Basketball

The Mouse That Scored: Gilboa/Galil Is Conquering Israel’s Basketball Behemoths

Gilboa/Galil are currently tied for first place in the Premier League with a 6-2 record, having bested more established teams such as Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem

A game between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Galil/Gilboa, Tel Aviv, October 21,2018.
Oded Karni

There’s an old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. In Israeli basketball. a small village in the northeast is helping Gilboa/Galil compete successfully against Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem, the giants of the nation’s basketball league. The team is located in the small village of Gan Ner (population 2,700) near Mt. Gilboa, and the town’s rabid fan base and support for the players and team has helped to defeat both of their well-heeled competitors in the past month.

Gilboa/Galil has defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv, whose annual budget is more than 10 times larger, in seven of their last eight regular season meetings, as well as besting Hapoel Jerusalem five times in the past three years. They are currently tied for first place in the Premier League with a 6-2 record.

The northern team has improved incrementally in the four seasons since returning from relegation, posting a winning record last season before losing in the quarter-finals of the league playoffs.

“We had to change our approach completely after returning to the Premier League,” says the team’s general manager, Artzi Frati. The general manager, a lifelong resident of a neighboring moshav, has been in charge of operations for the past five years. He told Ha’aretz that the team’s reversal of fortunes is based on its development of up-and-coming talent in its youth program, while fostering positive chemistry among the parent club’s players.

Also, they have successfully chosen their foreign players, some of whom were barely known, through careful vetting of their character as well as their basketball skills. Finally, effort was invested in establishing an atmosphere of warmth and mutual support between the team and the Gilboa Regional Council and especially with the host community in Gan Ner. Artzi refers to these principles as “the team’s DNA,” adding, “We don’t sacrifice our values for the sake of a few extra victories.”

Tamir Estrago is among a core of 30-40 volunteers from Gan Ner who work closely with the players. When new players join the squad, he takes them around town to get them acquainted and oriented. “Each of the players live in Gan Ner separately in the home of one of the town’s families, and we give support and advice to any of them when they might need it.”

Families invite players for Friday-night meals and to the family sukkah for Sukkot. Most of the players are very young. Artzi: “We try to look for foreign players under the age of 25 so it’s important to give them a feeling of home and support in a strange country.” Artzi figures this special relationship with the community is one-third responsible for the team’s success.

In return, the team gives back to the community. Every year, the whole village is invited to the team’s opening practice before the beginning of the season. “Following this year’s practice, the town and the players shared a feast with 150 fans.” The team also has a policy of recognizing veteran members of the yishuv during time-outs of home games.

If there is one player who’s the model of Gilboa/Galil’s approach, it’s Joaquin Shuchman, who has been in the club’s system for nine years, the past six with the parent team. At 23, Shuchman has been team captain for four years, the youngest player in the history of the Premier League to captain a team. Though not the most gifted athlete, his frenetic style of play, particularly on defense, and buoyant personality is infectious. Shuchman has turned down richer offers from higher profile teams in Israel to remain where he is.

Shuchman immigrated from Argentina at age seven with his family, who settled in Nahariya. Artzi spotted him playing in a youth league at age 14 and was impressed by his potential. He helped the Shuchman family move to a local moshav and arranged housing and work for everyone. Shuchman himself gives recognition to the team’s professional staff, atmosphere of cooperation and close support of the community, agreeing that it’s vital to Gilboa/Galil’s success.

The team’s fast start can be attributed to continued development of their Israeli players such as Shuchman, Tal Karpels and Natanel Artzi, who complement their four new foreigners, Bryant Crawford, James Kelley, Ian Miller and Greg Whittington.

The man who puts it together for Gilboa/Galil is coach Ariel Beit Halachmi, who took over the reins during the final third of the team’s relegation season and has remained with them since. Beit Halachmi enhanced his reputation this summer by coaching Israel’s Men’s Under 20 basketball team to a European title. This was the first time in history that any Israeli team won a FIBA championship at any level.

Beit Halachmi’s team employs pressure defense and an up-tempo offense that has Gilboa/Galil leading the league in scoring with 93.8 points a contest. He says this year’s team is probably more athletic and plays a faster pace that his previous teams, but is cautious. “It’s early in the season, we have a young team that needs to work on staying relaxed and in control, and hopefully we can avoid the run of serious injuries that hit us last season.”