Basketball / The Ex-captain Returns

Maccabi Tel Aviv's Pnini returns to court, but has he learned his lesson?

There was something rather magical about watching Maccabi Tel Aviv's former captain Guy Pnini return to the court on Sunday against Hapoel Jerusalem, a month after he was caught on camera and suspended for calling a European player a Nazi during the Tel Aviv derby. Why was it so magnetizing? Because there's something touching about watching someone who usually seeks attention trying to avoid it. At times, it was almost pitiful.

Hapoel Jerusalem fans did not make it easier for Pnini. Every time he touched the ball the boos and hisses filled the Jerusalem arena. Despite shooting a three-pointer with his first touch of the ball, as the game progressed it seemed Pnini was affected by the hostility. The Jerusalem fans initiated a new campaign, singing: "Pnini out of the national team," and they may have a valid point.

It will be interesting to see if other sets of fans will join the protest against him when Maccabi comes visiting. If that does happen, we will have a new candidate for the most hated athlete in Israel and, since the league is somewhat dull, that would also be an achievement of sorts.

I watched the ex-captain closely during Maccabi's victory: He was careful not to whisper in the ears of the players he guarded, not a word. When the half-time buzzer sounded, he was off the court and into the locker room long before his teammates. The only time he dared say something to the officials, he immediately changed his mind about making a fuss and accepted their call.

Did Pnini actually learn something from the affair, or is it a temporary change just for one game? Time will tell.

Anyone could see that Maccabi's new captain, Lior Eliyahu, gave his predecessor special attention. Eliyahu encouraged Pnini throughout the game, and gave him instructions as if Pnini hadn't played for two years instead of merely a month. One situation was especially absurd. During one Jerusalem offense, Eliyahu concentrated on telling Pnini to take his man. He sent him in one direction, and then the other. How did it end? Eliyahu forgot to guard his player, who had an easy shot on basket - a classic Eliyahu move.

In general, it seems that the captain's role weighs on Eliyahu's shoulders. He tries to lead the team and take more responsibility, but that effort takes its toll on his natural ability as a player. Before the Euroleague top 16 began, Haaretz reporter Arie Livnat asked him for an interview. Eliyahu politely refused, saying that he does not give interviews before games. He explained that if an interview is published on the morning of a game, he loses concentration and instead of focusing on the game he finds himself thinking about the published interview. "Every time I had an interview published on the day of a game, I played badly," he said.

Livnat wrote a piece on Eliyahu, which was published, and Eliyahu had a nightmarish game - scoring only 13 points with six turnovers in Maccabi's loss to Sienna. But Eliyahu continued his bad form in the following games as well, so it may have nothing to do with the media and more with the added responsibility of being captain.

Gilboa-Galil losing ground

We might have gotten used to it, or the club might be too far away from the center, but Gilboa-Galil continues its free fall. After several years of being one of the more attractive teams in the league, and often taking Jerusalem's spot as the "No. 2 team," Galil-Gilboa is probably bracing for a struggle against relegation.

One always praises the quiet atmosphere at Gan Ner, which, many believe, helps the players concentrate and succeed without the distractions of Israel's more vibrant arenas. This season it seems the tranquility works against the players. Something or someone should wake them all up. Lior Liubin is an excellent coach, although I always suspected he was a touch indifferent.

Gilboa-Galil failed in its choice of players, foreign and Israeli alike, and something definitely isn't ticking there. True, there were injuries and Yaniv Green arrived after the season began and still hasn't settled down, but 12 games have gone by and nothing seems to change.

Gilboa must start winning fast because in case of a fall, there might not be anyone to put the team back on track. Danny Attar, the regional council head who adopted the team and funded it in recent years, is expected to be elected to the Knesset. Will his replacement continue to invest in a club that is unsuccessful on the court and hardly has any supporters? That just might not happen.

Political move

Ofer Shelah completed his last game as a commentator for the Sports Channel on Sunday, and is now focusing on his political career with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. One the one hand, Shelah was never a basketball player, but on the other he contributed to the sport much more than many players and coaches. For several years, Shelah mediated Israeli basketball for the fans, changing our conception of the game with his intelligent analysis, always informative and never too pompous. Israeli basketball will miss him.

Nir Keidar