This is the moment Hapoel Jerusalem has been waiting for.
Not just this season but throughout its entire history.
What was once unthinkable has become a reality.
Hosting Maccabi Tel Aviv at its home arena in the State Cup final will be a dream come true.
Its realization will have to wait three more days after the final was moved from Thursday to next Sunday due to the stormy and snowy weather expected in Jerusalem.
However, after so many years, a few more days won’t make any difference.
Jerusalem crushed Hapoel Eilat 97-65 in Monday’s semifinal before Maccabi eked out a 90-87 overtime win over Maccabi Haifa to book a classic showdown at the new Jerusalem Arena.
While Jerusalem has long been regarded as Maccabi’s main rival for local supremacy, it hasn’t come close to challenging the yellow-andblue over recent years.
Jerusalem will be playing in its first final, in league or cup action, since 2008 after failing to meet expectations time and again.
Coaches and players have come and gone, but Hapoel somehow always found a way to disappoint.
Malha Arena remained one of the most formidable home-courts in Israeli basketball, but when it mattered most Jerusalem kept coming up short.
Optimism was abound ahead of the start of the campaign, with Hapoel moving into its new state-ofthe- art arena and selling a record amount of over 5,000 season tickets.
The club retained the services of Lior Eliyahu, Yotam Halperin, Bracey Wright and Derwin Kitchen while bringing in Joseph Jones, Tony Gaffney and last season’s BSL MVP Donta Smith.
“All I can ask the players is to give their all. I can’t control if they win or lose but they have to fight for it and I believe we are going to have the right team,” owner Ori Allon told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the start of the season. “We are going to have the talent and the right coach and of course the amazing fans in the new arena. I think they will have everything they need in order to be successful.”
Allon went on to stress that the club is focused on “building something for the very long term” and isn’t obsessing about winning titles.
There is little doubt, though, that he is desperate to already see the fruits of his investment on Sunday.
Decades of a fruitless chase of Maccabi combined with ever-changing eccentric owners of the likes of Arkadi Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar left many Hapoel fans disillusioned.
However, the club’s future has looked a lot brighter since Allon stepped into the fray in the summer of 2013.
He assembled a star-studded ownership group, including New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, advertising bigwig Eyal Chomski and American sports agent Arn Tellem, to purchase the club following the disappearance of Aguiar at sea.
After ending last season with a defeat in the BSL semifinals following exits in the cup and Eurocup quarterfinals, coach Brad Greenberg was sent packing and half the roster was changed.
The team’s entrance to the new arena was highlighted as a pivotal moment in Allon’s long-term plan for the club since day one and he had to make sure that he had an attractive product to offer the club’s long-suffering supporters.
The prospect of a new arena and a rejuvenated team led by promising young coach Danny Franco was more than enough to get the fan base excited, but so far this season Hapoel has put its supporters through the same torment they have become accustomed to.
Hapoel’s roller-coaster season has seen lows such as a Eurocup regular season exit with a 2-8 record, or a shock BSL defeat to Ironi Nahariya after squandering a lead of 24 points.
There was, of course, also the unforgettable moment when Smith treated the club’s fans to an obscene gesture with his middle finger as he walked off the floor to their boos following three free-throw misses in the closing seconds that resulted in a defeat to Maccabi Haifa.
The loss to Nahariya was followed by a Facebook outburst from Allon.
“It doesn’t matter what your name is, if I don’t see 100% commitment from you, I’ll send you packing.
Now shut up and show some heart,” was what he wrote a day after the humbling defeat.
Hapoel went on to lose five consecutive league games, but has bounced back in recent weeks, seemingly in perfect timing. Jerusalem has won four of its past five BSL games and dominated Eilat in the semis on Monday.
Hapoel already showed what it is capable of this season, recording its biggest win ever over Maccabi back in November, a 93-63 thrashing at the Jerusalem Arena. Franco’s team also beat the yellow-and-blue in the final of the pre-season Winner Cup at its new home and Maccabi coach Guy Goodes insisted that Jerusalem will be the favorite on Sunday.
That is of course no more than psychological warfare by Goodes. His side may have been lucky to overcome Haifa in the semis and hasn’t been at its best over the past couple of weeks, but this is still the same team that beat Barcelona and Real Madrid just a few weeks ago and is targeting its sixth consecutive cup.
Hapoel hasn’t even been to the final in seven years when it recorded a memorable win over Maccabi after coming back from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Sunday’s final is certain to go down in Hapoel history one way or another. A win would clearly make it a perfect night for Jerusalem, but a defeat wouldn’t be the end of the world. The fact the club finds itself entering a cup final at its own arena confident of beating Maccabi is a mark of the progress being made by Hapoel.
It has been a bumpy road so far and Jerusalem is bound to encounter several more potholes along the way. However, there should be little doubt the club is finally heading in the right direction and that is something which has never been a given at Hapoel.