Lior Eliyahu is a forward-looking, happy and optimistic person. But last season he sustained injuries, got sick, and lost his place in coach David Blatt’s regular roster rotation in the latter half of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague campaign. And in Israel's Premier League, Eliyahu was appointed captain in place of the disgraced Guy Pnini, but never got to lift the trophy after the Yellows were beaten by Maccabi Haifa in the final.
Eliyahu's 2013-14 season didn't begun until Friday, when he had his first practice with his new team, Hapoel Jerusalem. During our interview in a hotel in the capital this week, the forward looked relaxed and self-assured.
His new teammate, shooting guard Yotam Halerin, "told me that the atmosphere here is good, the guys are nice - and he didn’t lie," said Eliyahu. "I’ve never joined a team after the season has already begun. It’s a strange feeling, but they accepted me with open arms. I hope I’ll be able to help the team, and not get in the way.”
I asked Eliyahu to recount what happened after the end of last season. He talks about offers he received from other teams, but isn’t prepared to discuss exactly what happened at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“I’m not talking about that right now," he said. "They made me an offer and asked for an escape clause every season, I didn’t agree, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t want to talk about Maccabi. I’m in Jerusalem now and want to talk about the future, not the past.”
What offers did you receive?
“There were offers - some better, some worse, from Euroleague and Eurocup teams, but nothing that really attracted me. I wanted something that would challenge me. It wasn’t necessarily about money. The offers were from good places but with little money, or the opposite. But none of them excited me.”
You probably expected to receive the kind of offer Tau Vitoria once made you.
“That’s the dynamic of basketball. People forget very quickly. Last season I had a less good period and that harmed me somehow, but I’m the same player. Every player has better and worse periods. I’m taking a positive example from Gal Mekel, who started last season late, and look where he is now.”
You tried to get into the NBA. Why didn’t it work out?
“I had invites to final training camps, but I couldn’t go. I’m not my own master, the rights to me belong to Minnesota. They didn’t want me because their roster is already closed. I asked out, but they wanted too much for it.”
How did it feel not to open the season?
“The recent period has been wonderful, apart from the fact that every second person stops me on the street and asks what’s happened to me and why I’m not playing. I haven’t rested since I was 17, then suddenly I had free time on my hands. I did things – I met with friends and family. I needed that freedom. In retrospect, maybe that’s why I turned down so many offers.”
After you received the original offer from Hapoel Jerusalem you waited a few days. For Maccabi?
“I wasn’t waiting for anyone – including Jerusalem. My vision was to rest for three months, to begin training by myself in December and join a team in January. But then I had this offer to meet the people at Hapoel Jerusalem. I met Uri Alon, Eyal Chomsky and Guy Heller. It was a get-to-know-you meeting, and we didn’t talk about a contract. At the end of the meeting I told them I didn’t know what would come out of it, but it was nice to get to know them. They painted a picture of a new team with a strong management that stands behind the team over the years. They think forward - and not just a few months forward. I liked that.”
You talk about forward thinking, but you’ve entered a three-year contract with an escape clause at the end of the first season.
“The escape clause is only for the NBA and Europe, not for another Israeli team. Their attitude toward me was very positive. They told me that if I get a fat contract from a European team they would not stand in my way. But I’m not thinking about that. I’m just thinking about Hapoel Jerusalem’s success.”
You’re a legitimate Euroleague player, maybe even a top player. I’m sure you want to play no more than one season in the Eurocup. How do you see Hapoel Jerusalem reaching the Euroleague already next season?
“The criteria for getting into the Euroleague are very clear. I think that with the management, the arena and the budget here, there’s no reason why Hapoel Jerusalem can’t be in the Euroleague and even at the top of the Euroleague. Vitoria also began from somewhere 15 years ago. I hope Jerusalem will be the Euroleague’s official refreshment in the coming years.”
You’re joining a team with a coach who allows his players room to express themselves, and looks for their positive sides and not their shortcomings.
“One of the reasons I chose to come here is because I know that Brad Greenberg gives his players freedom. On the one hand, he wants to be in control, for the players to carry out his moves. On the other hand he doesn’t turn down the possibility of creativity. There are some coaches who, even if you feel something, he doesn’t let you do it.”
The opposite of your previous coach?
“I’m not going into that.”