Tel Aviv is not likely to be one of the five sites that will host NBA teams for training camps or an exhibition tournament next year, according to Euroleague basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu, but the city does "have a chance" for 2007.
With the 2005/06 Euroleague season set to tip-off Monday night in Istanbul, Bertomeu took time out of his busy schedule for an interview with The Jerusalem Post, in which he looks ahead to a competitive season, discusses the league's future and applauds Maccabi Tel Aviv's successful trip to North America.
Since the establishment of the modern edition of the Euroleague, run by ULEB, European basketball hasn't stopped improving. And now, says Bertomeu, the rest of the world has noticed too.
In June, the Euroleague and the NBA announced plans for NBA Europe Live presented by EA Sports, a pre-season tournament that will see four NBA teams travel to Europe in October of 2006 and 2007 to begin their training camps in four different European cities. Following the training camps, there will be a four-team tournament in another European city, featuring two pre-determined NBA teams together with the previous season's Euroleague champion and runner-up.
But while the NBA was looking at Europe as a proving ground, Maccabi Tel Aviv traveled in the opposite direction and showed that Euroleague stars can compete with American teams. Maccabi beat the Toronto Raptors 105-103 on October 16, becoming the first foreign team to defeat an NBA side on North American soil, and impressed again before falling 93-79 to the Orlando Magic days later.
"What Maccabi has done is fantastic," Bertomeu said by phone from the league's Barcelona headquarters. "It's historical for us [the Euroleague] and shows that Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the top teams in the world."
But Maccabi's successful trip is unlikely to cause the NBA to send one of its teams to Israel for NBA Europe Live next year. "I think that Tel Aviv has a chance, but it will be difficult for the first season," he said, explaining that the NBA's strategic marketing plan for Europe will be the major determining factor in which cities host teams for the first year.
He did say, however, that since five different cities will be chosen for the second year, Israel has a good chance to be among them. Bertomeu hopes that by the end of November the sites for next year will be finalized.
The CEO has seen Maccabi up close a number of times over the past few seasons and recognizes the work the team has put in to get its recent results. But Bertomeu doesn't necessarily see them as a shoo-in for this year's championship. "There are 10-12 teams with a good chance of reaching the Final Four," he said, describing the season as "wide-open."
Among the reasons to be optimistic about this season of Euroleague play is the revival of Greek basketball. The Greeks are the reigning European national champions and the Athens Olympics saw the country build new world-class arenas.
The fans newfound excitement for the game - and the new facilities - has helped bring in new investors, which Bertomeu believes could help Greek hoops return to their glory years.
Greece has three representatives in the Euroleague - traditional Maccabi rival Panathinaikos; Olympiacos, which hosts Maccabi in Week 2; and AEK Athens with its Israelis players, Dror Hajaj and Amit Tamir.
Bertomeu also cites the league's decision to open borders for player signings as strengthening the level of competition for this season.
While Bertomeu is pleased with the league's progress, he isn't ready to rest on his laurels. Constantly thinking about the future, he ruminates on the possibility of establishing a full-time Euroleague, in which a smaller number of teams play each other in a full 40-60 game season.
However, he cautions that "we cannot destroy what works," explaining that while some teams suffer from playing in leagues where they have little competition (like Maccabi Tel Aviv), the current system is ideal for teams from the Italian, Greek and Spanish leagues.
In addition, he says that expanding the Euroleague - which could theoretically boost Israel's presence by allowing for a second national representative - in an attempt to help teams increase their income and build a better product is also problematic.
The league's requirement that teams play in arenas that seat at least 5,000 seats is an obstacle for many teams (including Hapoel Jerusalem, which had to forfeit its spot in the League two years ago after winning the ULEB Cup). Expansion could also dilute the level of play.
Rather, Bertomeu is confident that the ULEB Cup will continue to play a major role in European hoops as a secondary competition. "Both [the Euroleague and ULEB Cup] have the top teams in Europe. All of the teams in the ULEB Cup have the potential to be Euroleague teams and this season the quality is higher than ever."
"We do what's best for basketball and admit when we're wrong," Bertomeu answers in response to a question about the league's past attempt to do away with the Final Four and replace it with best-of-five playoff series, as was done in 2001.
When asked about his priorities for the future, Bertomeu hones in on the importance of the sale of television rights throughout Europe and beyond. "This is our next challenge," he says. To that end, he is happy with last week's deal to broadcast ULEB Cup games this season on Eurosport2, but as always, Bertomeu is planning for the next challenges to come to make the Euroleague the best it can be.