This is signing season. This player signs for that club, another returns to his former team, yet another rejoins his coach from two or three years back. Some of the switches are interesting, others as expected as heat in the summer.
Raviv Limonad’s move to Hapoel Tel Aviv took everyone by surprise. For the first time since it was re-established by the fans, Hapoel Tel Aviv signed a player who was never connected to the club - one who spent most of his career at Hapoel Jerusalem, and even played, God forbid, for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Limonad, who grew up in Netanya, has surprises in store: “I am connected to Hapoel Tel Aviv. My family includes several supporters of the team, and my grandfather was a big fan,” he tells Haaretz. “I never supported any club. I always focused on playing basketball and becoming a professional, but I always had a soft spot for Hapoel and always had warm thoughts for the fans and club. Hapoel adds a different flavor to Israeli basketball and it’s pretty amazing to become a part of this.”
Until several months ago, Limonad, 29 next month, was part of another disappointing season for Hapoel Jerusalem, even though his personal statistics were solid: 10.7 points per game in the league, 9.6 points per game – with fewer minutes on court – during the playoffs. He was a starter and, for the first time in his career, a significant player on a team that aimed for the top.
“Personally, I’m very pleased with the last season,” he says. “When I played for Maccabi I was a leading player in the league, but not in the Euroleague. I made significant progress in several areas, found my place in a big team, improved my defensive work, and gained more insights into the game. The coaches trust me. When everyone else in Jerusalem fell out with each other, I was reliable. I was Sharon Drucker’s man on court, he always knew he could trust me. He knew what I could contribute professionally and personally, that I would get along with everyone and encourage all the players. I feel in debt to Sharon for trusting me and overseeing my progress.”
So there really were that many quarrels on the team?
“Everybody says ‘what a season you had over there in Jerusalem,’ but it wasn’t that bad. There were some incidents that made it difficult. Craig Smith’s falling out with Sharon Drucker finished our season. We were at a stage that we had already jelled, we were second in the league, and when we lost to Rishon Letzion at home, all hell broke loose.”
You know the ins and outs at Hapoel Jerusalem. Why doesn’t it ever work out for the club?
“It’s a strange place, I can’t put my finger on it, a good club with fans and atmosphere, but sometimes the fans and those close to the club give it a bear hug, and they create unrealistic expectations and pressure the whole club, from the president on down. It’s an inexplicable pressure. As a player I could ignore it because I knew exactly what was expected from me, but the club as a whole is strangled by the pressure, and can’t really succeed. It’s a ritual that repeats itself every season, leading to quarrels, players being sent home, and losses. The club can’t succeed when all this is going on.”
‘Wouldn’t play at J’lem for double the pay’
Why didn’t you renew your contract in Jerusalem?
They talked to me, I spoke to the coach, but it never materialized, I really don’t know why. Everything happened late in Jerusalem this season, even when the new owners came in. They decided to examine all the options and not to take any decisions. At some point, when Hapoel Tel Aviv inquired, I was attracted by the idea of playing for Erez Edelstein, who I respect and appreciate, and with the fans and the amazing people running the club. Jerusalem’s conduct this summer was controversial, to use an understatement, at least as far as I was concerned. If they had offered to double my pay I wouldn’t continue. Hapoel has a wonderful tradition and great fans.”
What’s really surprising is that you signed a three-year contract.
“It was very important for me to sign a long-term contract. I’m at an age when I need to find a place I can call home, and succeed personally along with the team. There’s no better place for that than Hapoel Tel Aviv. We want to lead the team back to its golden days.”
Didn’t you expect to return to Maccabi Tel Aviv after you left three years ago?
“Absolutely not. I didn’t expect and didn’t want to return to Maccabi. I want to play and be happy. Maccabi is a huge club, but not the only one where you can play basketball. The league is going through a bad trend, too many foreign players, and it all begins with Maccabi, who want to be the best in Europe and bring in seven or eight foreign players. The Israelis cannot play their game as they should, and as they can. If you examine Europe’s leading teams, you see that they all have a solid local base leading the clubs. Maccabi focuses on foreign players, at the expense of the Israelis. I believe there are enough talented local players who can lead the team, if they feel secure.”
Meanwhile, until the league kicks off, Limonad is training with the Israeli national team, preparing for the European Championship in September.
Are the players disappointed that Gal Mekel decided not to join the national team this summer?
It’s a huge loss for the national team, but nobody’s angry with Gal. The NBA is every player’s dream, he fulfilled his dream and it wasn’t his decision, but more of a dictate from the Dallas Mavericks. We love him as a friend and we’ll miss him, but we do have enough players who can take his place.
Is there hope of making it to the quarterfinals in Slovenia?
From my experience, we should focus on the group stage, but naturally, we all hope to make it through the group stage.