Israel is known as the Holy Land and a place rich with history and culture, but what many people don’t know is that it is also home to high level basketball. Since 2000, Israel has been one of the biggest basketball hotbeds in Europe. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s top team, won Euroleague titles in 2001, 2004, and 2005, and reached the Euroleague title game in 2006 and 2008. They also produced NBA players Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Maceo Baston, and Sarunas Jasikevicius, and beat the Toronto Raptors in an exhibition game, 105-103, in 2005. Additionally, many NBA players including Jordan Farmar, Trevor Booker, J.J. Hickson, and Avery Bradley spent the lockout playing in Israel. I caught up with David Pick, a writer for Eurobasket.com covering the Euroleague and Israeli basketball, to talk about the lockout, the Israeli Super League, and LeBron James.
Dime: Talk about the basketball environment in Israel. Is there a rabid basketball following within the country? What is the level of interest?
David Pick: Basketball is second fiddle to soccer here in Israel. I think throughout Europe, except for maybe Spain, because of the European titles they’ve managed to achieve and their number of NBA players, basketball is generally viewed as being the “second sport.” I think Omri Casspi (Israel’s first ever NBA player) has definitely contributed to the way basketball is looked at locally, and the fact that he played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is one of the powerhouses of Europe, has helped elevate the game in Europe.
I think the American players who came to play here get treated with respect here that they don’t receive at home. Whether it’s discounts at restaurants or free meals, never waiting on line at clubs, and the luxury of the local women and the access they have to them here. Except for Spain and some parts of Italy, Israel is the best place to be basketball-wise and culture-wise.
Dime: There is a certain perception of Israel in the news as being a dangerous place, but the reality on the ground is a lot different. Are a lot of American and non-Israeli players surprised by Israel when they get there?
DP: I think for the most part they are, and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that a lot of them spend time traveling the country. They go to places like the Dead Sea and occasionally you’ll come by Twitter or Facebook photos of players riding camels by the Dead Sea with the tag ‘Just got my new pet, going to try to bring this home with me.’ And I think that Israel is not at all what these guys expected, it’s portrayed very negatively in the news, but that’s not at all what this country is about and what it has to offer.
Dime: When an American player comes over to Israel, is there any name recognition based on his college career in the States?
DP: No, not really. Rookies, who are playing internationally for the first time are usually known for their college success, if they are known at all. For example, maybe one out of 20 people on the street here would know who Zack Rosen is and that’s because he’s a Jewish player. Recognition of guys like Keith Langford, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past year, comes from their European careers, not what they’ve done in college or in America.
Dime: Of all the players in the Israeli Super League this year that you saw play, do you think anybody has a legitimate shot at playing in the NBA next season?
DP: Tough question. In terms of if they are really ready to compete at that level, only guys who have played at that level would really be ready to play in the NBA this season. There are guys like Keith Langford, Joe Crawford, and I think Alex Tyus can be a legitimate NBA player despite being undersized. Bryant Dunston and Richard Hendrix are both guys who are pretty prominent bigs here, and Dunston has received some interest from the Nets.
Also, Yogev Ohayon, who emerged as one of the top point guards in Europe this past year and I believe the Nets and Lakers are eyeing him. I think he will definitely be the next Israeli player to be drafted, but I don’t know if he will be the next Israeli in the NBA. We have two guys, in Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu, whose draft rights are held by NBA teams, but I don’t think either one has as good of a chance to play in the NBA as Ohayon. He really opened a lot of eyes with his play in the Euroleague playoffs showing off great quickness and point guard skills.
Dime: Talk about Maccabi Tel Aviv – they just won their 50th Israeli Super League title this year. Is there an aura of invincibility around them at this point?
DP: Absolutely. The League format over the last seven years has been a Final Four format like in college basketball, where you win or go home. This was designed so that on any given day a team could actually beat Maccabi Tel Aviv because the chances of a team winning a series versus them are small. Teams have beaten them a couple times since that rule took hold and the system is working. It was designed to create competition but on any given night they can blow you out by 20 or 30 still which is crazy.
Dime: Is there any way the other teams in the League can compete financially to get the same caliber of players Maccabi Tel Aviv does?
