A good catch?

Hapoel Jerusalem prepares to begin the local basketball season under new owner Guma Aguiar.

Oded Katash 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Oded Katash 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Jerusalem fans have gotten used to the fact that there never seems to be a dull moment at their beloved basketball club. But even they were surely rubbing their eyes in disbelief two weeks ago when it was announced that Guma Aguiar was the new owner of Hapoel.
It seemed that we had heard the last of the colorful 34-year-old American businessman when he exited Israeli sports in remarkable fashion at the start of last year after he was forcibly admitted to the Abarbanel Psychiatric Hospital following a mental breakdown. Aguiar first came to Hapoel’s rescue in August 2009 when he gave the cash-strapped club $1.5 million, a month after transferring the capital’s top soccer team, Beitar Jerusalem, $4m.
But even after Aguiar returned to the US to continue his recovery, Hapoel chairman Danny Klein remained in touch with the Brazilian-born energy industrialist, and earlier this year he even declared that Aguiar had agreed to give the team $1m. a season.
Hapoel fans had little reason to object to that. After all, anyone who wants to spend his money on strengthening his team without any clear personal gain is more than welcome to do so, regardless of his mental state.
However, those same supporters were left wondering what would become of their team after Klein announced that Aguiar was Hapoel’s new boss, agreeing to transfer it $1.75m. in each of the next three seasons for a 60 percent stake of the club.
“The process that began with Guma two years ago has come to an end after the club’s directorate approved to transfer him a 60% stake,” Klein announced during Hapoel’s season-opening press conference two weeks ago. “He will be the majority owner and the boss. This is something that will help us ensure that we have a reasonable budget in the next few seasons.”
Despite a generous sponsorship deal with the Migdal insurance company, Klein found himself almost begging for donations in recent summers in an attempt to ensure that Jerusalem would have the money it needs to build a competitive team.
The agreement with Aguiar means that for the first time Hapoel has a majority owner and is not controlled by a management group. Klein and the current directorate are set to remain in their positions in the near future, though Jerusalem fans are concerned that the little stability the club had will be lost under the unstable Aguiar.
But Klein is confident this move is in the best interest of Jerusalem, especially as it secures the club’s financial future until the expected completion of the arena in Jerusalem in two years’ time, which should help the team generate far more income than it can create at its current home at the Malha Arena.
“I’ve known Guma for two years and have spent countless hours with him. He has lived up to every agreement he has signed with us in the past and has always had Jerusalem sports and the city’s community in his best interests,” Klein said. “We are very proud to have Guma as an owner. We have been given all the assurances we wanted, and we are delighted by this development. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and tears will be running down my cheeks when we play our first game of the season.”
Aguiar’s money will allow coach Oded Katash to strengthen his roster with the extra two players he believes he needs so that Jerusalem can finally challenge for titles once more.
Hapoel hasn’t won any silverware since lifting the State Cup in victory in 2008, and perhaps even more worrying is the fact that it has failed to make it to the Basketball Super League final in the last three seasons.
Jerusalem is traditionally regarded as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s main rival for local supremacy, but the stark truth is that in recent years it hasn’t even been able to get the better of the rest of the BSL.
Katash established his place as the brightest coaching prospect in Israel two years ago when he guided 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 at Malha were sky high last season. But nothing went as he had hoped in his first year in Jerusalem, with some analysts even suggesting that he only held on to his job due to his celebrity status. Katash believes he has learned from last season’s experience, and despite replacing almost his entire roster – with Brian Randle, Yuval Naimi and Uri Kukia the only senior survivors – the coach is confident that better days lie ahead.
“We focused on different aspects when we built the roster this season,” Katash said. “We first and foremost wanted to make sure that we bring in players who would fit in socially. That was a lesson we learned from last season. It is essential for a club like Jerusalem to have a team that will know how to overcome a crisis, so we focused on building a united and fighting side. We really want to do more and talk less this season. The guys who joined have a special character, and there’s a special atmosphere around this team.”
Hapoel’s new signings include Americans Luke Jackson, D.J. Strawberry and Jarvis Varnado, with Israel forward and 2009/10 BSL MVP Elishay Kadir also joining Jerusalem to renew his partnership with Katash from their days together at Gilboa.
“It’s still tough to say what we can achieve this season, but one thing I can already say is that this isn’t a one-dimensional team,” Katash said. “I want to believe that we will have a team that will know how to win through defense and offense. I had hoped that last season would go better so that we could build on that. But that didn’t happen, and we have assembled a new roster for this season. Whatever happens, this is a team that the fans will be proud of, a team that will give its all in every game.”
Hapoel faces Maccabi Ashdod in the quarter finals of the preseason Chance Cup on Sunday and will begin its league campaign at home to Bnei Hasharon a week later.
A BSL final appearance and runs in the State Cup and Eurocup are expected from Hapoel once more this season, but the club’s fans have got something else in mind altogether.
With Aguiar now established as the owner, and after everything they have been through recently, the Hapoel faithful will be happy to settle for not much more than an uneventful year.
Considering Jerusalem’s recent track record, that is hardly likely to happen.