Does Anyone Really Want the Israeli Basketball Title?

There’s no successor to Maccabi Tel Aviv in sight at the top of Israeli basketball.

Eyal Gil
Eyal Gil
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Eyal Gil
Eyal Gil

The players’ strike over the number of local athletes on a given team meant a long break for everyone in basketball- players, club staff, journalists and fans alike. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to figure out what’s going on now that the strike is over.

The Premier ‏(“Winner”‏) League’s administration is trying to make up for lost time- and justifiably so- by scheduling games in rapid succession, usually on consecutive days. The goal is to have all the games played in time for the scheduled playoffs.

Indeed, the last few games since the strike ended have zoomed past like a fast train ride. You get where you’re going, and quickly, but without paying too much attention to what’s happening along the way. Everything is a blur: Maccabi Tel Aviv is 25 points ahead, then it almost loses; Maccabi Haifa’s form takes a drastic turn for the worse; Hapoel Jerusalem suddenly gives a good defensive display; Barak Netanya is most impressive.

Everything happens so fast that you don’t have a chance to take it all in and consider the implications. Maybe that’s because there aren’t actually any implications, just a “struggle” for meaningless positions before the real thing begins.

The lesson of the past few weeks is that no team can realistically threaten Maccabi Tel Aviv’s grip on the title. That includes, by the way, Maccabi Tel Aviv itself. The Yellows looked drained after losing in consecutive games to Barcelona in the Euroleague Top 16. ‏(They have it rough- two weeks in Israel without even one flight.‏)

The favorites to win the finals, Hapoel Eilat and Maccabi Haifa, cannot maintain any consistency. It could be that they are just treading water until the more meaningful series begin, and that what we see from them now is not necessarily what we’ll see in a month’s time. But for now, at least, no leading candidate is emerging to pilfer the title from Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Basketball’s big bluff

While we’re on the topic of Maccabi Haifa, allow me to take us back to late March, when the league administration asked journalists to choose the month’s outstanding player and coach. Maybe since nobody remembers what happened that month because of the strike, or maybe because the weighing scale lied, Maccabi Haifa’s Brad Greenberg was chosen coach of the month. True, his team finished the month with a perfect record 3-0‏, but against whom? Minnows Bnei Herzliya and Elitzur Ashkelon ‏(Who remembers when they last won a game?‏) and Hapoel Jerusalem, which didn’t win a single game that month.

When I complained about this on the social networks, many people disagreed with me and stuck by their choice of Greenberg. But now, after the last two defeats to Netanya and Jerusalem ‏(at home‏), let’s talk about the bluff that is Brad Greenberg, one of the biggest spins to emerge from Israeli basketball recently.

Rumor has it that the affable American Jew is a leading candidate to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv, or even the national team, next season. But based on what? This is Greenberg’s first season as head coach of a professional team in Europe. His Maccabi Haifa team plays individualistic, not particularly organized basketball befitting a man who came from conformist American schools of thought.

His players, in particular the foreign ones, have a lot of freedom- too much freedom, apparently- and in recent weeks they have not been afraid to publicly criticize their coach. After the disputes with Mexican point guard Paul Stoll became routine, Donta Smith joined in. Even Ido Kozikaro didn’t know what Greenberg wanted from him. In recent weeks, cracks have begun to show in the coach’s pleasant, likable personality- peaking with his dismissal from the court in Netanya two games ago.

Maccabi Haifa has a fine staff and some excellent players, but Greenberg hasn’t managed to get the best out of them, just the bare minimum necessary. If anyone is looking for a general manager to build a team for the long term, Greenberg’s your man. But to see him as a leading coach in European basketball? At the moment that looks far away.

Not much good came out of the players’ strike and the new agreement signed between the players and the league administration. But a ray of light has appeared in recent weeks. Maybe, just maybe, the Israeli players have realized that their fate lies solely in their own hands. No strike, agreement or “Russian law” can help them. Just show us what you’re worth on the parquet. The stage is yours.

The future of Israeli basketball depends on just two things: the players themselves and their coaches. Forget about the Histadrut labor federation and the league administration. First let’s have players as they should be. The rest will work itself out.

I maintain a strange interest in women’s basketball. This is why, when the rest of the country’s sports fans were either celebrating or suffering through Maccabi Tel Aviv’s championship soccer game on Monday evening, I went to Ramle for what was potentially Maccabi Ashdod’s Premier League title game.

The most important news to come out of the night is that women’s basketball has not yet died in Israel. A large crowd of Ashdod fans, who could already smell the trophy, turned up for the away game. The Ramle fans, however, maintained their composure and gave the visitors a fight.

That’s what happened on the parquet, too. Adan Inbar’s greatly inferior roster succeeded- with great guile and a solid defense- in neutralizing the Ashdod players. The game was played at a fast pace. The right decisions weren’t always made, but occasionally we saw some good, interesting basketball.

At least at the end of a particularly poor season we got a tight and interesting final playoff series. I’m not sure if this is a genuine sign of hope- but given women’s basketball’s current situation, it’s something to cling to.

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Yogev Ohayon. Credit: Nir Keidar

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