The capacity sign outside Barak Netanya’s Yeshurun Arena may read 800, but inside its cozy confines, the game-time din rivals Madison Square Garden.
In Netanya’s first season since its promotion to the Super League, the team has given its fans plenty of reason to pack the house. With Sunday’s 86-78 victory over Ironi Ashkelon, Netanya upped its 2009/10 record to 10-5 and wrote yet another chapter in its storybook season.
Sunday’s win was a big one, but no evening has been more magical for this team than January 24, when Netanya pushed perennial league powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv into double overtime.
After blowing a fourth-quarter lead on its home court, Netanya was able to settle down and outscore Tel Aviv 18-7 in the second extra period, handing Maccabi its only BSL loss so far this season.
Watching their team dispatch the class of the league in dramatic fashion has infused Netanya’s small but tight fan base with hope for the future.
Eliezer Hendsher, a Netanya resident and season-ticket holder, proudly watched Sunday’s game from halfway up the bleachers and could barely hide his excitement when asked what he thought about the team’s success.
“Great,” he said. “Awesome. It’s their first year in the league and there’s a chance to finish fourth or fifth. The management has done a very good job finding exactly the players needed and molding them together into a family.”
In Sunday’s contest against Ashkelon, Netanya showed why it deserves to challenge for a top-four spot in the league which guarantees home court advantage in the best-of-three quarterfinal playoffs.
Ashkelon (7-8) opened with strong defensive play, forcing a series of turnovers in the backcourt that led to easy baskets. After one quarter of play, Ashkelon held a 23-20 advantage.
In a decisive second quarter, though, Netanya held off an Ashkelon surge and responded with a run of its own. After heading into halftime with a two-point lead, Netanya pulled away in the second half en route to its 10th win of the season.
Small forward Tony Washam led the way for Netanya with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but Netanya’s depth also shone through in the victory.
Robert Rothbart, a 2.17-meter center who was born in Yugoslavia and raised in California, came off the bench to patrol the middle.
In 11 minutes of play, he went 4-4 from the free-throw line and had some key late-game tip-ins for a total of 10 points.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Rothbart said. “We’re just trying to win each game and we’d like to be in the playoffs, but I think there’s not really a lot of pressure on our backs.
“We’re relaxed. We don’t feel as though we have to accomplish something, whereas there are teams out there that have a lot to accomplish and that can backfire for them.”
There may be some merit to Rothbart’s suggestion that newly promoted clubs do not face the same sort of pressure as the traditionally strongest teams and are able to thrive as a result.
Hapoel Holon provided a precedent in 2008 when it won the league title in its first season back in the top flight. Still, Holon’s fan base has been stronger historically than Netanya’s.
Barak Netanya hopes to finish the season on a hot streak, and it has the players to contend for a league title.
Marco Killingsworth, an American power forward, leads the club in scoring with 19.8 points per game, followed by Danilo Pinnock with 18.6 and Washam with 17.9.
Shmulik Brener – “one of the greatest Israeli point guards in the league,” according to Rothbart – mans the backcourt and distributes the ball to his scorers to the tune of six assists per game.
“The coach, Arik Alfasi, does an amazing job,” said Yarden Keren, a local fan. “He took some young players and gave them a chance.”
Devoted fans such as Hendsher and Keren play an important role in Netanya’s success. They fill the club’s tiny arena and refuse to quiet down from opening tip-off to final buzzer.
Gimmicks such as free hamantaschen and a fan-wide costume contest on Purim make the locals feel welcome and compel them to return.
Fielding a winning team, however, is probably the most effective way to fill the stands.
“We do have a great crowd,” Rothbart said. “Our guys really stick by us, they come to our away games, and it’s a great feeling. It definitely helps us.”
With seven games left on the regular season schedule, Netanya stands in fifth place.
One of the year’s most anticipated contests will tip off on April 25,
when Netanya travels to Nokia Arena to take on a vengeful Maccabi Tel
Aviv squad in the last game of the regular season.
For now, though, fans such as Elad Zahavian are just thrilled that their team has come so far.
“It’s a real surprise that they’re succeeding like this,” Zahavian said.