Seeing Maccabi From the Other Side

Playing against your former team can be an emotional experience, but Lior Mizrahi is hardly the first former Maccabi Tel Aviv player to face off against the teammates he used to call his own.

Arie Livnat
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Arie Livnat

It may seem like Monday night’s basketball game in Jerusalem’s Malha Arena, which pitted Hapoel Jerusalem’s new acquisition, Lior Mizrahi, against the teammates he recently left behind at Maccabi Tel Aviv, was gearing up to be one of the most charged encounters in Israeli basketball.

Perhaps the late, well-publicized signing of Mizrahi, combined with Maccabi’s recent lack of success, does make things a little spicier, but the game pitting Eliyahu against the team he called his own for six of the previous seven seasons was reminiscent of earlier face-offs between Maccabi Tel Aviv and its former players. Miki Berkovich, Motti Aroesti, Doron Jamchi, Moti Daniel, Oded Katash and many other stars have been in this situation before.

Some 1,000 fans paid a pretty penny in September 1988 to see Berkovich play against Maccabi Tel Aviv for the first time. In that special exhibition, Berkovich donned the jersey of then-newly promoted Maccabi Rishon Letzion, received a wreath of flowers and signed basketball. At halftime, he lost a three-point tournament to Jamchi, his pal from Maccabi and the national team. He scored 13 points in the 93-90 loss.

About two months later, in his first official game against Maccabi, the 34-year-old Berkovich showed he was still in his prime, scoring 29 points, although he could not prevent his team from suffering a 122-95 drubbing.

Berkovich did not defeat his former team until his third season away from Maccabi. It happened after Aroesti came out of retirement to join him at Rishon, in the second game of the playoff final series. The two teams had played Rishon, which boasted a 7-1 record, earlier that season, and was Maccabi trailing by a game. Rishon decided to play at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s home arena in Yad Eliahu, made some money off the attendance receipts (7,500 spectators), and was roundly defeated 89-65.

“It was odd to meet the team you played with for so many years. It was very moving,” said Aroesti, who played for Maccabi from 1974 to 1988 and scored four points against his former team that evening. “I came with a lot of respect for Maccabi. We didn’t have anything to prove, but we wanted to win. Of course, beating Maccabi makes headlines any week.” Aroesti retired after the season. Berkovich managed to beat Maccabi twice more.

Aroesti said he didn’t see anything unusual about Lior Mizrahi’s move.

“He was not born in Maccabi. He didn’t play there many years,” said Aroesti. “Basketball is his profession. No player stays with the same team for many years. It’s all business.”

Zvika Sherf, the Maccabi coach who let Berkovich and Aroesti go, overhauled the team’s roster in 1996 as well. Doron Jamchi was released after 11 seasons and Moti Daniel after nine. Daniel went to Hapoel Jerusalem and, with 18 points, was that team’s leading scorer on his first visit to Yad Eliahu (though Hapoel ended up losing 37 points and coach Pini Gershon was fired).

“It was very emotional,” recalls Daniel. “Although I was at peace with the departure, it was very hard for me to visit Yad Eliahu the first time when it was no longer my home and suddenly I had to go to the opposite locker room. I felt very attached to the team.”

Daniel says subsequent games against Maccabi were also mixed with feelings. “It was very important to me to beat them not to prove anything to anybody, rather just to do well by those who were with me in Jerusalem.”

Jamchi, like Berkovich, went to Rishon Letzion and had a horrible off day in his first game against Maccabi. He scored only five points, shooting 1 for 14 from the field. A year later, another former Maccabi player, Gilad Katz, assisted him. The two combined for 52 points - of which Jamchi collected 34 - to top Maccabi in overtime. A year after that, when Daniel moved over to Rishon as well, Jamchi scored the winning basket against his former team.

In the summer of 1999, Oded Katash left Maccabi after six years and joined Panathinaikos. Pure fate pitted the two teams against one another in the Euroleague final. Several years later, Katash would describe that meeting.

“I will never forget the power of the memories and the feelings,” he said. “I remember the discomfort and the emotionality before the game. I had a poker face as usual, but it was an emotional storm. My heart was beating fast and I felt a lot of pressure. In the afternoon of the game, everything suddenly disappeared. I sat with the storeroom manager and played backgammon. And then I said to myself, ‘Enough, there’s a game,’ and it all loosened up in an instant.”

Katash went on to score 17 points, winning the European cup at the expense of the team he grew up in.

All the same, there is something a little different about Lior Mizrahi.

Tomer Steinhauer, who left Maccabi after one season in 1996 and would go on to beat his former team three times, predicts the trade will hurt the team. “It’s a fatal mistake for Maccabi,” he said. “Maccabi became a little confused. They now have nothing when it comes to Israelis. They could not allow themselves to lose both [Omri] Casspi and [Gal] Mekel, who grew up there, and Lior as well.” Those are the players who should be leading Maccabi for the long term, said Steinhauer.

“The others were all used up and left, but Lior is at the peak of his career, so it is more complicated,” said Moti Daniel. “He is a strategic asset to the club.”

Lior Eliyahu.Credit: Sharon Bukov

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