Winds of Change in Israel's Basketball League

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s difficulties, the buzz around Hapoel Jerusalem and the evergreen Meir Tapiro.

True, a league victory in the beginning of December is meaningless in the long run. True, this is already Maccabi Tel Aviv’s fourth league defeat on the road this season, and they lost to worse teams by a larger margin. True, Maccabi lost 87-85 to Jerusalem without Shawn James and Sofoklis Schortsanitis, two of its better players. True, Yotam Halperin’s winning three-pointer was helped by a bizarre assist from official Gili Oved. It’s all true, but still.

One senses deep a change. A tectonic move to the east. Suddenly there's a buzz around Hapoel Jerusalem, a sense that this team is mentally strong and has an Israeli foundation − even though the coach and some of the owners are American. This was one of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s better games, and it lost nonetheless.

With its planned new arena, long-term contracts and the effort to join the Euroleague, one senses that Hapoel Jerusalem has made another step on its way to becoming the new Maccabi Tel Aviv. Still, the club must maintain its warm, authentic, Jerusalem roots − otherwise, all this change will be meaningless.

All eyes were on Lior Eliyahu, who recently joined Jerusalem from Maccabi but seemed to evade the ball when his team was in possession and offered next to nothing in defense. The game was won by another ex-Maccabi player, Yotam Halperin.

Recent criticism of Halperin, including by this writer, wasn’t brought about by a dislike of the player; quite the contrary, it evolved from the sour sense of disappointment. When Halperin was younger, many believed he would be the greatest Israeli player of all time, that a successor to Miki Berkovich, Doron Sheffer and Doron Jamchi had finally appeared. But then we were treated to the boos by Maccabi supporters, the escape to the riches of Olympiakos’ bench, the pointless wandering in Europe and weak performances for the national team.

The criticism of his lack of leadership and habit to pass instead of attempting to score, as well as many more aspects of his game, was a desperate effort to awaken Halperin, perhaps shock him, since his attitude seemed to border on indifference.

No, he didn’t seem upset or angry against Maccabi Tel Aviv, but one must savor the moment that one can praise him. The lucky three-pointer that won the game for Jerusalem may yet be a turning point for him.

Guy Pnini was appointed Maccabi Tel Aviv’s captain for the Jerusalem game, instead of James. Pnini was punished after his behavior in last year’s derby and can now play again for the national team, but appointing him as captain, a role that personifies the club, seems a bit premature. It was another miserable decision by Maccabi’s management, which seems to be losing its way.

When a 39-year-old scores the winning basket, is it a good sign or a bad sign for the league? On the one hand, Meir Tapiro finds it hard to move and guard his player, hardly leaves the floor when he takes a shot and almost chokes when he is substituted. On the other hand, Israeli basketball hasn’t witnessed such a winner since the days of Adi Gordon − a player who knows exactly what to do when push comes to shove in the dying seconds, just as he did when he beat Maccabi in a derby game when he was 19, and again on Sunday, when he led Nes Tziona to victory over Ashdod after closing a 29-point lead.

Then again, it really doesn’t matter how or why he does it. Week in, week out we’re repeatedly amazed at the phenomenon that is Meir Tapiro. Long may he run.

Still, it’s a shame that he never found one club, and moved from team to team throughout the years. If he had settled in Rishon Letzion or Ashdod, one could have created what is known in spoken capitalism as a "franchise player," a player identified with a club, a club that is identified with a player. Kobe Bryant announced this week that he would complete 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, and end his career without ever playing for another team. Tapiro could and should have tried to do the same. Instead of that, he will have to make due with a title invented specially for him, "player of the decade." The last decade, that is.

Should the league be pleased with the fact that a team substitutes one or two foreign players and suddenly starts winning? It sounds strangely unprofessional and irritating. We were taught that a team should be constructed carefully, a fragile puzzle of elements that should slowly mature into a winning unit. Still, in reality, what happens is that one player leaves, another lands in Israel and after two training sessions with the team, leads it to victory.

On the other hand, isn’t that what’s wonderful about basketball? You can be dynamic, never give up, never lose hope. A small change can fix a lot of previously unsolved problems; the right change can alter a whole team’s momentum. What could be wrong with that?

The best example is Maccabi Rishon Letzion, which played pathetically in the beginning of the league, lost six straight games and did exactly what a reasonable club should do, without panicking. Rishon knew they have a young, outstanding coach in Matan Harush and an excellent Israeli squad that combines young and experienced players. Substituting the disappointing foreign players − Devin Mitchell and Ricardo Marsh were cut, making place for Vander Blue and James Thomas − led the team to two consecutive wins. Should I retell the old joke about the difference between being wise and quick-witted? Maybe next time.

Seffi Magriso