Sofoklis Schortsanitis should have known better.
Someone who has played on both sides of the fiery Athens derby numerous times as a member of Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, should not be losing his head on court. Certainly not to the extent that saw the 28-yearold Maccabi Tel Aviv center storm into the Hadar Yosef Arena stands on Monday night to chase down a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan that had cursed him after the yellow-and-blue’s win in the derby.
Sofo had already left the court to make his way to the dressing rooms via the tunnel when he went completely berserk and went in hunt of a Hapoel supporter who had leaned over the railing to bark his profanities into the tunnel, looking to irritate the Greek giant one last time.
The fan’s strategy most definitely worked, with Sofo losing his cool and going on a rampage. He pushed aside security guards and Hapoel fans, raced up the stand before ultimately being stopped by half a dozen people and being dragged back into the dressing room by teammate Joe Ingles, while the fan in question ran away.
It remains unclear what exactly the fan shouted towards Sofo, with Maccabi claiming that its player was showered with racist chants and dreadful threats towards his family while also being spat on.
Hapoel said that he was not racially abused and that no spitting was involved, and while it condemned the fan’s behavior, it feels his conduct was not uncommon in Israeli basketball arenas.
In the hours following the game and throughout Tuesday, Maccabi and Hapoel continued their ridiculous backand- forth blame game.
Both teams filed complaints with the Israel Basketball Association, with Maccabi protesting against the behavior of the fans, while Hapoel demanded that Sofo receive a hefty punishment for his wild stampede.
Hapoel and a couple of its supporters also filed a complaint with the police, meaning Sofo will probably have to come in for questioning, even though its seems unlikely any charges will be pressed as no one was seriously injured.
Several children, including Hapoel coach Erez Edelstein’s young son, were left in tears, although TV footage showed that it was the Hapoel fan who shoved them aside in his escape.
Sofo is set to face a multiple-game suspension from the IBA (which will not affect his availability in the Euroleague), but until the disciplinary court finally delivers its verdict, Maccabi and Hapoel seem determined to point the finger at each other instead of examining what they might have done better.
Sofo also lost control two weeks ago when he cursed a referee and he clashed with Maccabi’s physio on the team’s bench during a game last month. Maccabi’s management can talk all it likes about how good and placid a person Sofo is, but it has failed to protect him from himself time and again.
“I’m not justifying what Sofo did, but there is a limit,” said Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi, before already practicing the defense the club will surely use in court. “Sofo didn’t hurt anyone because the Hapoel fan ran away like a big coward. I also face similar situations to Sofo and I don’t react, but you can’t expect everyone to never react.”
The compact Hadar Yosef Arena often provides the best basketball atmosphere in the country, but Hapoel supporters also have an ugly side that rears its head far too frequently.
Maccabi requires a police escort for its cross-town visits, something which is unnecessary in every other road game.
The once-common use of profanities which shamefully desecrate the memory of the Holocaust (an occurrence which has diminished this season) and relentless personal abuse towards Mizrahi and other staff members should also not be tolerated.
“There was nothing beyond curses, not that I justify curses,” said Hapoel chairman, Rami Cohen. “Our players are also cursed by rival fans and they don’t react in such a manner. Sofo should be suspended until the end of the season. People look at us to educate the public and this causes the exact opposite.”
After failing to do so following the game, Sofo finally apologized on Tuesday, but admitted he may behave in a similar fashion if confronted again with the same situation.
“This isn’t something you want to be remembered for,” he said before Maccabi’s training session. “I’ve played in a lot of hostile environments in my career but this is the first time I lost my temper like that. I heard a lot of things in my career but nothing like last night. After the references to my mother, my wife and my kids I kind of lost it and reacted in a bad way. I love my family and I’ll never allow myself to stay idle when people treat them like that. There are some things that you have to be a real sick individual to say.”
Regardless of what was said, Sofo was clearly out of hand.
Whether they like it or not, players are judged according to a different standard and under no circumstances can a player chase a fan and look to assault him.
Fortunately for Sofo (and the fan), he failed to get his hands on the supporter and no one was injured, with teammate Ingles making arguably his most significant contribution all season by reacting instantly and pulling the huge Greek down from the stands.
The IBA’s legal adviser said on Tuesday that he would ask the court to fine Sofo NIS 40,000 and suspend him for eight games, meaning he will be available for the BSL’s two-legged final, as there are still two regular season contests to play before the best-of-five quarterfinal and semifinal series.
As despicable as some of the Hapoel fans behave, a stern message has to be sent and even a suspension until the end of the season would not have been any more than Sofo deserved.
The legal advisor also said that he will demand to fine Hapoel NIS 25,000 and ask that the club be punished to play one home game 50 kilometers away from Hadar Yosef. He also requested that Hapoel notify the IBA what actions it plans on taking against the fan.
Needless to say, he should never be allowed to attend a Hapoel game again.
There are no winners from Monday’s madness.
By continuing to bicker, Maccabi and Hapoel are failing to own up to their respective responsibility for the events that transpired. They need to address the real issues that brought to such a sad scene, because until they do so, history will only keep repeating itself.