The ultimate eclipse of Maccabi Tel Aviv?

Could Maccabi's loss in last week's Euroleague quarterfinals spell the end of an era in Israeli basketball?

maccabi feature 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi feature 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Besides the initial pangs of dispair that accompanied elimination from a major competition, when the final buzzer sounded at the end of Maccabi Tel Aviv's embarrassing 91-72 Euroleague quarterfinal Game 3 loss to CSKA Moscow last week, the fans of what has always been the top team in Israel also felt a deep feeling of relief. At least it was over. The ease with which CSKA, last season's Euroleague champion, took its Israeli opponents apart proved the critics right and had a feeling of inevitability about it. There had been some hope in the Maccabi camp after the yellows managed to come back from the heavy loss in Moscow in Game 1 to impressively win Game 2 in Tel Aviv 68-56. It is time to ask if the repeat performance of Game 1 in the final game of the series - where Maccabi was amazingly down by 21-6 again in the second quarter - signals both the end of Tel Aviv's season and the beginning of a monumental sea-change in Israeli basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv has always had challengers but, even on the few occasions it lost the championship or failed to impress in Europe, it always came back stronger. This time the signs are not there, while Maccabi's only real challenger in the country this season, Hapoel Jerusalem, is only getting stronger in its play, its team and - most importantly - its finances. There is a feeling that this could spell the end of Maccabi Tel Aviv's years of dominance in Israel as well as its success in Europe, and the beginning of a new era in Israeli basketball where Hapoel Jerusalem takes over. Not only has Maccabi been knocked out of Europe this season, it already lost the State Cup to Hapoel Jerusalem and has every chance of losing the league title to Hapoel for the first time since 1993, and only the second time since 1970. While Maccabi has always believed it has an undeniable right to be the best in Israel, the growing cracks in the team's confidence will only serve to strengthen the aspirations of Jerusalem. At first glance, the finger of blame must be pointed at the man in charge of team affairs at Maccabi Tel Aviv. After the success and team spirit built by former coach Pini Gershon, who won back-to-back Euroleague titles in 2004 and 2005 and lost in the final last year, his replacement, Croatian Neven Spahija, appears to have undone it all. Maccabi was once a club with an air of superiority, a club that knew it has always been the best in the country and had no reason to doubt that this would continue. But even as it eased past most of its Israeli opponents, there has been an uncomfortable feeling of doubt hanging over the club throughout the season, something its fans are not used to. Spahija has managed to kill the atmosphere of absolute dominance in Tel Aviv through his lack of inspiration and appalling player selection, say the critics. Some have cited the fact that the Second Lebanon War broke out just after the new coach arrived in Israel last summer, hampering his efforts to encourage quality foreign basketball players to opt for Tel Aviv as their preferred club. But this cannot compensate for the fact that Spahija did not even come close to replacing the NBA-bound Anthony Parker and Maceo Baston, or even Will Solomon when he brought in Will Bynum, Rodney Buford, Noel Felix and Goran Jeretin. The players who joined the Maccabi roster this season were simply not good enough to represent what was then the second-best team in Europe. Watching Maccabi throughout the 2006/7 season, there has been an obvious lack of quality and urgency - two aspects that had been ever-present in previous years. Although the club started the season off well with a rousing defeat of Hapoel Jerusalem, the concerns were there from the start, especially in Europe. In the first group stage of the Euroleague, Maccabi won all its games in Tel Aviv but lost a worrying six out of seven on the road. In the top sixteen stage that followed, Maccabi may have been victorious in four out of six games, but the home defeat by Tau Vitoria in what had previously been an impenetrable Yad Eliyahu was a sign of things to come. The fans were clearly disappointed, voicing their frustration at both the players and coach. Spahija's lack of confidence and inspiration was clear after each of the significant defeats. Following the losses to both Tau and CSKA, rather than appearing bullish and strong, Spahija came across as a man accepting the inevitable. Most obviously in the press conference after the Tau game - the first game Maccabi played after the State Cup defeat to Hapoel - he repeatedly admitted that he felt the team had played very well in practice and he had prepared them as best he could. At the same