Ofer Tsitiat is not sure he can take any more. "This is the worse its ever been," he says with a look of despair. "It's not Hapoel anymore, it's five kids. With all the love and admiration I have for this team, this is not the spirit of Hapoel."
Tsitiat, 24, has been a supporter of Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club for as long as he can remember. He went to his first game when he was just seven-years-old, at the club's famous Usishkin Arena, and grew up watching the team challenge perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv throughout the 1990s. In 1993 Hapoel won the State Cup and came second in the league finals to Galil Elyon.
But, even though the club finished high in the rankings of the Israeli league as recently as 2004, the times of success and excitement have disappeared. Last season, despite placing eighth in Israel's top division, three places above the relegation zone, Hapoel's management decided to force the team to play in the second tier National League this season due to lack of funds. Towards the end of last season, club owner Shaul Eizenberg was unable to renew the lease on Ussishkin and the arena was torn down, amidst massive protests from fans.
This season things have gone from bad to worse. After a turbulent preseason, Eizenberg was reported to have decided to close the club down a few weeks into the regular season, saying he had no money to pay players or staff.
A couple of days later he changed his mind and announced that Hapoel would continue, but the signs were ominous. The club had an appalling start, winning just one of its first nine games.
The situation came to a head on December 12th. Hapoel, now homeless, hosted its ninth game of the season against league leader Hapoel Yokneam/Megiddo at Maccabi Holon's tiny hall. The Tel Aviv team already knew there would be no fans at the game, as the Israeli Basketball Association had forced them to play behind closed doors after fans lit illegal flares at a previous game against Ramle. What the management had been counting on was the participation of the club's senior players, especially when Tel Aviv was facing the best team in the league.
During the day it emerged that the players were complaining they had not been paid their salaries, and were refusing to play. And, following tense meetings between players union chief Nir Elon and Hapoel Tel Aviv president Maozya Segal, the entire senior squad decided to go on strike. To avoid incurring a fine, Segal invited Hapoel's youth team, a group of 17 and 18-year-olds, to play in place of the senior players. Predictably, the Tel Aviv team was easily beaten, 107-67, to the obvious embarrassment of everyone involved in the club.
Moshe Weizman, General Manager of Hapoel Tel Aviv, was standing on the sidelines throughout the match. "I feel very bad seeing this," he told Metro. "I think the situation is not good and I blame the head of the players union. Throughout the 20 years I have worked for Hapoel I have never heard that the players would do something like this."
Segal, like Weizman, insisted that all the players had been paid and there was just a small amount of money owed to team captain Eran Yitzhak. Watching the youth team battle against the much larger and superior Yokneam/Megiddo players, Segal said he believed the senior team would not return.
"The players decided to strike, even though they were paid, because Eran Yitzhak did not get the money to pay his rent," Segal said. "So I decided to get the youth team to play and from now on they will be the team. The rest can go. I don't want them to come back."
The standout player for Yokneam/Megiddo was American Dennis Carr, who hails from Dallas, Texas. In praise of the youngsters he said: "The Hapoel Tel Aviv team played with a lot of heart even though they are young. They didn't give up the whole match and played hard - although I was expecting to play against the senior team."
One person who looked utterly confused throughout the hour and three quarters that the teams were on the court was senior team coach Manny Zoldan.
Zoldan, who was appointed by Eizenberg just before the season started, was left totally out of the loop during the game against Yokneam/Megiddo, as youth team coach Shai Hassidim directed the players at each break in play.
Zoldan had resigned two weeks earlier when it became clear he wasn't going to receive the money he had been promised to bring in high quality players to replace those that left at the end of last season. Segal encouraged him to return to the team, but there, watching the youth team play in place of his players, Zoldan did not know what to think.
"I really don't know what's going to happen. It is becoming a farce," Zoldan said. "That's one of the reasons I resigned two weeks ago. Maozya convinced me to come back because he said things would be better. There were supposed to be things like sponsors. But nothing has came together since then."
"Right now I am under a contract that says I am the coach of Hapoel. Its the first time things like this have happened to me. I talked to the head of the coaches organization, Tzvika Sherf, and he said I should just continue."
Even though the team lost by 40 points, Hassidim was happy for his players to gain the experience of playing against a much more professional outfit. "They told me today at 12:00 p.m. that we had to play the youth team in this match," he said before the opening tip-off. "I didn't have all my players available so we did what we could do. We have to take this opportunity. They can gain a lot of experience from these sorts of games. Now we have to do it for Hapoel Tel Aviv. This is our club. I love this club and I hope it will succeed. I love these kids so much."
As the game ends, Zoldan sighs. He is a former basketball player who had an average career playing for teams like Eilat and Betar Tel Aviv. "I know I gave 100 percent and the players also gave 100 percent but things just are not working out." he said. "It hurts to see this situation because I have watched Hapoel Tel Aviv since I was a kid. I remember playing against Hapoel in the open court, watching (former star player and national team captain) Barry Lebovitch, and even got to play against him when I played for Betar Tel Aviv."
Indeed, since the creation of a national Israeli basketball league in 1953, Hapoel has always been one of the biggest names in local sports. The club was formed as part of the left wing Hapoel organization in 1935, founded by Dov Frosck.
In the early pre-State years, there was no organized league and Hapoel played only friendly games against other local sides, as well as army teams. Frosck was the head coach and one of the team's top players.
When the league was formed, Hapoel Tel Aviv was one of eight teams invited to participate and finished third and fourth in the first two years. Soon Hapoel rose to the top. Its heyday came in the 60s when the club won two State Cups and an amazing five league championships in nine years.
