The Israel National Team is hard at work on the court getting ready for a pair of FIBA World Cup 2023 qualifiers against Germany – on Friday in Tel Aviv and on Monday in Heidelberg – as the two squads will play a home-and-home series to tip-off the second window of games.
Israel began qualifying on the right foot with two wins in as many games back in November and will look to continue its fine play in this round. However, this time the blue-and-white will be without a number of Maccabi Tel Aviv players who won’t be available due to injuries and sickness across the yellow-and-blue squad.
While Israel will have the services of stalwart forward Jake Cohen for the Friday game only after an agreement was made between the Israel Basketball Association, Maccabi Tel Aviv and the player himself, Iftach Ziv, John DiBartolomeo and Roman Sorkin – who have all contracted COVID-19 – won’t be available.
Originally, Maccabi had stated that it would not release any of its players for National Team duty due to various injuries and Sorkin having tested positive for COVID-19. But at the pregame press conference ahead of the two games, the Israel Basketball Association stated that Maccabi’s decision was unacceptable and that an agreement had been reached as to who would be made available.
However, a decision was made between the parties that Cohen would train with the National Team, fly to Istanbul for Maccabi’s Euroleague game at Anadolu EFES and then play for Israel on Friday afternoon back in Tel Aviv.
Cohen explained that it’s an honor to play for Israel and would do so whenever possible.
“The National Team means a lot to me. It’s one of the best experiences that I’ve had as a professional, it’s pure basketball and everyone just wants to win. There are no ulterior motives, it’s pure. If I can have the opportunity to represent Israel, I’m going to do it. I expressed to Ami Bitton, the Maccabi manager, and the National Team that I would do it if they were ok with it and I am grateful that they are because I think it is a really cool opportunity. How many guys can play Euroleague one night and then represent their country the next? I think it’s great.”
Israel Head Coach Guy Goodes was asked how the absence of some of the Maccabi players would affect preparations for the games.
“I don’t know how much has changed, but we did have a plan and whoever is here we will do what we can and the best that we can. Someone else will step into other players’ shoes and that is the situation right now. Maccabi said what they did, but we will do the best with what we have here with us.”
Due to the registration rules of FIBA, Israel can’t bring in another player and will have to make do with the players who had been on the original list of 24. Israel has a number of new players on the squad, including Max Heidegger who has been playing in Germany after being loaned out by Maccabi Tel Aviv, as well as Yair Kravitz.
The team also welcomed back a number of players who had not been part of the National Team in some time in Shawn Dawson and Bar Timor, who have many years of experience playing at the international level.
“Shawn and Bar are back,” captain Gal Mekel said excitedly. “There are new faces as well in Max, Yair and Gil Beni. It’s great that they are here. We’re all together again as we have been the last few years. It’s great to see everyone and we are looking forward to continuing to play well and seeing how far we can go.”
Dawson, who has not played with the National Team in some time after suffering numerous injuries while playing Spain over the past few years, is excited to be back in the fold after a spectacular State Cup victory with his club team Bnei Herzliya.
“I’m always happy to be here with the National Team,” Dawson said. “I feel that I always have a place here and now I’m one of the veterans instead of being a youngster. I’m physically stronger than in the past and although I haven’t played with many of the current players on the squad, we will be able to continue playing the way we know we can.”
It had been thought that Heidegger, who will be making his debut for Israel, would end up playing for Austria where his father is from. But the naturalized Israeli decided to represent the blue-and-white and Goodes is very content to have the guard on board.
“I’m very happy that Max joined the team and he can add plenty with his individual play and abilities as well as his scoring from the outside. We knew that we would be without John DiBartolomeo, who would not be released, and we had to bring in someone who could help the National Team. We are also planning to use Max not only as a player but as a scout as he has been playing in the German League this season. It’s great that Max can talk about every one of their players.”
Veteran forward Guy Pnini is also excited to have Heidegger on the team.
“He brings a lot of talent and the ability to hit his shots, along with tremendous personal abilities to create on the court.
Regardless of who will be available and who won’t be, Goodes is very well aware that Germany is a strong National Team that is hosting the Eurobasket finals this summer and is always at the top of European basketball,
“It’s interesting that we will play home-and-away, back-to-back against one team. We had a good first window and we want to continue that. Germany is a good team and it doesn’t matter who is on their roster. They will play tough and they won in Poland and lost to Estonia, but they are strong and physical and we will have to find ways to counter them. We have a very important game on Friday.”
Germany will have some fluctuation in its roster with a number of Euroleague players becoming available for the second game that takes place in Heidelberg, while Israel will most probably have Tamir Blatt for that game after playing in Euroleague action for Alba Berlin.
With the changes in the rosters, preparation may be quite different for the two games.
“Adjustments in sport are part of the game and you always have to be ready to make changes. You may have wanted to have certain players available or prepared to play against certain ones, but in most cases, there is a base that has been able to play together already. That is what we have to prepare for and for this window we have one more day to prepare.”
As for expectations, Goodes is aware that with a stronger German squad in game two, the first game will be a must-win for Israel.
“If we win one of two it will be good. But it would be amazing to win both games and it is possible. The first game is very important and we know that there won’t be some players that they will have for the next game. We know each other very well after playing many times over the last few years and what is for sure is that we have to be ready for Friday.”