Hapoel Galil Elyon returned to action in the Israel Basketball League for the first time in more than a decade this past week when it tipped off against Hapoel Jerusalem in what was a hotly contested battle, eventually won by the capital city Reds.
However, just two days later the Galilee squad downed Balkan BC in the Balkan League competition, which gave the fans from all around the region a chance to celebrate a victory as they eagerly flock to Kfar Blum, where they can once again see their heroes in action.
The proud franchise which featured many great players over the years – including Omri Casspi, Lior Eliyahu, Oded Katash, Doron Sheffer and Brad Leaf – merged with Hapoel Gilboa Galil in 2008 and was then re-established the following year as it began playing in the lower leagues.
The club, which won the Israeli League championship in 1993 under the direction of coach Pini Gershon, also captured a pair of Israel State Cups and now looks to reignite the area’s passion towards the sport which already sees a boisterous youth department serving all of the communities in the area.
To celebrate the club’s return to prominence after reaching promotion by winning the Leumit League title last season, The Jerusalem Post spoke to the Galil Elyon’s Chairman Tamir Abrahams, who commented about the club’s goals, recent challenges and how exciting it is to begin a new journey and forge a new and unique path for not only the basketball team but for the entire Upper Galilee region.
“After 13 years in the lower divisions, it’s very exciting to be back,” Abrahams began. “This team is part of the DNA of the Galil Elyon, Upper Galilee area for all of these years. When the franchise went to Gilboa, we felt that something was taken away from us and we wanted to bring it back. Finally, it happened. At the end of last season we were able to allow fans back into the arena and one could see how important this team was for the region and for the people; the children, the adults, absolutely everyone.
“The population in the surrounding communities has continued to grow and there are many young families that have moved into the Kiryat Shmona area as well as the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim. We see how many children have registered for the club’s youth programs, it’s tremendous.”
Abrahams went on to explain how the team has a responsibility to all of the communities in the area and how important it is for the players who are with the team to be part and parcel with this mission.
“After the championship game back in June that saw us move up to the top league, the players went to the schools to talk to the children and thank them instead of heading back to the United States right away. Now that we are in the top league, both the kids and parents feel its importance. The players are part of our community here and the children in the youth academy who see them understand that they can have the dream to move up to the top basketball league.”
As for long-term goals Abrahams wants to set the groundwork that the club will establish a tradition that will work hand-and-hand to see the team become a mainstay in the league.
“We want to expand the existing arena and bring it up to the level of the top league, where we want to stay for the long term and not just go back down to the Leumit League. We want to consistently take part in European competition and we are doing just that this season as we are competing in the Balkan League. We want to be on the map, to show that a team in the periphery can be a serious player.”
Abrahams lives in Kfar Giladi and was a part of the Galil Elyon youth system.
“The community life is important to me. This is my third year as the club’s chairman and during this time period, we were able to gain promotion. I come from a business background and when I was asked to come on board as the chairman, I knew this was a mission that I wanted to be a part of and I grabbed it with both hands. There are so many people that are active here from sponsors to staff and fans.”
As chairman, Abrahams perhaps may not be involved in every single small detail of the club, but he is certainly around enough to make his presence felt.
“I am not involved in the day-to-day activities, but I lead the management team and I have responsibilities on both the professional and management sides. I will be at the practices and be around the club, but there is also a manager and a sports director as well. We are looking at the long term and wanted to put together the infrastructure in order to have a team that will succeed.”
Abrahams was able to convince Zohar Levkovitz, who has been very successful in high tech, to be involved in the club, which definitely has helped the stature of the franchise in Israel’s north,“Zohar grew up in Kibbutz Dafna which is in the Galilee. When we met with him, he had been in high tech in America for years. But when he came back to Israel from America, we saw that we could do some good things together. He wants to give back to his community and he also wants people to see that you can reach the highest levels even when coming from the periphery. He told me he wanted to be in the top league right away and we ended up doing it. The sky is the limit with Zohar.”
As for reaching the Premier league, Abrahams spoke about the keys to the club’s success while also discussing the various challenges he faced over the last couple of years.
“It was a tough year, but we were able to sign some good players who were able to help us get to the top league. In April, we were able to make some changes with our foreign players and we were able to become one of the best teams in the league.
“The two years of the coronavirus really hurt the Leumit League and even stopped the league in the first year of COVID-19. We then had to furlough players and staff and the league started and stopped, started again and stopped. Then we had Operation Guardians of the Wall and that halted the playoffs. We didn’t know what was going to happen the next day. It was so hard not to have fans at the games as well. But we were able to get to the end of the season with a full arena and it was amazing.”
Hapoel Galil Elyon enters the season with only one well known Israeli players in Nimrod Levi, but the club has several up-and-coming Sabras, including Itay Moskowitz, as well as high-quality import players.
“We won many preseason games with young players who have a lot of upside where they can continue to improve, Whether it is Itay, Omer Tal, Gaby Chachashvili or the imports in Bryce Washington, Ike Iroegbu or Kyle Gibson, they have already or will help us move up a league. As for Moskowitz, he is one of the players who can give us a a lot and he can even perhaps go play abroad.
He has a lot of versatility and he will contribute to the team this year. He is not just a name to have here.”
One of the most interning names associated with the club is Avishay Gordon, who helped Hapoel Gilboa/Galil reach the league finals last year where it fell to Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-1 in the best-of-three series. Gordon returns to his home club and will take up the mantle of assistant coach under Barak Peleg, the coach who led Galil Elyon to the promised land.
“Avishay has had an interesting career and he led his team last season to a second-place finish, while a few years ago he led our team to the Leumit final. When Barak Peleg was signed and Yonatan Alon was already here we thought it was only right that he be a part of our staff. We have a deep staff that is very good and sports no egos. Avishay is a person first and a person who comes from this region.
“As for the head coach, Barak Peleg, he is the type of person who has the DNA of Galil Elyon. He has a quiet way of doing things and when there was pressure at the end of last season he was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and bring the results. He took us up a league.”
Abrahams is very hopeful as the season is about to open and he credits a strong training camp as the club looks to take its first steps back in the Premier League.
“The preseason was very good, and we were able to get the players on the same page and bring the character of the team to life. We have four coaches here along with sports director Yonatan Alon who are all part of the club. We built for the long term and the foundation for years to come.”
As for the short term this season, Abrahams has some very lofty goals for a team making its first foray into the top division.
“Our goal is to make the championship playoffs and not battle for relegation. Even if the Sport5 says that we will end up in 11th or 12th place, I know that we will be better.
“We are a competitive club and want to win every title available. We want to see strong youth teams and more children singing up to join them and I want to see the fans come and enjoy basketball in a full arena.”