time, while refusing to quit, the coach stressed that this was a new team which is not as good as the old lineup, implying that the fans should never have expected a winning team. One of the few positive decisions the Croatian made was to promote a number of Israelis - especially young Israeli players - to the forefront of his team. They failed him. Lior Eliyahu has shown flashes of brilliance, but not enough to lead the team. Tal Burstein's much anticipated return from injury came to nothing, with the 26-year-old making far less of an impact than was hoped. And after all the hype surrounding Yotam Halperin last summer, when it was rumored that he would be playing for the Seattle Supersonics this season, the point guard has been unable to reproduce the form which brought him to the NBA draft in the first place. Looking forward to next season and beyond, the failure of these Israeli players to live up to the hype, coupled with the fact that the team will again have to be built from scratch over the coming summer, should concern the Maccabi fans the most - and build expectations for the Jerusalem fans. It now appears that Spahija was not the right man for the job, and it was a mistake of Maccabi coach Shimon Mizrahi and his management team to appoint him in the first place. Now they will have to suffer the humiliation of admitting this in public, getting rid of Spahija and much of his below-par squad, and starting all over again. Away from Europe, Maccabi's most significant loss came in Jerusalem on March 29. Hapoel may have won by only one point, 89-88, but this point represented a winning attitude and hunger for success evident in Jerusalem. This can be seen in the eyes of the players and, just as importantly, in the eyes of their fans. While Maccabi is a club in despair, Jerusalem is a team on the up. It bounced back from its ULEB Cup elimination to perform strongly in the league, and is led by a man who learned his trade under Pini Gershon in Tel Aviv. After years of chopping and changing, following last season's debacle under Erez Edelstein, former Maccabi Tel Aviv assistant coach Dan Shamir took control as Hapoel coach last summer. Shamir is waiting on the sidelines as he slowly but surely builds a winning team in Jerusalem. Whereas Tel Aviv fans have only ageing stars like Derrick Sharp and Nikola Vujcic to look for hope, Hapoel has the superb Mario Austin who has had an impressive season, the towering Meir Tapiro and the pitbull-like Dror Hajaj, as well as the impending return of Matan Naor from injury. And the decision of last season's fan favorite Horace Jenkins to come back to Jerusalem has only boosted anticipation in the holy city. Hapoel has every chance of taking the Israeli Premier League title from Maccabi this season, especially as the format changed last season with the league winner now decided in a one-off final game. But it is not only about this season, however significant that could be. If Hapoel do win the league title it would leave Maccabi without a trophy for the first season in a very long time. With the club forced to recruit a new manager and new players in the postseason, this may spell the end of Maccabi Tel Aviv's superiority in Israeli basketball - and the start of the new Hapoel Jerusalem era. Three important points could tip the balance: the passion of the Hapoel fans, the decision of the Jerusalem municipality to back the construction of a new basketball arena in the city, and the financial support of billionaire businessman Arkadi Gaydamak. Hapoel's fans, in the most part, despise Maccabi Tel Aviv and constantly clamor for a winning team. While Maccabi's fans have been able to rest on their laurels, Hapoel's continuously drive their team forward. In Tel Aviv the 10,000-seat arena may be packed for European games, but is usually more than half empty for local league matches, even the relatively important ones. In Jerusalem there is a deep felt passion at every Hapoel game. When built next year, the new Jerusalem arena will initially seat only 5,000 spectators, but will have the option of doubling in size. If Hapoel continues to win and defeats Maccabi in the league, it is likely that the Jerusalem team will be accepted into the Euroleague and be able to challenge its rival both at home and on the continent. And if Hapoel continues to win, it is likely that the arena will be full for every game, something that will inspire the players and help to create a solid financial base. The key will come with Gaydamak. The Betar Jerusalem soccer team owner turned his back on the club after a dispute with the management at the start of this season, but after the State Cup win he appears to have come back. If Gaydamak can commit to Hapoel, the club will have the funds as well as the passion and arena to attract top quality players. Along with the coaching of Shamir and the lack of confidence in Tel Aviv, perhaps this will spell the beginning of the downfall of Maccabi Tel Aviv.