NBA

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Yotam Halperin

Hapoel Jerusalem’s guard put behind him his slew of mediocre years in Europe and rediscovered his role as leader and go-to guy in the clutch, Thursday night’s State Cup defeat aside.

When incoming coach Brad Greenberg vowed to turn recently-acquired Yotam Haperin into a constant threat on the basketball court for Hapoel Jerusalem, critics wondered what he was talking about.

Over the past few years Halperin had adjusted to the status of being a reserve player on his European teams, and the third or fourth best scorer on Israel’s national team. How would he, at age 29, not only become a leading player again but also doing things he never did in his best years with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the previous decade?

The first league game, a home loss to Ashdod, only sharpened the ridicule. In 23 minutes, Halperin didn’t score even one point. That evening did not provide any hints about what was to come.

The guard has since recovered from injury, got back into shape and led Hapoel Jerusalem to the top of the league table and second place in the first stage of the Eurocup competition.

Last night, he struggled with 10 points, unusual compared to his recent performances, as Jerusalem fell to Hapoel Tel Aviv 83-71 in the State Cup quarterfinal.

Last night excluded, Halperin has averaged 12.5 points per game, twice as much as he contributed to Bayern Munich last season. As usual, he is a sharpshooter from the field, averaging 40 percent from beyond the arc in Eurocup games. He is also dishing out four assists per game, mostly from deadly pick-and-rolls − one time passing the ball off to a big guy, another time feeding someone in the backcourt.

Beyond that, the player they said disappears in money time has been deciding games in Jerusalem’s favor lately. For example, he nailed a winning three-pointer against Maccabi Tel Aviv, and scored seven points with one assist in the final minutes against Maccabi Haifa.

Greenberg deserves praise for daring to bet on the turnaround Halperin would make, basically making it happen. “The credit goes to Yotam,” the coach says modestly. “He knew the expectations when he decided to join Jerusalem and took them to heart.”

Greenberg says he researched Halperin before meeting him, and he has constantly encouraged Halperin to take any open shot available and be bold and aggressive on offense. The coach, who switched to Jerusalem from Maccabi Haifa during the off-season, says Haperin showed mental toughness and was open to becoming more aggressive, adding the guard has “emotional intelligence” to boot.

Halperin says he didn’t come to Jerusalem for Greenberg to restore his confidence, but he is one of the more special coaches he has known. “It’s very easy to connect with him,” says Halperin. “He inspires calm and confidence in a player.”

Every critique is from the heart and is always constructive, notes the guard. “He has told me several times he wants me to shoot as many and as often as possible.”

After tax issues kept him from returning to Maccabi Tel Aviv in past, Halperin had hoped it would happen this summer. He is not disappointed, though, with the way things turned out.

“I’m very comfortable with my situation,” he says. “From every direction they have treated me favorably and have given me the time to succeed. Any athlete would feel comfortable in such a situation.”

Halperin’s situation has changed significantly relative to his stints with Olympiacos, St. Petersburg and Bayern Munich. His national team coach, Arik Shivak, says in previous seasons Halperin played second fiddle in Europe, but now he is starting and his game has picked up accordingly.

Halperin says his teammates on Hapoel are at least as good as the ones he had in Munich, but the firing of Bayern’s coach and his assistant had an impact. In contrast, management in Jerusalem has provided a sense of stability.

“There’s a feeling that once you are here, you’re not going anywhere; everything will work out,” says Halperin. “The situation allows me to realize what we want to do as a team and what I want to do as a player in the most comfortable way. We all help one another, and that’s inseparable from what’s happening to me.”

Zvi Sherf, who coached Halperin during the 2007-08 season, sees things differently. “There’s some mistake here,” he says. “Yotam had some good years with Olympiacos, which was a team full of stars. Sometimes, like with Maccabi, they give preference to local players. He had some difficulties, but he also had some good stretches.”

Not scared

Sherf says Halperin is not scared of taking game-ending shots, but sometimes he passes up on them to keep things nice with the rest of the team. In contrast, he is the leading player at Jerusalem and Greenberg is pushing him, so he takes the big shots.

Every player loves to be on the court in the final minute, observes Halperin. “Sometimes players develop stigmas − one doesn’t score, another doesn’t guard, still another doesn’t show up in money time,” he says. “During my whole career, at Maccabi too, I was on the court in the final minutes. Sometimes it did not work out. In Jerusalem, I feel I have to take decisive shots. I feel comfortable taking them.”

When the national team struggled this summer, Halperin took flack as captain. In this regard, too, Hapoel Jerusalem surprised everyone when it appointed him as captain following the departure of Elishay Kadir.

“Regarding his leadership abilities, Yotam is a true professional,” says Greenberg. “He is easy to coach, responsible, not egotistic, intelligent and respectful. He has a wonderful personality. He may not be an extrovert, but that’s in line with these personality traits. What he says, he says well, in a loud and clear voice. He is entirely focused on the team. As much as he wants to improve individually, he doesn’t do it at the expense of the team. As such, his teammates see him as a strong captain.”

Sharon Bokov