(photo credit: AP)
The Israel Basketball Association and the Olympic Committee of Israel officially announced Sunday the start of a joint six-year effort to bring the men's national team to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
At a press conference at the Sheraton Moriah hotel in Tel Aviv, IBA chairman Yermi Olmert signed the OCI charter as the program will get underway immediately. The majority of the assistance that the IBA will receive will be financial, in the neighborhood of NIS 1 million annually, though according to OCI chair Zvi Varshaviak, the IBA will get "as much as they need."
The bulk of the money is expected to be used to help the men's teams - including the under-20, under-18 and cadet sides - to compete more often in international tournaments to help keep the team in top form before major events like the European Championships.
In addition, the teams will benefit from full medical coverage, including help with nutritional issues and sports psychology.
The plan actually calls for the team to go for Beijing 2008, but with very little preparation time, 2012 is more realistic. In order to qualify for the Beijing games, the blue-and-white would need to take one of the top two spots at Eurobasket next summer in Spain. Finishing between three and six would give the team a spot in the Olympic qualifying tournament. The numbers though are not final, since a European team could clinch a spot already if it wins the World Championships next month in Japan.
The OCI's goals for Beijing are clear: to bring back another gold medal, to have a woman win a medal for the first time since Yael Arad at Barcelona 1992 and to send a team in a ball-playing sport to compete for the first time. The closest Israel has come to a team at the Olympics was the men's basketball team, which traveled to Helsinki to take part in the qualifying games in 1952.
Varshaviak explained that the reason that basketball was chosen for the project was its impressive track record, which includes reaching the European Championships every year at every age level in the last decade. He also praised the organizational qualities of the IBA.
"If the other federations were as prepared as the IBA, we'd have more teams joining the program," Varshaviak said. He stressed that water polo, soccer, volleyball and handball had also been considered.
The basketball staff that will work on the project includes men's national team head coach Tzvika Sherf; assistant coaches Arik Shivek and Ariel Bet-Halahmi; Yoram Harush, who heads the youth development program at the IBA; and fitness coach Yoram Menahem.
Olmert said that Sherf "will be with us for the long haul... He has the faith of the players and the IBA."
Before the conference, the men's national basketball team had its first "optional" practice ahead of next month's first qualifying game for Eurobasket 2007, though Sherf stressed, "with me, optional is mandatory." Like Sherf, the players in attendance, Meir Tapiro, Lior Eliyahu and Ido Kozikaro, arrived from the practice.
Sherf announced that the team has scheduled a training camp to start on Monday in Nahariya, which he hopes will still be practical. He also said that the Belgian national team, which is scheduled to arrive next month for three practice games, has expressed its concerns over coming to Israel now, but has not yet canceled.
"We'll do everything to explain to them that a month is a long time in the Middle East," Sherf said.
Another event effected by the security situation is a planned coaching seminar. Sherf said that top NCAA coaches Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Memphis's John Calipari had been approached to lecture, but that now seems unlikely.
Regrading the Olympic goal, Sherf said, "we have a wonderful basketball country... Everyone involved in Israeli basketball must do what they can to help us realize this dream."
According to the coach, some 1,500 children and young players will go through the various national team set-ups as they build a team for 2012 and beyond.
In the short-term, he said that "from what I saw at today's practice, the players are up for the challenge."
The team officially starts practice on Tuesday and its first qualifying game will be on August 31 vs Bosnia-Herzegovina. With captain Tal Burstein to miss the tourney through injury, Sherf said a new captain will be appointed on Tuesday.