Monday, March 3 will doubtless go down in Hapoel Tel Aviv’s history as the day the club officially came back to life, five years after it was reestablished on the ruins of the legendary Ussishkin Arena.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has played many games this season, in many venues some state-of-the-art arenas, others complete dumps. Some of these games were crucial, and many were of no consequence at all. In all those previous experiences, Maccabi didn’t encounter a game or an atmosphere like this one.
In Europe, Maccabi lacks such a sworn rival; yes, there are games that involve prestige, tension, importance and star-studded squads, but no team really hates Maccabi’s guts. In the local league, Maccabi enjoys trekking around the country. Clubs see the yellow empire and wilt, without giving it a real try, since their chances of beating Maccabi are always so slim.
And then there’s the Tel Aviv derby, especially the one hosted by Hapoel. The one unique game in Israeli basketball. One game where rivalry takes on real hatred, where tension becomes pressure, where things are always on the verge of blowing up.
It usually isn’t pleasant to watch. Sometimes it feels downright threatening and dangerous, but once a year, one gets a sense of a real battle in the Super League. One real basketball game, wrapped up in a plastic league, where nothing really matters and nobody really cares.
Maccabi probably believed that the difficult match in Vitoria on Thursday would make for fine preparation. There, too, the players had to deal with an openly hostile atmosphere. There, too, it was an exhausting battle to the death, without exciting or spectacular basketball moves but with endless spirit, dogfights and scratches.
Maccabi players and staff were completely off the mark. With all due respect to the Euroleague, here the open nerves are for real, everything is magnified, and the rivals hiss in your language as they go for your throat.
Hapoel Tel Aviv and especially its crazy and wonderful fans isn’t searching for glory or respect. Hapoel wanted to bite, humiliate and scrap it out. Maccabi never met such a rival, and probably never will until their next clash.
David Blatt finds games like this hard to handle. He knows how to respond to different defensive modes, how to exploit mismatches, when to apply pressure, and when to take the foot off the gas.
Like any good American, he is very knowledgeable when it comes to sports in general and basketball in particular. He finds it harder to deal with straightforward wars waged by Middle East psychopaths, and can barely relate to passionate talk about the importance of the club badge, or craze-enhancing pregame outbursts.
All this, of course, falls under the Hapoel Tel Aviv radar. True, it is only one game, its position in the league is difficult, and its players usually can’t score even if their lives depend on it.
This victory won’t change much at the impoverished club, which doesn’t have a home court but does have endless pride. When Hapoel Ussishkin was established in 2007, on the ruins of the club’s legendary arena, it had five goals: to be promoted to the fourth league, to be promoted to the third league, to be promoted to the second league, to be promoted to the Super league, and to beat Maccabi in a derby.
March 3 will go down in Hapoel folklore. Mission accomplished. Hapoel Tel Aviv is back.