The national basketball team, which will be participating in the European Championships in Slovenia in September, held a pre-tournament press conference yesterday to rally the troops.
Among those attending were national team coach Arik Shivek, Omri Casspi, Yotam Halperin and Elishay Kadir.
“Every time we meet up again, we are excited by the challenges ahead,” Shivek said in his opening comments. “It doesn’t matter whether you play in the NBA or the Israeli league, it’s still exciting.”
Israel has been drawn into Group A for the 24-team tournament and will play its first game against Great Britain in Ljubljana on the morning of September 4, just hours before the start of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Also in Israel’s group are Ukraine, France, Germany and Belgium.
The top three teams in each group progress to the second stage of the competition, also played in a round-robin format. The top four teams in both of the second-round groups will then move on the quarterfinal.
“Our goal is to make it past the first round of the competition,” Shivek said yesterday. “Psychological strength plays a huge part in this kind of competition, and we have to go into every game fully prepared, no matter who we are playing against. We need to make sure that we grab one of the top three places in the group.”
Shivek believes that the heart of the team, which has been built up over the past three years, will continue to play a central role. “Omri Casspi was missing from the past European Championships due to injury, but he was our stand-out player in the qualification tournament. He may be only 25, but he has a wealth of experience, and this will be the first time we have him on our roster for the championships.”
The 55-year-old coach, who has been as the helm of the national team since 2009, believes that the close relationships between the players on his roster, as well as between the players and the coaching staff, will also be a positive factor. “That was one of the main reasons for our success last season, when we finished ahead of powerhouse teams like Serbia to grab a place in the finals.”
Asked who he plans to select as the center in his starting five, Shivek declined to commit, but said, “Nobody holds Gal Mekel in higher esteem than me. A year ago, he played for us after recovering from injury and he had a bad season. This season he has come along in leaps and bounds − and has reaped the rewards with a contract to play in the NBA. I am delighted to have such a positive problem. I firmly believe that Gal’s form is better than any of the other centers I have at my disposal, in part because he’s been playing at summer training in the United States.”
Shivek also revealed that he deliberated long and hard before deciding to recall Guy Pnini to his team, after the Maccabi Tel Aviv player was suspended from action late last year for calling a rival player a “piece of garbage, bastard, German Nazi.”
“I have known Guy for years and I know his family. I was as shocked as anyone else by what he said. I consulted with several people, but in the end I concluded he is truly sorry for what he said. I think that he has been punished for his crime and I decided that it was time to welcome him back. Even the most heinous murderers are freed after 25 years. I know that some people will raise an eyebrow at my decision, but I have no intention of confronting them.”
Shivek also announced that he and his players would take part in two training tournaments, in Italy and Belgium, before returning to Israel for two more exhibition games in Eilat and Haifa.
Casspi sounded optimistic about the national team’s chances of progressing in the tournament. “This is a great opportunity for us and I believe we’ll make it to the second round,” he said. “We are not afraid of any rival or any challenge,” he said.