Lior Eliyahu’s Last Chance

The Maccabi Tel Aviv captain’s contract has been canceled. Now he should take the opportunity to come back as the 'bad boy.'

Eyal Gil
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Eyal Gil

Lior Eliyahu is hurt, angry and embittered. One poor season, and now Maccabi Tel Aviv wants to renegotiate his contract.

The 27-year-old, 2.05 meter ‏(6 ft., 9 in.‏) small forward returned to Maccabi in 2010 after a successful season with Caja Laboral, where he scored 18 points in the deciding game against Euroleague champion Barcelona to win the Spanish national championship.

Four years previously, he had been selected by the Orlando Magic with the 44th pick of the NBA Draft, only to be later traded to the Houston Rockets for cash considerations. In June last year, the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired the draft rights to Eliyahu.

Now that his NBA dream seems to have disappeared, Maccabi Tel Aviv is negotiating whether to extend his lucrative contract. He justifiably feels frustrated. He arrived at Maccabi at a time when the team was looking to restore the hegemony it had enjoyed over other teams in Israel, on a wave of public support for the “bring the boys home” campaign. In coming home, he forfeited the prospect of making far more money in Spain.

He returned to the yellow fold and assumed the status of the best Israeli hoopster in the Premier League. Then, this past season, after he took over the captain’s role in place of the recalcitrant Guy Pnini, Eliyahu suddenly found himself being offered $100,000 by Maccabi just so it wouldn’t have to honor his burdensome contract.

On Sunday, the club informed Eliyahu’s agent that it was utilizing the release clause in his contract, under which Maccabi will pay him $100,000 and cancel his contract.

Now Maccabi will try to resign the player on terms far inferior to those in his present contract, estimated to be worth over $800,000 for five seasons.

Maccabi is using an efficient negotiation tool. Admittedly, it’s spending no small amount of money to get the original contract shelved and negotiate a new, more sensible and relevant one. But a player who was insignificant for the second half of the game in which it lost the championship should not be the player who costs the club the most. And as opposed to the foreign players, Maccabi also has to cover Eliyahu’s not inconsiderable income tax payments.

From its standpoint, Maccabi’s management is doing the right thing. It knows that Eliyahu is far, far away from his NBA dream. The European market is dying, and Eliyahu won’t agree to play in some hole in Russia just so he’ll get what he thinks he’s worth. Eliyahu is vulnerable right now, and Maccabi − in a display of Maccabean humanity and sensitivity − is charging full-force at his weaknesses.

But Eliyahu, who all throughout his career tended to give in to himself, should see this new contract as a last opportunity that won’t be repeated. For years, he has been seen as a good player − maybe even a very good player − but too soft, with his lazy legs on defense and self-confidence that shatters all too often. Just look at his forlorn expression when he’s substituted during a game, and how demeaned he looks every time David Blatt or any other coach shouts at him.

Now he has a chance − in fact, his last chance. If Eliyahu has been seeking the drive to succeed throughout his career, now is the time to find it.

Many players thrive on the fact that they are despised and ridiculed, not taken seriously. Many of them only reach their peak when they are “bad,” after they receive the ultimate insult that their home team doesn’t want them any more. In this case, the team is even prepared to pay a fine to get rid of him. And it could this will have a similar effect on Eliyahu.

He has to take this insult and bring it to every game, every practice, every meeting with other players. From now on, it won’t be some player or another opposing him. Instead, he should see Maccabi Tel Aviv owner David Federman, chairman Shimon Mizrachi or vice chairman Shay Recanati − and show them what he’s all about.

This is Eliyahu’s chance to be a bit “badder” and find his place on the team. To fight until the bitter end until he realizes his NBA aspirations, to find a leading Euroleague team so that the day will come when they’ll all see him beating the Maccabeans to the title. Not to be satisfied with some fat contract from Turkey or Russia, but once and for all to be a significant player. To stop hearing that he has potential but lacks the determination and motivation of Omri Casspi or Gal Mekel, and simply to be like them. Or better still − to be better than them.

And if the best league in the world is closed to him, he shouldn’t look for a place in Real Madrid or Panathinaikos. There is only one thing Eliyahu should do − sign for the new Premier League champion, Maccabi Haifa.

Yes, give up on a fat contract and the spoils of the Euroleague and show that he is still the best Israeli hoopster in the Premier League. Lead the team rather than being led, take it forward via the Eurocup ‏(the continent’s secondary competition‏), and above all, take another title from Maccabi Tel Aviv. Why? Because he’s bad, and he likes being bad.

Lior Eliyahu in action for Israel in 2011.Credit: AP