Basketball / For Kozikaro, for Mekel, for the Future

Haifa’s historic basketball championship.

1. For Ido Kozikaro. Simply put, there is no basketball player in Israel who deserves to win the championships more than Kozikaro. The big man ‏(2.06 meters‏) grew up supporting Hapoel Galil Elyon, where exactly 20 years ago he watched as Pini Gershon’s side ended Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 23-year monopoly over Israeli basketball.

Year after year, when his national team needed him, he answered the call. He continued to struggle against Tel Aviv’s domination, and season after season he continued to bang his head against the Yellow wall. He was and remains the smiling, sporting, funny and honorable face of Israeli basketball.

At the age of 35, he deserved to lift the championship platter as captain of the victorious team. His triumph on Thursday night was a triumph for the sport; it was one of the purest, most uplifting moments I have ever witnessed in a sport that is all too often characterized by ugliness, cynicism and unsportsmanlike behavior.

2. For Gal Mekel. Because it would have been all too easy for this talented 25-year-old point guard to sit all season on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s bench, jetting all over Europe, earning a very generous salary, being recognized by fans in the street and being pestered for his autograph wherever he went.

But he wanted more. He knew he was worth more. He is the most professional Israeli player in the league; no one invests more in the game than he does. He believes with all his heart that he is just as good as any other player on the court − local or foreign.

He never complains and he continues to work just as hard now as he did when he was starting out as a professional. This is the second time he has beaten Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoff final; both times he was a key player for his team, not just an extra watching from the bench.

People say he’s arrogant. With two championships and two MVP awards, he can afford to be.

3. For the future. Let’s stop and take a deep breath. Let’s set the wonderful Cinderella stories aside for a moment and think about the future.

Let’s ignore the fact that no one will remember Haifa’s historic championship, and the fact that, for some reason, the powers that be insist on a one-game final playoff ‏(other than to say to the Israel Basketball Association that maybe it’s time to have a finals series‏).

And let’s overlook the fact that winning the Israeli championship does not even give the victorious team a place in next season’s EuroLeague, the continent’s most prestigious competition, while the defeated finalist is automatically guaranteed a place in the money-spinning tournament.

If there is no continuity, if the IBA refuses to introduce a five- or seven-game playoff final, and if the champion does not win the right to represent Israel in the EuroLeague, nothing that happened on Thursday night in Haifa means a thing.

True, Haifa has a much broader fan base than previous shock champion Galil Elyon and has a much more solid financial base than 2008 champion Hapoel Holon.

And still, the bitter experience of many years covering Israeli basketball makes it hard for me to imagine that anything has really changed. Let’s hope I’m wrong. 

Nir Keidar