus far was St. Petersburg's elimination from the EuroCup tournament. As a result, it was forced to accept the consolation prize of appearing in the insignificant EuroChallenge playoffs. "The goal is to fight to win all the tournaments," Spartak forward Pero Antic recently told the Russian media.

Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg is not a basketball-crazy town. Most of the attention is devoted to "the pride of the city," Zenit, the soccer team that captured the Russian Premier League championship. The second-most popular sports attraction is the local ice hockey team (ice hockey is a more popular sport in Russia than basketball ).

Spartak, much like its crosstown rival Dynamo, a team once coached by current Maccabi Tel Aviv boss David Blatt, remains in the shadows. The team draws fewer than 2,500 spectators to its games. "We have an excellent roster and a terrific coach," said Antic. "It's just a shame that there aren't supporters."

Despite his diminished standing on the Israeli sports scene, Sherf's reputation still precedes him in Europe. Spartak's players did not hesitate in adopting the former Israel national team coach's gospel, and management bowed to his demand for no interference in his day-to-day work. Sherf continues to make a positive impression on his charges.

When shooting guard Henry Domercant was released by Siena, his agent received a call from Spartak's representatives. The agent refused to even consider the possibility of his client choosing to play in St. Petersburg, and continued to search for a more attractive suitor, especially a team that competed in the Euroleague. But Domercant's attitude changed after he learned of the identity of the Spartak coach.

Now, the American guard is one of Sherf's go-to guys as well as the highest paid player on the team. He is being helped by Antic and Dijon Thompson, formerly of Hapoel Jerusalem.

The adversity and the distance from home did not change Sherf's coaching style, one that remains hard-nosed and uncompromising, particularly in the area of discipline. After Spartak lost a home game in the local league, which was blamed on the players' unwillingness to follow the coach's instructions, Sherf decided that his players would not be permitted to take the annual New Year's vacation. It was only after numerous complaints were lodged and management intervened that Sherf recanted.

Russian commentators following the team were impressed by Sherf's thoroughness and intensity, two traits which command the respect of his players. For Sherf, leading his team to the semifinals of the Russian league playoffs would be considered a resounding success.

Despite the desire to disengage and the disgust he felt upon his departure, Sherf still receives regular updates on the latest happenings in Israeli basketball. His family is certainly happy that Sherf will accompany his team to Israel twice this year as part of the EuroChallenge schedule, after Spartak was placed in the same group with Maccabi Haifa and Barak Netanya. Now Sherf has yet another pretext to keep his finger on the pulse of the Israeli basketball scene.