In his 19th season in Israeli basketball's highest echelon, Meir Tapiro is having career lows in four categories not seen since his rookie season at Hapoel Tel Aviv, when he was 19. He is averaging just 18 minutes, 3.9 points and 3.4 assists per game while shooting just 30 percent from two-point range.
While he is connecting on only 25 percent of his three-point attempts, Tapiro's saving grace is his free-throw shooting: 88.2 percent on 15 of 17 attempts.
Perhaps it's not only being in worse shape but also the inability of Hapoel Jerusalem to make use of his talents. "On the one hand, I need to be on another mental level. On the other hand the team needs to draw better things from me," says the player. "It's a combination of both. I feel that I am still not contributing what I am capable of. I helped the team in some games, but it's still not enough. I am not where I want to be and hope that will change."
Not only is Tapiro disappointing, but so is Jerusalem. Neither its early exit from Europe nor its fifth place in the standings, a 5-7 record after Sunday’s home loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv, match the pre-season expectations in the capital.
Last Monday against Eilat, head coach Sharon Drucker inserted Tapiro in the middle of the third quarter, but benched him within two minutes. On his way off the court, Tapiro whispered to Drucker, "Now the gloves come off."
When that comment was published, Tapiro immediately issued a press release insisting there is no tension between him and his coach. Management wants to take disciplinary action against Tapiro, but of all people Drucker is opposed to the idea. Drucker says sometimes such comments are made during the heat of the game. "I don't measure him in points but in how he runs the game, plays defense and helps the team. Against Haifa he came in and changed the game."
Tapiro says the team woke up too late in Europe and wants to turn things around for the last phase of the regular season.
The point guard says this season things have not gone as planned, partly because he has had to adjust to some unfamiliar situations. Tapiro has been playing with smaller teams over the past five years – Bnei Hasharon, Maccabi Rishon Letzion and Maccabi Ashdod – since his last stint with Hapoel Jerusalem.
He says he knew coming back to Jerusalem would be a challenge, but it wasn't what he thought it would be. He admits he has not demonstrated the confidence shown in previous seasons. "I am a human being, too, and for all my years in the league I also lose confidence sometimes," he says. "When things don't go your way, it makes you doubt yourself. Overall, I'm in good shape. I was weak mentally, and that's where I'm trying to work on myself."
Over the past five years, Tapiro was a big fish playing in a small pond, always sure to start. He says he has no problem coming off the bench and understands his place is not among the starting five. He does not discuss his standing on the team with Drucker, he says, instead dealing with it on his own, focusing on what he can do and what is within his control.
"Meir has changed roles this year," says Drucker. "In contrast to his last years in Rishon Letzion and Ashdod, he is now on a big team with expectations, one that is a favorite to win almost every game. That's the job he consciously chose, and I think it's what suits him most at this point. Meanwhile, it's hard for him. All these years he played an average of 32 minutes, and now he has a different status. He needs to help the leading point guard on the team and be prepared for those moments when we need him."
Drucker says there are games when he'll get 20 minutes and some when he gets only eight. "Sometimes he'll play in money. It's not easy to adjust. The quicker he accepts his role, the more he'll be an asset to the team and for his continued career."
Despite the disappointing season, Tapiro says he has no regrets about coming to Malha. "It's paying my dues," he says. "I am bummed it didn't go the way I thought, but a season is like a marathon. There are obstacles and you have to get past them and keep on believing. Show up to every game. By season's end, the season will go my way. If that doesn't happen, I'll feel I really missed out."
Tapiro says the team has failed so far because there are a lot of new guys who haven't played together. "Things take time. It takes us longer," he says. "There are good guys working hard and they want the team to win. This mix will pay off in the end."
This season, newly promoted Hapoel Tel Aviv has grabbed more headlines that Hapoel Jerusalem. Tapiro says it is fun to see his old team back in the top level, and not just for sentimental reasons. "It's a team that represents what we want to see, a team of Israelis fighting and giving everything on the court at any given moment," he says about Hapoel Tel Aviv. "They also get talked about because of the amazing project the fans established," he notes, referring to the fan initiative to revive the club.
Listening to Tapiro, you can see he misses Tel Aviv, but he is also an optimist.
"I really enjoy seeing them and the guys who have developed from the third division," he says. "They say players aren't raised here and they brought impact players to the Super League. Personally, it's good being where I chose to be. Hapoel Jerusalem hasn't made it to the finals in years. I want to be part of getting back there. I hope that I'll be able to contribute my experience at the right time. Our amazing fans make me forget everything and try to win for them."
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