Basketball

Hapoel Tel Aviv Just Might Get Used to Winning Derbies

Hapoel Jerusalem is aiming to out-brand Maccabi Tel Aviv.

So how does one explain how a team that has lost only once in the Euroleague this season loses three times in the local league? How come Maccabi Tel Aviv easily overcomes Panathinaikos on Thursday, only to be humiliated 78-66 three days later by Hapoel Tel Aviv’s cash-strapped team? Maccabi’s weakness seems hard to explain, but the truth is out. Not a fluke, not an off-night − this season’s Maccabi is simply a weak team.

One might say that the club has to leave some of its stars out of the squad due to the "Russian Law." On Monday, Maccabi left out Jake Cohen and Alex Tyus, two players who have yet to leave their mark this season. Tyrese Rice was also left out, but he is probably Maccabi’s least consequential foreign player this season.

One hears that Maccabi is supposed to be a slightly different team when playing in the league due to the Russian Law, but Yogev Ohayon and David Blu are supposed to be important players in the Euroleague this season. Others say that Maccabi is more focused on Europe and didn’t have time to prepare for the derby. It’s all true. But the bottom line is that Maccabi shouldn’t and isn’t supposed to be so humiliated in a derby game.

Shawn James produced turnover after turnover, the whole league already knows how to stop Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Guy Pnini will never be able to focus on the game when faced by the indignation of Hapoel’s fans, Blu forgot to bring his defensive work back from retirement and Ricky Hickman can’t hold the ball to save his life. When Maccabi lost at the beginning of the season, pundits said that Devin Smith was missing. Well, Smith proved on Monday that he simply doesn’t perform in tense, important games. Coach David Blatt was left with Yuval Naimi, who was supposed to leave the team last week but stayed on only due to the opposition of the media and other teams. Now he’s the one entrusted with leading the charge.

Still, fortunately for Maccabi’s coaching staff and players, this time it really isn’t their fault. Maccabi’s management should shoulder the responsibility for the derby loss, after launching a media campaign that portrayed the game as a suicide mission behind enemy lines. David Federman said he was afraid to come to the game. When Shimon Mizrahi refuses to support the team by allowing only a few dozen fans to attend, he, in effect, allowed the team to lose. Safety first, no?

And then you have Hapoel Tel Aviv. The team with a minimal budget, a home court that isn’t fit for the Super League and unremarkable players, manages to beat Maccabi at home for the second season running. Even the red celebrations after the final buzzer seemed moderate in comparison to last season. Hapoel just might be getting used to beating Maccabi.

The tickets affair

Many will remember this derby also because of the tickets affair. It began last week when Maccabi’s fan organization "Gate 11" announced it would not show up to the game since “we see ourselves responsible for the lives and wellbeing of our fans,” and continued with Federman’s scare-mongering on a local radio station before the game, when he only fell short of insinuating that Hapoel Tel Aviv was developing nuclear weapons and that Maccabi fans coming to the game would be doing it at their own peril. YNET reported that all this chain of events was actually a scheme by Maccabi to separate the fans in league games from now on, or in other words, Hapoel fans will not be allowed to attend the next derby at Maccabi's Nokia Arena.

This conduct, if true, is walking a thin line between scandalous and ludicrous. Maccabi Tel Aviv can’t suddenly decide that it won’t host Hapoel fans just like that, without any concrete reason.

The Maccabi management’s effort to portray derbies as violent is basically flawed. The league administration and all basketball fans must make a point that Maccabi isn’t exempt from the rules. Any basketball fan has the right to follow his team to all games, even if Maccabi Tel Aviv doesn’t approve.

Hapoel Jerusalem: Club or PR campaign?

The derby overshadowed last week’s prominent story, the signing of Lior Eliyahu by Hapoel Jerusalem. Some pundits stressed the professional and symbolic move of Maccabi’s former captain to its biggest rival, but there’s much more to it.

Unfortunately, Hapoel Jerusalem is being run this season more like a PR campaign than a basketball team. No wonder Eyal Chomsky, one of the country’s leading PR men, is among the most influential voices in the club. Chomsky identified the falling apart of Maccabi’s brand as “the country’s team,” and is doing his best to replace it as the public’s darling.

Maccabi changes its squad every season? We signed all players on three-year contracts. Maccabi doesn’t give opportunities to homegrown talent? We have Rafi Menco and Adam Ariel, and we forced our coach to make use of them. No Israelis at Maccabi? We have three of the opening five in the national team.

And there you have them, standing at a construction site in united Jerusalem, staring at the new arena with the hope of a bright future. And what about the game itself? Who cares?

Too many forwards? The team collapses when it faces simple zone defense? Another guard is needed? Eliyahu will step on the toes of Josh Duncan and Elishay Kadir? The coach isn’t really brilliant? The style of play doesn’t suit Derwin Kitchen? What is Yaniv Green doing here? Hanan Coleman and Zack Rosen don’t blend in? None of this bothers the brilliant PR campaign led by Chomsky and co.

Franco so far: fine, thanks

When Danny Franco was appointed Maccabi Haifa coach, pundits were wondering how he would cope with a huge team, the champions in fact, after making his name in smaller clubs. Haifa plays twice a week and sometimes three times a week. It was unclear how he would cope with fixture congestion, a not-to-deep squad, the players’ huge egos, the management's intervention and the fans’ expectations. So how is he doing? In three words: Absolutely fine, thanks.

Nir Keidar