It would be no exaggeration to write that this is an opportunity Israeli basketball thought may never arrive.
What seemed like a far-fetched dream for so long is set to become a reality next month when Yad Eliyahu Arena in Tel Aviv will host Group B action of EuroBasket 2017.
The basketball European Championships will be one of the biggest sporting events ever held in Israel.
It is a rarity the national team hopes to translate to success on the floor. The chance the blue-andwhite has been waiting for to finally breakthrough and reclaim a spot among the top eight national teams on the continent, something it hasn’t achieved since 2003 and has done only once since reaching the final in 1979.
Everything is in place for a return to former glory, that is, apart from the team itself.
With its opening game of EuroBasket 2017 just six weeks away, Israel’s roster could hardly be in worse shape.
Coach Erez Edelstein called up 16 players for the start of training on Tuesday, 12 of which will ultimately participate in the championships.
The players who are supposed to be the foundation of the side are coming off seasons that at best can be described as mediocre.
Captain Omri Casspi is the undoubted star of the team. But the newest member of NBA champions Golden State Warriors has played in a mere 17 games since the start of the year. A calf injury saw him miss a month of action at the start of 2017 while he was still at Sacramento, and he played only one game for New Orleans after being traded, breaking his thumb on his debut. Casspi was picked up by Minnesota and played for the Wolves in 13 games to finish the season, but clearly he will need time to rediscover his rhythm. Israel will play 10 warmup games ahead of the championships, but Casspi won’t have long to adapt to competitive play once the official action gets under way. The blue-and-white will play its five group games within seven days.
Israel faces Italy in its opener on August 31 before playing Lithuania on September 2 and Germany the following day. After a one-day break, the blue-and-white faces Georgia and Ukraine on consecutive days to wrap up its group games in Tel Aviv.
Gal Mekel and Guy Pnini, who are both vying for a place in the starting five, are two other prime examples of players lacking in form to an extent that is threatening to derail Israel’s campaign before it has even started.
Mekel played just 16.0 minutes per game in 24 Euroleague contests at Maccabi Tel Aviv last season before being told his services are no longer in demand. He is currently in Spain, completing his move to Gran Canaria.
Pnini was also pushed out of Maccabi this summer, joining Hapoel Holon after averaging only 12.7 minutes in 29 Euroleague games.
The stories of Casspi, Mekel and Pnini are repeated throughout the squad. Yogev Ohayon’s situation at Maccabi Tel Aviv wasn’t as bad, but the fact the yellow-and-blue chose against picking up its option to extend his deal and allowed him to move to Hapoel Jerusalem pretty much says it all.
Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu both found themselves on the fringe of Hapoel Jerusalem’s rotation for large periods of last season and they too would admit that they are past their peak.
Bar Timor (Hapoel Jerusalem) and Shawn Dawson, who left Maccabi Rishon Lezion for Bnei Herzliya on Tuesday, failed to make the breakthrough expected from them last season, and seem far from ready to lead the blueand- white as many thought they would be by now.
Amit Simhon (Maccabi Haifa), Oz Blayzer (Maccabi Haifa), Idan Zalmanson (Maccabi Rishon Lezion) and Karam Mashour, who moved from Herzliya to Maccabi Tel Aviv earlier this month, are all coming off breakthrough seasons. But to expect them to carry the team this summer would be unfair.
They aren’t even guaranteed to make the final roster, something which is also true of Alex Chubrevich and Jake Cohen, and to a lesser extent Elishay Kadir.
Last but not least, Edelstein decided to use his one spot for a nationalized player on center Richard Howell, who received citizenship in April due to his marriage last summer. Howell will help make up for Israel’s traditional lack in size, but there is only so much he can do for a roster with so many gaping weaknesses.
“I hear people are talking about the fact that the past season wasn’t very good for the Israeli player. It doesn’t really matter if I agree or not as that claim is simply irrelevant,” said Edelstein ahead of the team’s first training session of the summer on Tuesday.
“We have six weeks to prepare for the championships. If a player didn’t have a good season it doesn’t mean he won’t be good in the championships and vice versa.”
Israel will be playing in the European Championships for a 13th consecutive occasion, a streak stretching back to 1993. As impressive an achievement as it is to have not missed a EuroBasket tournament in over two decades, the blue-and-white believed it could achieve much more this summer after being selected as a co-host.
Two years ago, Israel surprisingly qualified for the last 16 of the European Championships, coming through the group stage despite entering the tournament on the back of seven losses from eight warm-up games.
Any chances of repeating that success will depend on recreating that special spirit from two summers ago that saw the team play better than the sum of its parts.
Considering the roster’s current state, that seems to be the Israel national team’s only hope of avoiding bitter disappointment in front of the home fans, a possibility surely never envisioned amid the celebrations of being named as a host in December email@example.com