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(photo credit: AP)
As Maccabi Tel Aviv takes its run at history on Sunday night, one thing is certain about its fan base - it is confident, passionate and hungry as ever.
While it is common for fans to get complacent after a team has had so much success, it is just the opposite for Maccabi fans. In addition to the estimated 9,000 yellow-and- blue diehards that made the trek to Prague - transforming Sazka Arena into Nokia Arena Jr. - fans all over the country packed sports bars and pubs Friday night to watch the two-time defending champions win with relative ease over Tau Vitoria. The game was more reminiscent of Maccabi's 118-74 thrashing of Skipper Bologna in the 2004 championship rather than what was supposed to be their toughest test of the year.
Now Maccabi is on the threshold of a three-peat, and the fans could not be more overjoyed and prepared.
"Maccabi will win, it's no question at all," said 24- year-old Tel Aviv resident Meir Harash, who drove victory laps around Kikar Rabin while waving flags and furiously honking his horn after Maccabi's 85-70 win.
"It's going to be historic," added confident Maccabi fan Gilad Shapir, 27 of Modi'in.
Shapir and scores of other enthused Maccabi supporters watched the game at Cosit, a pub in Kikar Rabin, a spot prepped for a huge celebration in the streets if Maccabi can outlast CSKA Moscow in the championship.
"If this was one of the best teams they've played all year, then nothing is going to stop them from going all the way," said foreign student Josh Arcus, 20, of Delmar, New York, who donned a Maccabi scarf while taking in his first Euroleague Final Four experience in Israel.
"Their entire history they've proven themselves to be a great team, and if they can win it again this year, that would be absolutely amazing," he added.
Fans cheered and jeered from start to finish at Cosit, harshly criticizing questionable referee calls, even while Maccabi built a 32-point lead in the second half. Every Maccabi basket, especially Maceo Baston's highlight-reel alley-oop and each Anthony Parker bucket in his near-perfect first half, got a rousing ovation, while every Tau point yielded an upsetting silence.
But that's how the Maccabi fan base is - it lives and dies with every made or missed jumper, strongly questions every move that it doesn't think is correct, but ultimately praises and lauds any player wearing the yellow and blue.
The fans have a love affair with the team that they hope they can help carry to a third straight title. Judging by those in the stands in Prague and others cramming the pubs, the Maccabi faithful is in peak postseason form, matching the intensity and heart of the team it supports.
"It's all about heart," said Tel Aviv resident Oshri Vaknine, 30, of the key to Maccabi capturing the championship. "When they put themselves into it they win. It's all up to them, it always is."
After the final buzzer sounded in Friday night's triumph, horns could be heard honking throughout the streets in Tel Aviv, a galvanizing rally cry for the fans who couldn't make the trip to Prague but can't wait to celebrate another title - that is, if Maccabi can knock off Moscow, the only team to sweep its way through the quarterfinal round.
Maccabi fans' passion, fervor and hunger for the title is matched with some vigilance, too, though, as to not upset the Euroleague basketball gods with overconfident jinxes.
"I don't open my mouth until the referee blows the final whistle," said a semi-cautious Ori David, 24, of Tel Aviv who drove around with Harash, leading the downtown Tel Aviv cheers. "But we're going to watch on Sunday and then come celebrate."
And if David's vision of Sunday comes true, the celebration in Tel Aviv this year will be even more special than those in the past - three times more special to be exact.