On the Court, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Search for Their Identities

While the two basketball teams presented awkward and inconsistent versions of themselves, Meir Tapiro was in fine, vintage form.

You know a team's in trouble when it forgets who it is and what it's all about. The basketball team Hapoel Tel Aviv is usually known for defense, aggressiveness and soul. It's not supposed to allow 53 points in the one half and nearly 100 in a game, as they did with Hapoel Jerusalem in Sunday night's Premier League game.

But at least they have some sort of identity. Over at Hapoel Jerusalem, things have become rather strange: Even in the middle of the second round of league games, it's unclear what that team is all about, assuming that instability is not an identity trait.

Jerusalem is a collection of talented individuals who sometimes work together and sometimes don't. And sometimes they do both in one game. Despite the absence of Elishay Kadir and Uri Kokia, and despite starting with four swingmen, in the first half of Sunday's game, Jerusalem looked like a tall, heavy bunch of giants incapable of chasing after a light-footed rival. But the impression of heaviness was more than just a matter of objective, physical size.

During the first half, Jerusalem's head coach, Sharon Drucker, ran a zone defense, which initially gave his players an excuse not to guard. However, as the minutes wore on, the defense tightened and slowly revealed the naked vulnerability of Tel Aviv, coached by Erez Edelshtein.

The Tel Aviv players' lack of confidence in their outside shooting is rather touching: During one of their drives, forward Jonathan Skjoldebrand and point guard Bar Timor were left alone by the arc. They passed the ball back and forth three times, each player practically begging the other to take a shot. Finally, Skoldebrand fired away - and scored.

Back with Jerusalem, the team isn't exactly winning any sympathy this year. The atmosphere on the court is soured by what's going on off it. The fights among management remind one of the days when the wheelers and dealers at Beit Brenner meddled in the affairs of Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Despite all that, it was heartwarming on Sunday to see Meir Tapiro go to work. He showed up on the Israeli basketball scene nearly 20 years ago. At age 22 he was in control on the court and radiated the charisma and confidence of a 26-year-old. At 35, he looked fresh and dominant like someone who was 29. Soon he will celebrate his 38th birthday, and this was the first season that he's looked his age.

Until Sunday, that is.

On Sunday, he returned to good ol' Tapiro of days gone by, the least athletic player out there who takes control of the court by wit and talent alone, who is capable of posting up on every opposing guard, who shoots the three at the most painful moment and who finishes a pick-and-roll with a perfect pass.

Where have these kinds of Israelis gone?

Seffi Magriso