DP: No, not at all. There is no competition for players whatsoever between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the other Israeli teams. Guys like Shawn James who played the last few years for B’Nei Hasharon and made maybe $140,000 a year then makes the jump to Maccabi this past year and makes $350,000 this year. Other teams can’t compete with that kind of money, and they brought Keith Langford in this year for $700,000 for six months and the second highest paid player here (not on Maccabi Tel Aviv) is probably Carlos Powell on Haifa and that’s because they also have an American owner. Israeli owners and Israeli companies and the magnitude of their capabilities are nowhere close to what Maccabi’s owners can provide.
Dime: You mentioned Maccabi Haifa. When Jeffrey Rosen bought the team, he brought a lot of hype and attention to the team and promised big things, but they finished 5-19 this past year and weren’t much better the year before that. What has gone wrong for them?
DP: I think the main problem there is player personnel. Someone behind the scenes is making terrible decisions for that team and recently they signed two players despite not having a coach, so I’m not sure how those players are going to fit into whatever system is employed, I’m not sure why they didn’t wait with those signings. Someone is feeding a great potential investor in Israeli basketball in Jeffrey Rosen the wrong information, and they are signing the wrong players at the wrong times. Two years ago they released a local center who they didn’t think was worth the $100,000 they were paying him and now they just brought him back to pay him that same amount. Something overall in the management structure is wrong, and the fact that Rosen didn’t come here once all season is also a negative for them.
Dime: What do you think about his decision to hire Bernie Fine as a team consultant from a strictly basketball sense?
DP: I think it is a great hire for an Israeli basketball organization, but I don’t think he really knows anything about the local Israeli talent at all. Where I think he is a real asset is in helping to determine who to recruit and having his eye for talent on the team.
Dime: Today they announced they are coming to the US this year for some exhibition games. Do you think that is a good idea given their poor seasons the past two years?
DP: They definitely have the potential to get blown out, but any European team can get blown out as well. I think anything the NBA does with European teams is good. It is actually funny though because after Haifa opens their Israeli season on October 8th, they are getting on a flight to the US for these exhibitions. So they start competing in the domestic leagues and preparing for their season, then go to the states for the exhibitions. I’m not sure that’s the smartest thing to do but it is great exposure.
Dime: Talk about the response to NBA players coming to Israel during the lockout.
DP: Jordan Farmar, as a boy, when he came here to Israel he actually watched Maccabi Tel Aviv play in person. After that he followed them continuously even while he was in the NBA and he reached out to them during the lockout. This whole relationship emerged when Jordan called Maccabi and asked if he could join the team, and he agreed to play for only $25,000 a month which is not something you see from most NBA level players. That shows that Jordan wasn’t really interested in the money but more the experience.
After the lockout ended, he left the door open for a possible return because everyone here treated him like a Jewish king. He put Maccabi in the best position to win. He was a fan favorite and a media favorite, and his teammates loved him. Even though after games his fiance and daughter were waiting for him for 45 minutes to an hour to finish with interviews, he would make time for everyone.
Other guys like J.J. Hickson had trouble adjusting to the culture, he had some issues with his luggage and his apartment. However, for the most part guys like Trevor Booker really enjoyed the experience and he has even talked about coming back this summer. All in all, the NBA players here had a great experience including Avery Bradley. I feel like they couldn’t really reach their potential here though because of the uncertainty over how long they would be playing here.
Dime: Jordan Farmar is obviously Jewish and Alex Tyus recently converted to Judaism. Is there any talk of them trying out for the national team?
DP: Recently there was a Nets-Cavs game in New Jersey and the executive chairman of the national team flew out for the game to meet with both Omri Casspi and Jordan Farmar. He wanted Jordan to join the national team this summer to prepare for the 2013 European Tournament, and Jordan was completely on board but he is actually getting married this summer and postponed his potential joining to next summer.
In terms of Alex Tyus, there is a 95 percent chance he will play for us next summer. He is currently undergoing the process of getting his citizenship.
Dime: You did a story on Romeo Travis this year, who was a member of the “Fab Five” with LeBron James in high school and you got to interview LeBron. How cool was that for you personally?
DP: That was amazing. I was on Cloud 9. Romeo and I had been trying to work out a good time to do the story and get in touch with LeBron. Romeo played two years ago in Israel and I could have done the story then but it was much more opportune this year with Romeo’s team being the number two seed and him garnering All-MVP honors. So I reached out to LeBron and talked to him which was really great. LeBron actually thought about coming to Israel during the lockout, but the lockout ended before that became a reality. LeBron coming here would be great though.
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