Hapoel Jerusalem lost its BSL title in stunning fashion last season. The defeat to Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the decisive game at Jerusalem Arena was a major upset by any measure.
But for club owner Ori Allon, it was no more than a bump in the road, a path he is thoroughly enjoying. It was rather Hapoel’s underwhelming performances in European competition that brought Allon to overhaul the coaching staff and roster this summer, which has included the much-publicized signing of six-time NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire.
Italian coach Simone Pianigiani was hired and seven new players were brought aboard, including six Americans: Stoudemire, Jerome Dyson, Tarene Kinsey, Shawn Jones, Travis Peterson and Curtis Jerrells.
Israelis Yotam Halperin, Lior Eliyahu, Bar Timor and Rafi Menco are the only survivors from last season, with Isaac Rosefelt joining from Hapoel Holon.
“I decided that at this point change is needed,” Allon told The Jerusalem Post.
“I’m not one to change very often. I don’t want to make changes to the coaching staff mid-season and I’ve never done it before. Only at the end of the season do you have the right perspective and that is the right time to think about everything.”
Allon said he was pleased with the team’s success in Israel under coach Danny Franco, but admitted he was unhappy with results in Europe.
“I think we could have done much better,” he insisted. “I have a lot of respect for Danny Franco. I think he has done great things with us.
“Obviously he guided us to the very first championship which will always be remembered and appreciated. But the important thing for me was to bring in a coach who has done it before and has been successful in European competitions.
“When I called Simone and we discussed the goals for the club this year and the next few years he got it right away. He understands what we are looking for. And in the budget that we have I think we assembled a very talented team. Now it is really up to him to make them play as a team and be successful as a team.”
With the Euroleague changing to a 16-team format ahead of the coming season, and with 11 of the clubs having a guaranteed contract to be part of the competition, the only sure route to a place in continental basketball’s premier club event is by winning the Eurocup.
Allon would of course love for that to happen, but his initial target for the coming campaign is far more modest and he believes there are other ways via which Hapoel can eventually become part of the Euroleague.
“A lot is going on right now with FIBA and the Euroleague and Eurocup,” he noted. “I don’t think it is going to be wise to have one possible way to get into the Euroleague. I think things will change and the Euroleague has been talking about possibly expanding the competition.
“We think we have a good enough team to at least make it to the last 16 of the Eurocup,” he added. “I think that is obviously the target and I will be very disappointed if we don’t get there.
From there it is best-of-three series and it depends what teams we will get. I think we are one of the most talented teams in the Eurocup. So it is up to the guys and how they are going to mesh together and play together.”
Allon was always confident Stoudemire would join Hapoel at some stage, but he is especially pleased the former part-owner of the club is doing so sooner rather than later.
“I’m happy that it happened now because he is still young enough to make a real impact,” he explained. “He works hard in practice. The first person to come to practice and the last person to leave. And you can tell from the preseason games we have played so far that he will be a major factor as a player.”
Allon said Stoudemire didn’t require much convincing.
“From the beginning he always seemed very passionate about the possibility.
I believed it would happen I just didn’t know when,” he said. “I think the fact that he came now is very impressive and people should really appreciate that because he had several NBA offers on the table. He said no to NBA teams to come play with us and that is not something we should take for granted.”
Stoudemire’s addition boosted Hapoel’s season-tickets sales, but Allon said they surpassed last season’s total even before the news broke.
“I think there is an organic natural progression not only in season ticket holders but also in the recognition the club receives in Israel and Europe and the number of fans we have,” noted Allon. “Every year we are successful in Israel we know we gain more fans. So I think having Amar’e on the team is a natural progression of us becoming a larger club.”
The 35-year-old Allon has already sold start-ups to Google and Twitter and is currently achieving even greater success with his third company, Compass.
A mere three years after he co-founded the New York-based online real estate platform, its valuation crossed $1 billion when the company raised $75 million two weeks ago.
Allon sees some similarities between Compass and Hapoel Jerusalem.
“When great things happen you should be pleased and celebrate it. But as long as you are doing the things for the right reasons and work hard, whatever result there is you should be proud of the way you got there,” he said. “The final results sometimes will be great and sometimes less great. But you should enjoy the road. I think with Hapoel it is very much the same.
“The championship was a great moment and winning the regular season in the past two seasons was obviously a great feeling. And we won a lot of big games and there have been a lot of great moments. But the thing I’m proud of the most is that I feel we are making progress every year. We are getting better as a club.”
Allon spoke of the growth in fans, season-ticket holders and sponsors, hailing the progress the club has made since his ownership group purchased it three years ago, and not only on the court.
“It is great to win the championship and it didn’t feel great to lose the final last year, but that is sport,” he explained. “But I think we are heading in the right direction and that is what I’m really proud of.
“Looking back I’m very proud of what we have done and what we have achieved so far and that is not necessarily measured in titles and wins. I think it is more about the club being today in a completely different place than when we bought it a few years ago. Hopefully that will translate to more titles in the future, but I intend to enjoy the road no matter what.”