Basketball: Scrappiness, athleticism characterize revamped Holon

The defending Israeli champions, led by new coach Danny Franco, have had to rebuild after a tumultuous offseason.

By LOUIE LAZAR
October 27, 2008 04:41
Basketball: Scrappiness, athleticism characterize revamped Holon

Chris Watson 224.88. (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)

 
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Whenever Chris Watson strolls onto the practice floor and glances at his new teammates, he can't help but feel a little sad. As the lone returning player from Hapoel Holon's improbable title team, the veteran forward often looks around at all the fresh faces, and wonders what might have been had last season's historic roster remained intact. The tale of Holon's rapid, out-of-nowhere surge and subsequent off-the-court demise is a narrative that could've been lifted straight off the pages of a Hollywood script. A squad that just a season earlier had been playing in Israel's second division stunned the Israeli Premier League by winning 18 of its final 22 games, including a last-second championship game victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, the 14-time defending domestic champion. What happened next, however, brought new meaning to the words "Hell in Holon" that grace a jumbo-sized banner hanging in "The Tin Court," the Tigers' home gym. Despite its championship run and the accompanying wave of publicity, head coach and team owner Miki Dorsman was unable to attract sponsors to help finance the club. Dorsman, who since 2002 had been pumping millions of his own shekels into the organinzation's payroll, was demoralized. Citing financial problems he informed the BSL that Holon would be forced to forfeit its earned slot in the ULEB Cup, European basketball's second tier competition. He then entered into talks with Maccabi Rishon Lezion about a potential merger between the clubs but fans of both teams vowed to boycott any joint franchise. Discussions were never finalized, but Holon's fan base had already soured. Then Dorsman made a fateful decision. "I have a good taste in my mouth from last season, but I don't want to spend any more of my money," he said bluntly. "I have no choice to leave. I give up." And leave he did, along with his coaching staff, a majority of team management, and every player but Watson. Tre Simmons moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv but most of the other stars of the title-winning team went abroad. Elton Brown, the team's rock in the paint, left to puruse an opportunity with the Chicago Bulls, Malik Dixon, who scored the championship-winning basket, departed for KK Zadar in the Adriatic League, and league MVP PJ Tucker took off for the Ukranian Super League to play for BC Donetsk. The house was so thoroughly cleaned, even the equipment manager bolted. If Maccabi's offseason changes constituted a makeover, Holon's summer shakeup was like radical reconstructive surgery. The club's ownership reins were handed over to GM Tobi Schwartz, who hired former Hapoel Galil Elyon head coach Danny Franco for the same position. With just enough financial assistance from the Holon municipality (NIS 1.2 million) and the league (NIS 800,000), along with revenues from ticket sales, Holon was able to remain solvent enough to meet the league's minimum budget of NIS 4.5m. With limited financial resources at his disposal, Franco nabbed three key foreign players, including Deron Washington, a 2008 second round draft pick of the Detroit Pistons and former NCAA Slam Dunk Contest finalist; Curtis Withers, a bruising power forward who played the past two seasons in Turkey; and Luis Flores, a Dominican-born, New York City-raised point guard who averaged 22.2 points a game in Italy last season. Holon also signed Uri Kukia, an Israeli big man known for his above-average skills and defensive acumen. In interviews with The Jerusalem Post following a recent training session, the team's core players discussed Holon's prospects in 2008-09, a campaign it kicks off Monday night with a matchup at Bnei Hasharon. Speaking like well-disciplined politicians refusing to deviate from their party's message, each player eagerly downplayed expectations, while plugging their merits as a blue-collar squad. "The first thing I'd like [the fans to know] is that we're a different team, with a different budget, but at the same time, the thing we can give them every night is that we're gonna fight," said Flores, a 2004 NBA draft pick and the all-time leading scorer at Manhattan College. "We can't guarantee a win every night, but we can guarantee that we're not gonna give [our opponents] the game. They're gonna have to beat us." "We have to be realistic," said Kukia, who played last season at Maccabi Haifa. "I can't tell you [our effort] is gonna be enough to win every game, but we have a goal to be a team that's gonna fight and give our best." You got the feeling that if the players had their way, they'd change basketball's rules so that points were measured not on the basis of baskets but on scrapes, bruises, and amount of blood spilled. "We will definitely be in the middle of the pack, trying to scrape for wins," predicted Watson, a 33-year-old White Plains, New York, native and now-Israeli citizen who has also played pro ball in Uruguay, Sweden, and England. "I think we're gonna be a hard-working team, a scrappy team that puts our hearts on the floor, and then whatever happens from there happens." In sports, terms such as "scrappy" and "hard-working" are often code phrases for "lack of talent." This Holon group, however, should be an exception to that rule. With the addition of Washington, a lanky, two-meter forward whose dunks and blocked shots were regular features on Sportscenter's "Top Ten Plays," and Withers, whose chizzled, 2m frame and speed out of the frontcourt once prompted an ESPN analyst to dub the then-UNC Charlotte star an "athletic freak of nature," the Tigers, while lacking in experience and depth, should be fun to watch. "We'll be a team that's got speed and that's entertaining ," said Withers. "We've got Deron - he might give you a highlight here and there plus we have Luis [Flores] whose nickname is "gettin' buckets Louis." Indeed, nearly every player, when asked about Washington, shook his head, uttered the word "athleticism," and then added - without a trace of hyperbole - some variation of "I've never seen anyone jump so high." Asked to preview Holon's style of play, the 22-year-old Washington - who'd never been outside the United States before arriving in Israel - grinned like an eight-year-old who had just been handed a goodie bag after a birthday party. "From the looks of it, we're gonna be a pretty exciting team, a running up and down the court team," said the former Virginia Tech Hokie, whose collegiate highlight reels are plastered all over You Tube in the form of montages set to rap music. "That seems like how we're gonna get points. I think the crowd is gonna like our [up-tempo] style." But to Watson, the elder statesman who can often be seen at practice pulling aside younger players and playing the role of teacher, emotions are bittersweet as the season gets underway. "It just feels sad when I walk in the gym and see all these new guys because I just wanted a chance to [win the title] again," he said, in a reflective tone. "A legitimate chance to do it again. But, all you can do is let bygones be bygones and we're gonna focus on doing something special here."

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