Lior Eliyahu: A Superstar in Search of a Team

Lior Eliyahu may be the best Israeli basketball player outside of the NBA, but he doesn’t have a contract for next season. How will this affect the player who is supposed to lead Israel at the upcoing European Championships?

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For a professional basketball player, the age of 28 falls well within the peak of his career. You’re experienced and mature, but you’re still fresh and still have something to prove.

Lior Eliyahu meets all these criteria. While last season was not his finest, thanks to injuries and off-court distractions, he is now back to his best. He was in sparkling form in the Israeli national team’s practice matches ahead of the European Championships, which get underway in Slovenia next week. Behind Omri Casspi he was the top scorer and had more rebounds than anyone else – and, as an added bonus, his decision making was superb. He makes very few mistakes and nearly all his shots are on target.

According to Effi Birnbaum, one of Israel’s most senior coaches, Eliyahu is “the best player in Israel. He proved his worth when he played in Spain and won the championship with Caja Laboral. He’s impossible to guard, he’s got an amazing touch, he’s a safe shooter and he’s right up there with some of the best players in Europe. Everybody keeps talking about his defensive frailties, but he’s improved in that respect, too. If he can improve just a little more, he could easily find a place in the NBA.”

With that kind of ringing endorsement and the general agreement that he is one of the two most important players in the national team, it seems almost inconceivable that Eliyahu still doesn’t have a team to play for this season.

The reason for this may be found in the player’s history: on two occasions, he opted to sign lucrative long-term contracts with his club. In the summer of 2009, he left Maccabi Tel Aviv for Spain, where he spent four years. He earned 800,000 euros in his first season and 100,000 euros in the next three. Rather than seeing out his contract, however, he opted to return to Maccabi last season, where he was due to earn 550,000 euros a season – making him the most expensive Israeli ever to play for the Yellows.

At the end of last season, though, the Maccabi management informed Eliyahu that it was exercising its right to end his contract early by giving him a $100,000 payoff. He was then offered a three-year contract paying around $400,000 a season. According to one agent, who asked to remain anonymous, “Lior made a huge mistake by agreeing to the clause that allowed Maccabi to end his contract early. His stock was so high at the time, after his amazing season in Spain, that he could have got a five-year contract with no get-out clause. Now he’s paying for that mistake and for not seeing that he was being taken advantage of.”

Eliyahu has already rejected Maccabi’s fresh offer. Sources close to the player say Maccabi knew that he would reject the offer, and that it was only made to placate some people within the team who wanted to appear to be making an effort to keep him. Maccabi denies this vehemently, saying that the offer was reasonable.

With arguably the best Israeli player – and certainly the best Israeli player outside the NBA – on the market, the door was open for other well-to-do teams, like Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa, to swoop. That never happened, however. Haifa didn’t even contact him, and he met once with representative of Jerusalem, who opted instead to sign the cheaper Yotam Halperin.

So with no realistic offer coming from Israel or Europe, Eliyahu turned his attention back to the NBA. He was, after all, selected in the 2006 draft by the Orlando Magic, which immediately shipped him off to the Houston Rockets, from where he was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Eliyahu has been in contact with agents in the United States, whom he instructed to reject any minimum contract offer similar to those that Casspi and Gal Mekel have signed. According to close friends, Eliyahu hopes that a stand-out performance at the European Championship will encourage a big team to make an offer.

Birnbaum, meanwhile, is not worried that being without a team will adversely affect Eliyahu’s performance in Slovenia. “Lior is enough of a pro not to let that worry him. He’ll give his all for the national team.”

Israeli basketball ace Lior Eliyahu (center).Credit: Sharon Bukov

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