The words coming out of his mouth may have insisted otherwise, but coach Mody Maor’s face provided a true reflection of Hapoel Jerusalem’s disastrous season to date.
Maor looked late Monday night like a boxer who had just been through 12 rounds and was down for the count rather than the coach of the losing team in the second State Cup semifinal at Yad Eliyahu Arena in Tel Aviv.
Maor’s side wasn’t badly beaten, but his face sure seemed like it had been, with his right cheek bright red, his forehead drenched in sweat and his eyes telling the story his lips refused to.
Jerusalem fell to a 76-67 defeat to Hapoel Holon, which set up a meeting with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Thursday’s final.
The loss to Holon and the end of the cup campaign was a natural continuation to a season already packed with numerous lows, rather than an unexpected setback.
After its disappointing Eurocup campaign ended with two wins from 10 regular season games and a shock failure to reach the Top 16, and following the defeat to Holon, all Jerusalem has left to fight for this season is the BSL title.
Last season’s run to the championship, the club’s second in three years, and the ultimate progress to the Eurocup semifinals, helped erase all the team’s earlier struggles under coach Simone Pianigiani.
With the BSL title once more being decided in a Final Four, Jerusalem knows that as long as it can qualify for the season- ending tournament, which currently seems like far from a given, it will only need two triumphs over four days to defend its title.
But considering all that has transpired this season, and the fact Hapoel can’t replace any more foreign players after already using eight in its BSL campaign, it is becoming harder and harder to see how Maor can reinvent his roster.
“Unfortunately, my players seem downcast.
I don’t know if that is the result of pressure or frustration,” said Maor after Monday’s loss. “We lacked energy and belief tonight. We will have to talk about it because you can’t take titles without belief and passion. That really concerns me and is certainly one of the things we will need to work on. I will make sure that changes. That is my job.”
To Maor’s defense, the odds were stacked against him from the start.
While the firing of coach Fotis Katsikaris last November was far from surprising, the appointment of his assistant Maor in his place both baffled and bemused.
The fact Hapoel chose to put its faith in someone who had never previously worked as a head coach was nothing short of incredible.
Maor worked under Pianigiani at Jerusalem last season and was also on the staffs of the likes of Tzvika Sherf in the past.
But there is a big difference between serving as someone’s assistant, or as a scout the way he has done with the Israel national teams, and orchestrating the show yourself.
A major leap of faith is required to name as your head coach someone who only just celebrated his 32nd birthday and is discovering for the first time what it feels like to shoulder the full responsibility of running a team.
But 35-year-old club owner Ori Allon, who sold two start-ups to Google and Twitter by the age of 30 and whose current company, Compass, a real estate start-up, is being valued at over $2 billion, clearly believes that if you are good enough, you are old enough.
Allon prides himself at being patient and giving his coaches every chance to succeed.
After all, he was under pressure to sack Pianigiani at stages last season, but ended it celebrating a second BSL championship in three years.
Allon won’t make another coaching change this season, but he surely must be wondering if Maor is the right man to take the team forward next season.
Allon also shoulders plenty of the responsibility for Hapoel’s dejecting season thusfar.
One of the decisions both he and the Jerusalem management likely regret is the release of Amar’e Stoudemire. The six-time NBA All-Star is far from the player he was at his peak, but as well as playing a crucial role on defense last season, his positive presence in the dressing room proved to be crucial to team morale. Eight players were brought back for another season in a clear attempt to build continuity, but Stoudemire wasn’t one of them, with management allowing Katsikaris to have his way.
“I was looking forward to coming back and playing this year. My family and I were all set. We had a school picked out for the children and a place to live, but it didn’t work out,” Stoudemire said in an interview to Sport5 during a recent visit to Israel.
“Teams from the NBA and from around Europe spoke to me and I was debating to go and play, but decided that the only team on earth I will play for is Jerusalem.”
Maor said after his head coaching debut that he had fun. It didn’t look like he enjoyed himself much following the loss to Holon.
“There are still many things we need to do better and we will find the right combination now that we have got players back from injury,” noted Maor. “We are all guilty of making mistakes. I certainly made mistakes. What you need to do is make sure you fix your mistakes and learn from them.
“We have experienced many ups and downs and are certainly not consistent. Anything I say now will sound like an excuse, but now that we have a full healthy roster once more we will be a good team,” added Maor.
“I have no regrets at taking this job. In order to win you also need to know how to lose. I knew the challenge I was accepting. I knew this team wasn’t perfect and that we would have to work hard in order to improve as much as possible.”
Maor and Jerusalem have three more months of regular season games to try and work things out before the BSL quarterfinal playoffs begin. It looks like an all but impossible task as things currently stand, but it will probably decide the coach’s future at the club.
Anything but a third championship in four years for Hapoel – or close to it – will in all likelihood be a knockout blow from which Maor will not be able to recover.