A historic win, but no slam dunk

Reveling in Hapoel Jerusalem’s victory, the triumph of a stormy season, even in the face of a Euroleague snub.

Confetti blankets the Hapoel Jerusalem's team as captain Yotam Halperin hoists the trophy, (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Confetti blankets the Hapoel Jerusalem's team as captain Yotam Halperin hoists the trophy,
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Such has been Hapoel Jerusalem’s season that the drama continued even four days after its final game of the campaign had ended.
Fresh off claiming its first Israeli championship, Jerusalem faced another crucial day in club history earlier this week. The Euroleague board assembled to discuss the allocation of wild-card berths for next season’s competition, with Jerusalem considered one of the main candidates to join continental basketball’s premier club competition.
Since the takeover of the club by the ownership group led by Ori Allon two years ago, and in particular after moving to its new arena this season, Hapoel has been in talks with the Euroleague in the hope of one day becoming a permanent member. Hapoel was handed a wildcard entry into the qualifiers for 2014- 2015, but it failed to progress.
Allon and team officials met with Euroleague president Jordi Bertomeu at the Final Four earlier this year in an attempt to persuade him to accept Hapoel, sparing no effort in their bid to become part of the Euroleague.
However, that bid officially failed on Monday when the Euroleague overlooked Jerusalem and decided to instead grant wild-card berths to teams from Germany, France, Russia and Turkey.
Hapoel knew it wasn’t among the favorites to receive direct entry, but nevertheless was hoping that last week’s title would turn the tide in its favor and help it achieve one more of its major goals.
It ultimately came up short, but that certainly didn’t discourage Hapoel, which remains confident that it is only a matter of time until it eventually joins the Euroleague.
“If it doesn’t happen this season, it will happen next season,” affirmed club CEO Guy Harel shortly before the Euroleague’s announcement. “We will be in the Euroleague, and we will be a valuable member.”
Part-owner Eyal Chomski even went as far as guaranteeing the fans during the championship celebrations that Hapoel will one day be crowned European champion.
That day is still far away, but Allon is optimistic the club is headed in the right direction.
“I think to win one championship will be great and an important milestone, but we want to create a club that understands how to grow its fanbase and how to fill the arena, and in five to 10 years from now won’t depend on me or anyone else providing the funding,” Allon told In Jerusalem last week.
“Obviously, we will keep supporting the club in the near future for sure, but hopefully the club can reach a place where it is very consistent on-court winning titles – not just once in 70 years, but winning consistently and getting to finals and being a real contender.
“I think one championship is great, but only if you see it as a stepping stone to becoming a great club which brings great results.”
Jerusalem completed a 2-0 win over Hapoel Eilat in the BSL home-and-away aggregate final last week, with an 88-68 win in a sold-out and raucous Jerusalem Arena.
The significance of the triumph was not lost on anyone in attendance, especially not the 34-year-old Allon, who has already sold start-ups to Google and Twitter and is currently achieving even greater success with his third company, Urban Compass.
It was just six months ago that Allon took to Facebook to threaten his players.
“It doesn’t matter what your name is, if I don’t see 100-percent commitment from you, I’ll send you packing. Now shut up and show some heart,” was what he wrote a day after his team dropped to a humbling BSL loss to Ironi Nahariya in what was one of its lowest points of the season.
The defeat to Nahariya came four days after Jerusalem was officially knocked out of Europe, and a season which began with so much promise seemed to be unraveling at the seams.
Optimism was abounding ahead of the start of the campaign, with Hapoel moving into its new state-of-the-art arena and selling a record number of over 5,000 season tickets. The club retained the services of Lior Eliyahu, Yotam Halperin, Bracey Wright and Derwin Kitchen while bringing in Joseph Jones, Tony Gaffney and last season’s BSL MVP, Donta Smith.
An erratic start to the season would follow, but after decades of a fruitless chase of Maccabi Tel Aviv combined with ever-changing eccentric owners of the likes of Arkadi Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar, Hapoel finally claimed its first major title since lifting the State Cup in 2008, winning 23 of 25 regular season and playoff games over the final five months.
It lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the State Cup final, but didn’t even need to overcome the yellow-and-blue on the way to the league title. Maccabi surrendered a 0-2 lead in a best-of-five series against Hapoel Eilat in the semis, failing to reach the final for the first time since 1993.
Nevertheless, Maccabi remains the only Israeli club guaranteed a place in the Euroleague regular season due to a contract it has with the organizers that secures its berth regardless of the outcome of its BSL campaign.
“We accept the Euroleague’s decision,” read a Hapoel Jerusalem statement. “This decision will not divert us from the long-term goals set out by the management and ownership led by Ori Allon when they bought the club two years ago. The Israeli champion will build a strong and attractive team which will aspire to succeed in all competitions next season.”
Over 8,000 fans celebrated with the team in Safra Square long into the night following the win over Eilat, with President Reuven Rivlin honoring the team at his home this past Sunday.
“You caused an earthquake in Israeli sport,” Rivlin feted the players. “As a Jerusalemite, I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart. You have brought the city a lot of honor.”
The roster and staff were then welcomed by Mayor Nir Barkat at city hall, before ending the day with a party with supporters at the Jerusalem Arena.
Times are good in Jerusalem, and even the news that the club had been snubbed by the Euroleague did little to dampen the spirits.
Hapoel is on the way up, and considering what has been achieved in the first two years under the new ownership, next season couldn’t start soon enough.