Hapoel Tel Aviv 370.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It was sometime towards the end of 2008 that several Hapoel Tel Aviv fans
printed a t-shirt with a checklist on its back. Of the six boxes, only
the first two had been ticked off.
Israeli basketball’s five divisions
were listed beside the first five boxes.
At the time, Hapoel had already
gained promotion from Liga Bet (fifth division) and was playing in Liga Alef
The Reds went on to easily win the fourth division
championship and made it three promotions in three years in 2010 to progress to
the National League (second division), allowing the supporters to tick off yet
It took Hapoel two seasons to gain promotion to the BSL, but
after six years in Israeli basketball wilderness, it finally returned to the
top-flight last May, leaving just one empty white box on the Red
It would be no exaggeration to say that few believed the team had
any chance of completing the checklist this season.
In fact, it seemed
more likely that it would take several years for the sixth and final mission to
However, on Sunday, Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club came
A dream which looked to be impossible only several years ago
and was deemed extremely improbable by most experts just hours earlier, turned
After nine years, Hapoel finally beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in
the derby, realizing the sixth and final target mapped out by some visionary, or
perhaps delusional, supporters almost five years ago.
It looked like they
were embarking on a hopeless journey.
Formed by fans in the summer of
2007, Hapoel Ussishkin was established when Hapoel Tel Aviv was on its way to
relegation to the third division and the team’s Ussishkin home arena had been
demolished by the Tel Aviv Municipality.
A supporters’ trust was created
and the team began its life in the fifth tier. Membership was set at an annual
fee of NIS 300, with over 1,800 supporters currently enlisted.
December 2009, another major milestone in the resurrection of the club was
achieved when it took over the name and heritage rights of the original Hapoel
Tel Aviv team after it was officially liquidated.
However, after breezing
through the lower divisions, Hapoel discovered that life is far more complicated
in the BSL.
Hapoel won three of its first four games this season, but its
meager budget and lack of depth saw it lose seven of its following nine
The Reds entered the derby just two games ahead of
rock-bottom Ironi Ashkelon in the BSL standings, with their offense only scoring
a league-low 71.9 points per game.
Maccabi on the other hand, had won its
previous 15 BSL games and had reignited its Euroleague Top 16 campaign three
days earlier by beating Caja Laboral Vitoria on the road for its third win in
four continental contests.
There were plenty of tired legs among the
yellow-and-blue players, but it still seemed unimaginable that the floundering
Hapoel would snap its 12-game losing streak in the derby since thrashing Maccabi
96-71 at Ussishkin in the 2003/04 season.
The gaps in quality between the
teams were clear for all to see when Maccabi crushed Hapoel 91-72 in the first
derby in more than six years at Nokia Arena in December.
But they were
somehow bridged in Sunday’s 69-65 win, with the likes of Bar Timor and Matan
Naor stepping up with unforgettable performances.
A day after celebrating
his 21st birthday, Timor played the best game of his career, scoring 20 points,
including clutch baskets in the closing stages.
Naor only had eight
points, but he played all 40 minutes and symbolizes the unrelenting fighting
spirit of the club.
The 32-year-old chose to turn down offers from the
BSL to play for Hapoel Ussishkin in 2009, taking a significant salary cut in the
hope of helping the team back to the Promised Land.
Naor was part of the
side which beat Maccabi nine years ago and Sunday’s win almost brought him to
Hapoel is still fighting for its survival in the BSL, with the
victory over Maccabi only taking it from 10th to ninth place.
that all seemed irrelevant on Sunday as it fulfilled the impossible dream,
giving the Reds fans a priceless memory that will last a