American-Israeli hoopster earns his wings

Mac TA’s Sandy Cohen had a unique start, but settled into key role for newly-crowned champ

SANDY COHEN helped Maccabi Tel Aviv win the Israeli championship in his first professional season, with the 24-year-old contributing more during the playoffs (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
SANDY COHEN helped Maccabi Tel Aviv win the Israeli championship in his first professional season, with the 24-year-old contributing more during the playoffs
“I feel that I can have an impact on winning and I can do a lot of things that can help this team.”
That’s what Sandy Cohen III told The Jerusalem Post back in September when he had just signed his first professional contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv and joined the storied franchise in Israel.
Who would have thought that almost 12 months later, Sandy Cohen was going to be Maccabi’s X-Factor in winning its 54th local league championship? But there he was hitting three-pointer after three-pointer in this week’s Winner League final against Maccabi Rishon Lezion and notching 16 points to help the yellow-and-blue to the title.
After a frustrating semifinal in which Cohen was held scoreless in 11 minutes of subpar action, the Green Bay native knew he had to come out strong when it counted most.
“It was an awesome game,” exclaimed the 24-year-old shooting guard. “My teammates and coaches gave me confidence and told me to shoot the ball more and play aggressive and that’s what happened. It’s big that coach wanted me to be more aggressive and I was extra motivated to make up for the semifinal. I stayed ready to go after the game. For me the biggest thing in the final was just seeing that first shot go in, it was a huge thing for me and a relief. From there I was able to settle into the game.”
Maccabi head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos put together a masterful game plan that KO’ed Rishon from the get-go by starting both of his big men, eventual Final Four MVP Amar’e Stoudemire and Othello Hunter, together.
“It was just playing to our advantage and that was our size,” said Cohen. “We had a really big lineup and we were able to play the mismatch in the post and keep the game simple. Coach had a great strategy to start that big lineup and it’s a great fit for us, especially in Israeli basketball where our advantage can be our size. Shout out to coach for that.”
Cohen couldn’t believe his luck when Stoudemire signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv in January after being spurned by his former team Hapoel Jerusalem.
“I never would have thought in a million years that I’d be playing with Amar’e Stoudemire. I remember STAT playing for the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony and how he dominated games. I watched him on TV when I was in high school and he would go crazy dunking on the other players. This is something I never thought could happen and it’s just awesome to have a veteran play with me just like that.
You see how hard he works and still at this age he’s always in the gym and you can see his passion and love for the game. He brings so much energy it’s a blessing to have someone like Amare on my team and to learn from him.”
The 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) swingman joined Maccabi Tel Aviv during the summer after starring at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay with 17.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists starting in 37 of 38 games and leading his team to a 21-17 record while being named to the First Team All-Horizon League.
The yellow-and-blue brass had their eyes on Cohen – especially due to his Jewish heritage which would allow him to qualify for Israeli citizenship and not count against the league’s foreigner limit – and nabbed him as soon as he finished school.
However, it took quite some time for him to finally receive the appropriate paperwork and was cleared to play once the league returned form the coronavirus break.
“It was one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve ever been a part of just having to sit out on the sidelines and just wait for the citizenship to go through. It was a long season, but I’m glad that I am a little bit more mature and knew to stay ready and keep working and that really ended up working out for me.”
Although he was able to play in the Euroleague it was more of a substitute, filler role.
“I was definitely a fill guy for the Euroleague because we had so many injuries. The main plan was to play more in the Israeli league and I couldn’t play because I hadn’t gotten my citizenship yet.
“Before I got here I knew it was going to be a process and that was something I kind of embraced. My game is still growing and still developing and I’m just starting to feel comfortable and learn the system. This is my first season playing European basketball and first year as a pro. I’m just trying to take it all in and I think Coach Ioannis really likes me, gives me confidence and keeps me motivated. He does his job very well.”
Sfairopoulos is happy with Cohen, as well.
“Sandy is a player who is learning the game in Europe and he has talent,” said the 53-year-old Greek coach. “He has abilities and skills, but needs experience. Now that he has the right to play in the Israeli league he will build his game and we counted on him now, and will in the future.”
Cohen had the opportunity to bring up the ball for Maccabi on numerous occasions and had absolutely no problem doing that.
“It feels comfortable for me and my senior year in college I played point guard for the majority of the season. So I definitely feel comfortable with the ball in my hands.
“But this is a new level and just getting comfortable with the system, with the team and my role. As I get more comfortable my role will expand and bringing up the ball will be something that I will be doing more regularly. This was my first year and I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible and try to make the least amount of mistakes to keep getting more playing time.”
Next season Cohen will be expected to take a larger role, especially in the Israeli league with Deni Avdija heading to the NBA.
“It feels good and this is one of the biggest clubs in Europe and historically the best team in Israel. So it feels amazing to play on a team like this, have a big role and I’ll work hard this summer and I will come back more ready for the next year.”
Cohen was happy that his family was able to join him for the end of the season and made the strict quarantine restrictions easier on him.
“For me it was tough but easier for me when my son and his mom got here. It wasn’t easy and it was tough staying just in the house and going to practice, it was really draining. It’s not good for players to be cooped up in the house for so long.”
With the longest campaign in recent history coming to an end, Cohen is finally free of the league’s quarantine rules and regulations and, boy, is he happy.
“I was the first person in the mall this morning, up bright and early. It’s great to have the freedom to do what I want to do. But the championship was worth it and now I’m free.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents ( Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at