Basketball / Effi Birnbaum Pays the Price for String of Defeats

Maccabi Rishon Letzion coach fired after losing seven of last nine games.

Effi Birnbaum yesterday became the first Israeli basketball coach to lose his job this season when he was fired by Maccabi Rishon Letzion after three and half seasons at the helm.

After meeting with Birnbaum, Rishon's chairman and general manager released a statement explaining that the club had decided to part company with the coach "in light of the team's current situation."

Rishon is currently seventh in the Premier league with a 5-6 record - despite starting the season with three straight wins, including a 81-64 romp over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Birnbaum even won the Coach of the Month award for his team's bright start to the season.

Birnbaum, who was the longest-serving coach in the Premier League, led the team to seventh place in his first season in charge, but in the next two seasons he reached the Final Four. Last season Rishon also reached the final of the State Cup for only the second time in its history.

While there are solid reasons for Birnbaum's dismissal (the club mentioned the seven defeats in the team's last nine games ), the main reason is the lack of chemistry between the coach and the team's chairman, Yitzhak Perry. The two have never seen eye to eye on a series of issues relating to the team and, according to one source, their relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that they rarely talk.

Perry, who not only attends training sessions but also comments on the way his coaches are conducting themselves, did not attend any of the sessions this week. "He decided to take a step back, to avoid being accused of over-involvement," the source said.

Things came to a head, however, during Sunday night's home defeat to Maccabi Haifa. With 30 seconds left and with Rishon trailing by a point, Haifa's Donta Smith missed a three-pointer and his teammate Ido Kozikaro took the rebound. Then someone on the Rishon bench shouted for someone to commit a foul.

The question is: Who was it? Birnbaum believed it was Perry, who in turn accused assistant coach Matan Harush. A source close to Perry told Haaretz that "Perry thought that the players should have fouled Kozikaro, but he didn't say anything. He didn't want to stick his nose in. Effi didn't see who it was and assumed that it was Perry."

A source close to Birnbaum insisted that it was Perry who was barking out instructions to the players.

Immediately after Gal Mekel scored the winning basket for Haifa, with 11.6 seconds left on the clock, there was another hotly disputed incident. According to Perry's associates, Birnbaum screamed at his chairman, "You're an idiot."

Birnbaum's associates deny this, saying that the coach merely told Perry to shut up.

These two incidents were the immediate reason for Birnbaum's dismissal. One team insider said "people who were within earshot were shocked by Effi's behavior. A team that has any self-respect can't simply turn a blind eye to such things."

A Birnbaum associate responded by saying that "this isn't the reason Effi was fired. Perry was simply fed up with him. They don't get along and it was inevitable."

Rishon is now looking at a number of possible replacements for Birnbaum, including Roni Boussani and Arik Alfassi. No matter who is picked, it seems unlikely that Harush will continue as assistant coach.