Basketball / Super League / Youth Movement

Maccabi Rishon Letzion is developing a host of homegrown players.

Basketball / Super League

Maccabi Rishon Letzion is in the midst of a long-term rebuilding project. A look at the age levels below the men's team suggests the project is coming along on schedule. It has been several summers since a club like Maccabi Rishon Letzion had so many standouts on the national youth basketball squads.

Or Solomon was the second-best shooter and leading rebounder on the under-21 team. Shawn Dowson was the third-leading rebounder and shooter on the team. Igor Kolshov, who grew up in Rishon Letzion but played for a different team, led the under-19 team in scoring, rebounds and steals. Yaniv Solomon, if he hadn't been injured, would likely have dominated as well. Evgeny Kholodov was the second-best scorer on the under-17 squad.

Nadav Silverstein, the coach of the under-19 team, says the system of identifying talent among youth in Rishon Letzion is well-developed. In the past, too, several players grew up in the Maccabi Rishon system. Three of them played for the men's team - Erez Markovich, Dror Hagag and Afik Nissim. Others - like Zafrir Wolfer, Haim Shimonowitz, Ofir Farhi, Tomer Karni, Guy Kedem and Tal Dan - had several good seasons in the Premier League. Yet Rishon Letzion was often not the one to reap the fruit.

"To my great regret, the line of thought was different once, and there was less patience with local players," says Yitzhak Peri, Maccabi Rishon's chairman, who left the club 10 years ago and returned last year. Before he returned to the chairmanship, he established as managing director a unit for gifted and talented players. He says the staff then envisioned building a team on homegrown players over time.

Ziv Erez, who headed the unit, says they chose talented youth like Or Solomon, Dowson, Yaniv Solomon and others. Now they want to add Holodov. He says he works with each player personally for two to three hours, once or twice a week over the course of the year, and every day during the summer. Players also engage in body building, he notes. "Any of these players could be a top player in the league, or even more than that," says Erez. Peri adds that the players average 400 shots in a row on a daily basis.

Erez decides the level at which the athletes will play. "Or and Shawn are playing this season on the men's team," says Erez. "We sent out the others on loan to teams in the [second-tier] National League, who agreed to our demands about the positions in which they would play and how much playing time they would get.

Or Solomon, who started on the men's team last season at the age of 18, asserts that the personal training has helped his development, and adds that he has worked with Erez since 10th grade in both official or unofficial capacities. "Ziv watches my games, and tries to help me after every practice," he says.

Erez says the personal training with Solomon focuses on his shooting, body strength for defense, ball control for the shooting guard position and moves in the low post. Solomon is moving up to be a full-time starter, says Erez.

Peri adds that the team saved the small forward position for Solomon, meaning it did not recruit a foreigner for that spot.

Dowson, the son of former hoopster Joe Dowson, is still awaiting his shot on the men's squad. "He could be one of the best guards there is," says Erez. Peri asserts that with a little patience and hard work, Dowson will be one of the leading players in the league.

Maccabi Rishon reached the Final Four during the past two seasons and the State Cup final last year. It won the youth championship the past two years. Erez says the motto in Rishon is "Quiet, men at work."

Silverstein notes that a lot of work is done with the players even before they reach Erez. "In contrast to other associations, we don't scout the opposition and we don't show videos," he says. "Tactics are not the main motif. The goal is to produce players. The coaches know the goal isn't to display results now but rather over a period of four to five years. Winning championships is a side effect and not a goal."

Or Solomon says he believes his development is a sign of things to come. "It's nearly impossible for a youth division to put out three to four players per year, but it's already happening," he says.

Peri adds, "We'll be based on homegrown players in another two to three years, like Manchester United was built on [David] Beckham, [Ryan] Giggs and [Paul] Scholes."