Tuesday’s encounter between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos was the 26th in a rivalry that has become one of the fiercest in European basketball.
Over the past 12 seasons, the two teams have faced each other in three European finals as well as two more Final Four semifinals.
However, it is unlikely any showdown between Maccabi and Pana, past or future, will ever rival what unfolded on April 4, 2000.
Any one who watched that year’s final will never forget the tragic figure of Oded Katash and the tears of joy and sadness shed by one of the most gifted players Israeli basketball has ever seen.
After the lockout of the 1998/99 season denied Katash the chance to join the New York Knicks and become the first Israeli in the NBA, the mercurial guard returned to Maccabi for several months before leaving the faltering yellow-and-blue for a lucrative offer from Panathinaikos.
What transpired the following season was beyond any Hollywood scriptwriter’s dream.
Pini Gershon transformed Maccabi in his first full season at the helm, leading Tel Aviv to its first continental final in 11 years.
Of all people, it was Katash, the favorite son, who scored 17 points for Panathinaikos, including a momentum- shifting three-pointer, to help his team to the title over Maccabi before going on to say that it was both the happiest and saddest day of his career.
Within weeks, during the Greek League playoffs, Katash suffered a complicated knee injury that effectively ended his playing career at the age of 25, with the official announcement only eventually coming four years later after multiple knee surgeries and unsuccessful comebacks.
His early retirement only added another layer to Katash’s enigmatic persona, one which is as ambiguous today as it was 12 years ago.
It has been now almost three months since Katash resigned as coach of Hapoel Jerusalem, and still there has been no explanation from the man himself.
Katash left the team in late December after a largely disappointing 18 months at the helm, capped by a 22- point BSL thrashing at the hands of BC Habika’a.
He arrived at Jerusalem with lofty expectations in June 2010 after leading Hapoel Gilboa/Galil to the BSL championship in 2009/10.
However, it quickly became apparent that achieving success at the pressure cooker that is Hapoel would be anything but straightforward. There was little to cheer about in Katash’s first season in the capital, with the team crashing out of the Eurocup in the first group stage, losing in the State Cup quarterfinals and falling to Gilboa in the BSL Final Four semis.
The first few months of this season were just as disheartening and Katash threw in the towel after his team fell to a 6-4 record in the BSL with a humbling loss at Habika’a.
So what next for Katash? Katash has already coached Maccabi Tel Aviv, being pushed out of the club unceremoniously in January 1, 2008, after an unsuccessful seven months in charge.
Both Maccabi and Katash have since repeatedly said that it is only a matter of time until he returns to the yellowand- blue, but considering David Blatt’s recent contract extension and Katash’s latest struggles that seems unlikely to happen any time soon.
At just 37, it already seems Katash is unwelcome at both of Israel’s top two clubs and a return to the one team at which he succeeded as a coach, Hapoel Gilboa/Galil, also looks to be all but impossible.
Katash took Gilboa to the BSL Final Four three times, guiding it to the championship in 2010 with a stunning victory over Maccabi, but his former assistant Lior Lubin has since impressed as his successor.
One of the problems with predicting Katash’s next move is that even in the best of times there were always question marks hanging over his conduct, with doubts being raised regarding his professionalism and relationships with his players.
Katash always did things differently and no one dared to question him in his time as a player.
But going out until the early hours of the morning with several of your players is bound to result in criticism when the team you coach is going through a crisis.
One of the recurring themes in the critique leveled at Katash is that he is not a basketball lifer.
For many people, he doesn’t seem committed enough to his profession, as he is unwilling to dedicate his entire life to his job as a coach.
This claim will be tested next season when we find out what Katash has planned.
Like Avram Grant, Katash possesses a charm that looks inexplicable from afar but is irresistible from up close.
However, the aura from his playing days is slowly fading and he will now need to prove he belongs in a list with Israel’s top coaches the hard way.
His name was linked with Maccabi Haifa last month, and although the two sides were never really close to reaching an agreement, the next chapter in Katash’s story will inevitably be at a club of the likes of Haifa, while a move to Europe is also an option.
But you can also not rule out the possibility that we have seen the last of Katash as a head coach of a professional side.
After all, only he knows if he plans to stop coaching as unexpectedly as he halted his playing career.
When it comes to Katash, one just simply never knows.