The Sixth Man

The Israel Basketball League's Real Deal

The success of league newcomer Nes Tziona is lovely but should not be surprising; and Maccabi Haifa is the true wonder so far this season.

What haven't Israeli basketball writers said about the imminent demise of Maccabi Haifa over the past several months since it defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv in the league championship final? The team lost most of its roster. It wouldn't recover from the post-championship letdown. It is building for the long term. It is too soft, with just one star. It prefers money to true preparation. It's embarrassing itself overseas.

Truth be told, it's a terrific team.

Over the past few weeks, Haifa has gelled and looks wonderful. Danny Franco justifies the credit he got for taking on his first major team. Management is getting kudos for its gentle treatment of Ronta Smith. And for now it looks like the team won bingo with its roster. Moran Roth is back to being the best Israeli point guard in the league, Ben Reis is a promising prospect. The new foreign players are outstanding and Uri Kokia is always important to any team.

The psychotic situation in Israeli basketball did not allow us to say this in past despite the champions that weren't Maccabi Tel Aviv, but now - ever so quietly - we may whisper the following: The champion is a serious candidate to defend its title.

Shining debut

Maccabi Haifa isn't the only pleasant surprise of the season. Newcomer Nes Tziona is enjoying a strong start, holding its own in fourth place. But then again, what surprises me is the total shock everyone expresses at Nes Tziona. It's not like this is something new. It's just another shining debut for the latest promoted team.

Last season, Hapoel Eilat finished in third place. A season earlier Habika reached the State Cup semifinal. The season before that sixth-place Maccabi Ashdod shocked everyone with an appearance in the State Cup semifinal before reaching the Final Four title game. Go back one season further, and it was Barak Netanya that reached the State Cup semifinal as well as the Final Four.

In the 2008-09 season, newly promoted Maccabi Haifa under owner Jeff Rosen impressed everyone with appearances in both the State Cup and Final Four title games. And the countdown continues to 200-08, when the newest member of the league, Hapoel Holon, won the championship and reached the State Cup semifinal.

On the one hand, it's really nice every time there is new and surprising blood in the league. On the other hand, it's another piece of evidence for the lack of continuity and the victory of gimmicks. Nes Tziona's success is indeed impressive, refreshing and surprising (relatively, as noted), but it does not necessarily bear witness to good tidings. The power of freshness, ambition and desire is not supposed to be so significant in a professional league.

The rosters they are a-changin'

This column does not want to take too much credit, but it is happy to see how Maccabi Tel Aviv's rotation has indeed changed, so that the Israelis are getting more playing time. Games like the on-the-road 85-74 win against Gilboa are the place to give Tel Aviv's deep bench the opportunity to express itself, to prove itself and get down to business.

And it's exactly what David Blatt did Monday night with Yogev Ohayon, who finished with 17 points, and Guy Pnini. By the way, the same should have been done for Alex Tyus.

However, all these developments can't hide the fact that in all likelihood, and well after we thought that this foul matter was behind us, the transfer of Yuval Naimy to Gilboa is about to happen.

Reuters