One of the questions that has eaten at fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israeli and European basketball will get the first of a two-part answer on Sunday: How would the two-time defending Euroleague champs do in the NBA?
Maccabi faces the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Center Sunday in the first game of its exhibition swing through North America. On Wednesday the Israelis will take on the Orlando Magic in Florida.
Although the game is officially little more than a pre-season warm-up, it means far more to the Maccabi players four of whom have NBA experience and several others who have dreams of getting there.
Maccabi is already primed for its real season, which begins next week when it travels to Maccabi Givat Shmuel for its BSL opener. Its European campaign begins on November 3 when it hosts Polish champs Prokom Trefl Sopot.
For Toronto the game will be the third of its eight-game pre-season schedule and the only one against a non-NBA opponent. Its season begins on November 2.
The game is a return home for Maccabi power forward Maceo Baston, who spent the second half of the 2002/03 season with the Raptors. Point guard Will Solomon played for the Memphis Grizzlies that same year, while swingman Kirk Penney totaled six games with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers over the past two seasons.
No Maccabi player has more NBA experience than reigning Euroleague MVP Anthony Parker, who was a first round pick in the 1997 draft. Parker played two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and a third in Orlando with the Magic.
Several other Maccabi players have flirted with the NBA. Center Nikola Vujcic has turned down reported offers from NBA teams, while swingman Tal Burstein has had preliminary talks with teams as well. Both players will be free agents at the end of this season.
Other players hoping to impress include big man Yaniv Green, who played for the Detroit Pistons' summer league teams two years ago, and teenage forward Omri Casspi, who many scouts see as having an NBA future.
For many Canadian fans, the only previous knowledge about Maccabi relates to former center Nate Huffman. After three successful seasons in Israel, Huffman signed a three-year contact with Toronto. However, it didn't work out and the Raptors cut Huffman midway through the first season in January 2003, citing that he had failed to report previous injuries. Later, an arbitrator ruled in Huffman's favor and he was awarded $2.5 million. Huffman hasn't played professional basketball since.
The Raptors are a team in rebuilding mode after placing last in the NBA's Atlantic Division last season. Their top player is up-and-coming big man Chris Bosh, who averaged 16.8 points and 8.9 rebounds last year in just his second season.
Other players of note include veteran Jalen Rose, swingman Morris Peterson, first round picks Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham and Spanish guard Jose Calderon, who together with TAU Vitoria lost to Maccabi in the Euroleague final last season in Moscow.
Maccabi has played teams from the NBA before on numerous occasions. Most recently the Miami Heat visited Tel Aviv in October 1999, beating the hosts 126-91.
The Washington Bullets also came to Israel in the late 70s, falling to Maccabi in an exhibition. The perennial Israeli champs visited Los Angeles to play both the Lakers and Clippers in the early 1990s.
State Cup gamesto begin locally
In local action, Maccabi's prime competition this season, Hapoel Jerusalem, will get its season underway when it travels to face Maccabi Netanya in the first round of the State Cup. The game will be the first test for the new high-priced side from the capital, which upgraded its team after Russian billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak became team president.
Jerusalem is the only one of the top BSL teams active in the first round, because it failed to reach the quarterfinals last season.
In other games, it's Hapoel Givatayim at Elitzur Kiryat Ata, Maccabi Ashdod at Hapoel Lev Hasharon, Maccabi Petah Tikva at Maccabi Rosh Ha'ayin, Hapoel Holon at Elitzur Neve David Ramla, Ironi Ramat Gan at Maccabi Hod Hasharon and Maccabi Givat Shmuel at Betar Binyamina.
The return legs will be played on Wednesday with the teams with the better aggregate score advancing to the second round, where all the remaining BSL teams will join in.