Basketball

Israel, the New Hothouse of International Basketball

Local league feeding major leagues in Europe, and it isn’t just Maccabi Tel Aviv

Last month Sherwood Brown, who in his rookie year didn't even merit a scholarship in his virtually anonymous college, became a household name among basketball fans. The Florida Gulf Coast University star led his college to Cinderella status by reaching the Sweet Sixteen, dancing with cheerleaders and trading high fives with commentator Reggie Miller. He wasn’t picked in the draft, but the media attention opened up doors. Eventually he chose to play in Israel.

"Israel is, undoubtedly, a great place for a young player to kick off his European career," Seth Cohen, Sherwood's agent, told Haaretz. "When we considered the offers, Maccabi Haifa stood out. Throughout the years many players exploited their success in Israel as a springboard for more prestigious contracts and opportunities in Europe and the NBA, and we definitely had that in mind."

Cohen is talking about an obvious trend: in recent years the Israeli league has become a farm system for foreign players, rearing them for better leagues. This summer 11 basketball players moved from Israel to the Italian league, joining the five ex-Israeli league players already there. "A quarter of all foreigners playing in the Italian league have formerly played in Israel, that's an amazing stat," says Gilad Ziv, CEO of Maccabi Rishon Letzion. "Once, when we could bring a player from the Italian league, we would all go 'wow.' Now they're taking all our players."

How did that happen? It seems that concepts about foreign players changed simultaneously in Israel and in the continent. If once foreign players with a proven track record would arrive in Israel and stay for years, now things work the other way round. A huge percentage of the foreign players arrive fresh from college or from a smaller league. "We have some excellent Israeli scouts and agents who manage to find excellent players for relatively modest sums," says Eldad Akunis, chairman of Bnei Herzliya. "It's easier to succeed in the Israel league because foreigners are very dominant here. The players hone their skills and within a year or two, double or triple the value of their contracts."

Interestingly, one of the features of this trend is that a player does not have to go through Maccabi Tel Aviv in order to make it. In the summer of 2008, after his college career with the Dayton Flyers, Brian Roberts landed in Gilboa/Galil and led the club to the Israeli final four. Roberts continued to German club Bamberg and currently plays for New Orleans. Davon Jefferson signed for Maccabi Haifa in 2008, immediately after college. He has since gone on to a successful European career, including winning the MVP in Russia. Bryant Dunston, who was cut by Aris Thessaloniki in 2011, joined Bnei Hasharon, and a season later was the top rebounder in the Israel league while playing for Holon. He then moved on to Varese, helping the club finish on top of the Italian league in the regular season. This summer he returned to Greece through the front door, signing for European champion Olimpiakos.

His replacement in Varese, Frank Hassel, can make a similar boast as best rebounder in the Israel league while playing for Holon. The top scorer of the Israeli league last season, Jerome Dyson, who also played for Holon has moved on to Brindisi, where he will team up with another ex-Holon player, Ron Lewis, as well as with Paul Stoll, who won the championship with Maccabi Haifa. Bamberg, which plays in the Euroleague, signed two hoopsters who played last season for Gilboa/Galil: Rakim Sanders and Jamar Smith. Italy’s Cantu, which has already enjoyed the good services of Alex Tyus, following his successful season with Ashdod, added Adrian Uter to its roster. Uter actually began his career in Hapoel Lev Hasharon of the second-tier National League. "Every player hopes to play in the top leagues, and the Israeli league is a wonderful springboard to present your qualities to the European market," Uter explains.

This market has changed significantly, due to a conceptual change that the big clubs underwent. The recession, as well as the success of Olympiakos, which won the Euroleague twice with relatively modest budgets as opposed to its big-spending years, caused clubs to believe in the motto 'more for less.' These clubs follow athletes wherever they play, and in Israel, that means also players who don't play for Maccabi. Thus one can hear Anadolu Efes' general manager say that his club watched Eilat's Scotty Hopson "all season long." That also explains how Darwin Kitchen was called to Panathinaikos after only one season in Rishon Letzion.

"This was a first," Ziv says. "Kitchen arrived on a low salary. Now, a season later, he's in Panathinaikos, which even paid his buy-out clause. Formerly, a club like Panathinaikos would never have opted for a player from Rishon Letzion, but now the world is a global village, everything is out in the open, every game is broadcast, and it's really hard to hide players. Once, whoever was good continued playing here for several years. Today every league has statistics, and there are so many agents. This means that you cannot construct a system that will leave players in the same club for several years. Haifa also had problems keeping Donta Smith."

Avi Silberman, an Israeli agent knowledgeable of the European and Israeli market, agrees that the European clubs are now taking a closer look at the Israeli league. "All season we have scouts, assistant coaches, and sometimes even head coaches arriving in order to see games and watch players. In recent years I've hosted Germans, French and Italian coaches and scouts. We've progressed in recent years; the league has become better and more athletic." Silberman's colleague, Seth Cohen, adds that "from my experience, even among NBA clubs, the Israeli league has an excellent reputation. Maybe it isn't considered the best or the most competitive, but it is sound and full of talent."

Sharon Bukov