Commentary: Guma’s legacy 1 year after his disappearance

Reflecting on Guma Aguiar on the anniversary of mysterious disappearance after launching his boat off the coast of Florida.

Guma Aguiar 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Guma Aguiar 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It has been exactly one year since Guma Aguiar mysteriously disappeared after launching his boat off the coast of Florida. As I reflect on the anniversary of that sad occasion, it brings to mind that day in March of 2012, when I met Guma for a milkshake in Jerusalem.
We chatted amiably about a range of topics, but focused in the main on his trials and tribulations in Israel, and especially his involvement with the financially embattled Beitar Jerusalem soccer and Hapoel Jerusalem basketball clubs.
It was the first time I ever met Guma, although I had seen him on television a number of times and was aware of his efforts to rescue the programs of both sports franchises.
As expected, he was tall, well toned and sported a baseball cap along with a scruffy three-day beard. He cut a very imposing figure, akin to an explorer set out on an expedition to conquer the wild. We shook hands and I quickly felt comfortable in his company.
I was flattered that Guma was as candid and forthright with me as he was. He first addressed the subject of Beitar and his initial disappointment that he could not wrest the club away from the clutches of Arkadi Gaydamak.
Rather than deserting a sinking ship, however, he poured in $4 million as a loan to keep Beitar afloat for another day. While it was clear that he would likely never recover his investment, he observed that since his status was that of a preferred creditor, it would give him a great deal of control over the club’s future, including a veto power over its sale to another buyer.
His hope was that a bold and creative purchaser with sufficient resources would take the club to the very top, including the Champions League group stage. Only then would he ask that his loan be repaid, without interest, no matter how long it took.
Guma gradually sensed relief over his failure to acquire Beitar. He expressed scorn and anger over the presence of hooliganism and racism which are often associated with soccer and also linked to Beitar’s fans. Although he added that these traits were only imputed to a small faction, it was enough to subject it to disciplinary measures by the league which included fines and lockouts of fans, which resulted in a steady loss of revenues.
It would take a huge effort by some daring new owner who will take the right steps to clean up the situation, but that mission would be left to another, he sadly quipped.
His entry into Hapoel Jerusalem hoops was quite fortuitous. Following his discussions with Gaydamak on Beitar, it became clear that Arkadi’s financial decline caused him to withhold the type of support which he pledged to club chairman Danny Klein.
Inevitably, Klein and other club leaders turned to Guma with hat in hand and implored him to come to their rescue. At first he was hesitant, since he felt that it would take a sizeable investment to raise the club to a level where it could compete effectively with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
In order to break Maccabi’s domination of the country’s basketball landscape, however, he concluded that the team must generate far more revenues than it has in the past. The key to the realization of this goal, he declared, lay in revamping Hapoel Jerusalem’s narrow fan base.
The name Hapoel itself presented a serious obstacle to this goal, in that many thousands of Beitar’s soccer fans felt disenfranchised, and left many hoops followers among them without a local club to adopt, so that they turned to Maccabi or the NBA in order to quench their thirst for the sport.
Guma stated flatly that Jerusalem does not have the fan base to support two basketball teams. The ideal solution, he stressed, lay in depoliticizing the sports spectrum by renaming Hapoel as Jerusalem United. This club would then welcome with open arms the existing core of Hapoel fans as well as the vast majority of Beitar fans.
He chided Hapoel’s management for its misguided idea that the name “Hapoel Jerusalem” carried some intrinsic value, citing its lackluster history and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s virtual monopoly on every trophy for half a century.
When you take politics out of sport, then good things will surely follow, he summed up.
Finally, he asked me to scope out the option of engaging a management group based on the American model which could navigate the Jerusalem United club in the furtherance of his mission.
In the weeks and months which followed, we kept in touch by phone and email. I noted that he seemed weary of the gridlock on Hapoel’s Board of Directors between the slate which he appointed and Klein’s representatives.
At one point, he indicated that he had family and financial issues which he needed to address in the US, and that he was now disinclined to become a proactive team owner. I suggested to him that he engage Jim Harrick, a veteran college coach who guided UCLA to the NCAA title in 1995 and an ardent supporter of the Euroleague as Director of Basketball Operations. Guma indicated he would welcome a meeting with Harrick, but it was not meant to be.
A few weeks before his disappearance, I received an email from Guma asking me whether the Harrick group would be interested in acquiring his majority shares in Hapoel for “zero” consideration.
I told him that I saw this as a “slam dunk” and that I would arrange with Jim to meet with him in Miami. Before the meeting could ever take place, I was stunned by the media bulletin that Guma had mysteriously vanished somewhere in the Atlantic. He has not been seen or heard from again.
My initial reaction to the news was one of shock, which quickly turned to sadness over the likely loss of a modern day hero. To this day, Guma remains an enigma.
While I wished I had gotten to know him better, I realized that he was a perplexed individual who preferred to keep his innermost thoughts to himself.
I respected his right of privacy and did not pose profound questions which challenged that right. Thus, I feel that I drew as close to Guma as he would allow others to be. Still, at the end I have been left with a positive feeling that someday soon Guma’s vision for Jerusalem will be fulfilled.

Don Barnett is an IFA player agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.