Former player Shimon Selah became head coach, and his team, which included Uri Guthalf, Zvi Lubetski and Haim Hazan, won back-to-back championships in 1960 and '61.
In 1962 Hapoel won the State Cup for the first time, and in 1965 and '66 the team again won two league titles in a row with David Kaminski and Ami Shelef leading the way.
The team's final, and most memorable championship year, came in 1969. The final game was played on a specially constructed basketball court, placed in the middle of the Bloomfield soccer stadium, in front of 14,000 passionate fans. The team included five American Jews who had received Israeli citizenship: Larry Zolot, Ivan Lischinsky, Alan Zuckerman, Mark Tornstein and Barry Lebovitch, who later was appointed as head coach.
Although Hapoel has not won the league since, with nemesis Maccabi Tel Aviv winning every title apart from in 1993, the Tel Aviv rivalry continued throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Hapoel has finished second 20 times in its history.
And while Maccabi is always seen as one of the top teams in European basketball, Hapoel has also had its time. Its European highlight came in 1980 when the reds reached the Korach Cup semi finals against Cibona Zagreb, winning the first game but losing the second. Eight years later Hapoel again played Cibona in the Korach Cup semi finals and lost.
In the late 90s Hapoel was still one of the big names in basketball. But something went wrong. Although he denies responsibility for the clubs downfall, many fans and other people involved in basketball blame one man - club owner Shaul Eizenberg.
In fact, Eizenberg does not own the club outright. During the last decade, however, aside from two years between 2002 and 2004 when Russian Vladimir Gusinsky pumped money into Hapoel, he has had overall control of the club.
The financial problems led to the abandonment of Ussishkin, a symbol of Israeli basketball for more than two decades, and the relegation of Hapoel to the lower leagues. The first time Hapoel dropped down a division was in 1997, and although it bounced back the following year, the team could not sustain itself in the top flight and was relegated again in 1999, dwelling in the second tier for three years. Gusinsky came to the club in 2002 and helped it temporarily regain its status. But since 2004 he has refused to give any more money to the team and Eizenberg has been in charge.
Speaking after the game in Holon, Eran Yitzhak, who has played for the team for the last seven years, was less than hopeful. "I don't know how we got to this situation. Shaul told me in the summer to stay with him, and the team made me captain because I was a veteran.
"When I came to practice I saw we didn't even have a doctor there and we didn't have water to drink. We didn't have anything. It was time to get the salary and no one came to say what happened with the salary."
While many in Israeli basketball blame Eizenberg for the situation at Hapoel, Yitzhak does not hold him totally responsible. "Hapoel Tel Aviv is a big, big club. I think someone killed Hapoel Tel Aviv and now no one cares and they blame Shaul Eizenberg. Everybody hates Shaul. I love him. Even though he has made a lot of problems, he was like my father these past years.
"He hasn't stolen money. Shaul Eizenberg is a businessman. He cares about Hapoel Tel Aviv."
Tsitiat, while claiming to be speaking for most Hapoel fans, doesn't mince his words when he talks about Eizenberg, who he brands a thief. "The whole mess began when Shaul came to the team," Tsitiat claims. "He is not a straight, honest man."
"He succeeded on the name of Hapoel Tel Aviv but he destroyed Hapoel Tel Aviv. Everyone in the basketball world hates him."
The crestfallen supporter said he would like to restart the team from scratch, like the fans of (English Premier League soccer club) Manchester United did when they became disgruntled with their team's sale to American businessman Malcolm Glazer and formed a new team.
"I will continue to go, but not to all the games. But I seriously want it to go down, and then rebuild with a new team," he said. "In Israel it's not a problem. If you have the money you can be in the Premier League in one season."
Eizenberg completely rejects all the accusations and says he is committed to Hapoel, but just does not have the money to support it enough financially for it to complete in the top division.
"All these people talk a lot but don't do anything. I never took money from the team. In the last five years Gusinsky, Asher Stoller and Shaul Eizenberg have put more than 40 million shekels from their pocket into the club. There's no team like this in the country."
Eizenberg blames the current situation on player's union chief Nir Elon, who he claims has a vendetta against him because he wants clubs to be able to play as many foreigners as they want to. Elon recently pushed for a change, which stipulates that only two non-Israelis out of the five players, can be on the court at one time.
Eizenberg, a former journalist who also works as the spokesman for the Israeli Soccer Federation, believes Hapoel will return to the top division and to their glory days when he manages to find a donor willing to give large amounts of money to the club.
"Three years ago the team came second, the fans expect the best," he says. "We cannot be in the Premier League like the other teams with a budget of just one million dollars. If other teams finish fifth or sixth, its okay, but if Hapoel does not give the fight to Maccabi every season, everyone says they are losers. Hapoel Tel Aviv must play in the top division with a four or five million dollar budget. If we can't find someone who can give this kind of money, it is better we play in the lower leagues and wait until someone who can give the team money comes along."
Answering critics who say that Gusinsky does not want to sell the club, Eizenberg replies, "Nobody wants to put money into it. Gusinsky says that he has finished putting money into the club, but can't sell because no one wants to buy."
A few days after the loss to Yokneam/Megiddo, the players decided to end the strike and return to practice with Zoldan. Yitzhak says he hasn't received all the money he is owed, as does Zoldan, but they continue to battle on, mixed with threats to walk out again if they are not paid.
"I am waiting to find someone who wants to invest big money. I am always looking for people. The great times will return," says the man in charge, remaining positive. If he has reasons to express optimism, he is not sharing them.
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