A basket case?

A season that promised so much for Hapoel Jerusalem has deteriorated into a prolonged embarrassment for a club that prides itself as being Maccabi Tel Aviv’s main threat.

hapoel jerusalem_311 (photo credit: Cajasol Sevilla website)
hapoel jerusalem_311
(photo credit: Cajasol Sevilla website)
Hapoel Jerusalem has one of the most loyal fan bases in the Israeli BSL (Basketball Super League). But last week, even the club’s faithful finally cracked.
Coach Oded Katash and his team left the Malha Arena court to a chorus of boos and taunts after last Monday’s 86-80 defeat at the hands of Hapoel Holon, a loss that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
A season that promised so much just four months ago has deteriorated into a prolonged embarrassment for a club that prides itself as the alternative to Maccabi Tel Aviv’s dominance of local basketball.
Despite being a Maccabi icon from his playing days for the yellow-and-blue, Katash was embraced by Hapoel supporters when he first arrived last summer.
The 36-year-old established his place as the brightest coaching prospect in Israel last season, guiding Hapoel Gilboa/Galil to the league championship with a victory over Tel Aviv.
After recording such unexpected success with the unheralded Gilboa, the expectations from Katash were sky high.
With the team failing to reach the Final Four title game in the previous three seasons, Katash was given a relatively free hand to rebuild the roster.
He brought in Brian Randle and Dion Dowell from Gilboa, retained the services of Israelis Yuval Naimi, Yogev Ohayon and Uri Kukia, while also signing Americans Jason Rich and Sam Clancy.
Jerusalem’s most significant addition of the off-season, one that might not have had Katash’s full support, was that of Will Solomon. The 32-year-old playmaker returned to Malha six years after leading the team to the ULEB Cup in the 2003/04 season, and although clearly past his prime, he seemed to have found a common language with Katash at the start of the campaign.
At one stage, Hapoel won four straight BSL games and was well placed in Group G of the Eurocup regular season, thanks to an impressive victory over Cajasol Sevilla in Spain. However, it wasn’t long before matters began to go horribly wrong.
Randle and Kukia went down to long-term injuries, a massive blow to Jerusalem’s already dilapidated frontcourt, and with no big-man replacement arriving until this week, the team struggled desperately.
Humbling Eurocup defeats in the Czech Republic and Latvia were followed by a home loss to Sevilla, ending Hapoel’s European campaign far earlier than anyone had expected.
That was soon followed by a humiliating home loss to Barak Netanya in the quarterfinals of the State Cup and some terribly poor play in the league, culminating in the defeat to Holon. The loss to Holon was especially demeaning, as it came against a team that faces financial meltdown and, as a result, had only seven senior players at its disposal.
“I can’t explain our performance,” Katash said. “We seemed to be entering the game in good form, and there is no reasonable explanation for what happened to us. This was the first time the fans expressed their frustrations, and rightly so. I can only apologize to them.”
But Hapoel fans don’t want apologies, they want wins. Katash is hopeful they will soon get them.
“We’ve been through a rough and frustrating period, but I think that the frustration from our play in recent months could go on to fuel us to success,” he said after Sunday’s 103-93 victory over Barak Netanya. “The most important thing is that we make sure we are ready for the playoffs and battle for a place in the Final Four.”
The loss to Holon could also have had an effect on Jerusalem’s chances of future success.
American businessmen Ra’anan Katz and Guma Aguiar were both on hand at Malha for that game after meeting with team representatives regarding a future investment in the club. They were surely far from impressed.
Nevertheless, chairman Danny Klein proved once more why he is regarded as a masterful fund-raiser, announcing last week with Aguiar that the millionaire will inject at least $1 million a year over the next three seasons.
Aguiar had given the cashstrapped club $1.5m. at the start of last season, only to exit Israeli sports in remarkable fashion after being forcibly admitted to the Abarbanel Psychiatric Hospital just over a year ago following a mental breakdown. But Klein managed to lure him back, and Aguiar believes that this time his relationship with the club will last a lot longer.
“The last thing I want to do is mess the organization up,” said Aguiar, who added that he wants to be part of the club for the next 25 years. “I don’t want to get involved in the details of running the club. My investment with Hapoel just confirms my love and commitment to Jerusalem and sports here.”
Klein is also hopeful that Aguiar will stay around for the long term.
“Guma has proven more than once that his love for Jerusalem and sports is above all else,” Klein said.
“Hapoel hasn’t played the way we expected recently, but we are at least hoping that it makes the Final Four again.”
Katz, a former part owner of Maccabi Tel Aviv, is also showing signs of wanting a stake in the club, attending the team’s game for a second straight week on Sunday.
With the building of the Jerusalem Arena, Hapoel’s new and lavish home, scheduled to be completed some time during 2013, the future of the club seems to be very bright. But if Jerusalem fans have learned one thing from the past few months, it is that the higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment.
A brand new arena and rich owners are all very nice, but for the moment all Hapoel supporters want is to stop being embarrassed by their team’s ineptitude. • In Jerusalem will be publishing a monthly column on community, amateur and professional sports. To suggest topics to Jerusalem Post sports writer Allon Sinai, write to allon@jpost.com