Zoosman makes Tel Aviv return as foe

After years with Maccabi, Israeli swingman acclimating and growing in first season in Berlin.

 YOVEL ZOOSMAN was back on the court at Yad Eliyahu this week, albeit in a visitor’s jersey, having departed Maccabi Tel Aviv in the offseason to sign with ALBA Berlin.  (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
YOVEL ZOOSMAN was back on the court at Yad Eliyahu this week, albeit in a visitor’s jersey, having departed Maccabi Tel Aviv in the offseason to sign with ALBA Berlin.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)

A quite rare occurrence took place this past week at Yad Eliyahu when Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted ALBA Berlin in Euroleague action.

An Israeli player came back to his home and to his roots to tip off against his former club in front of over 10,000 fans in the top continental competition.

Yovel Zoosman became the first player to do just that since Lior Eliyahu returned home more than a decade ago during the 2009/10 season with Caja Laboral (Baskonia) when he returned to the hallowed halls of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s legendary home.

The Jerusalem Post spoke to Zoosman, who generously gave of his time immediately following his emotional return and right before he headed to Ben-Gurion Airport where he would join his teammates for Berlin’s next contest.

There was much anticipation for the return of “Zoos” as fans filled the arena despite the game having been postponed from an earlier date due to COVID-19 issues. No matter, Zoosman stepped onto the floor more than an hour before game time to warm up at the opposite end of the court he knows so well.

“I know this arena so well,” Zoosman began. “I can’t forget any part of it and I even noticed all of the small changes that were made. This was my home and I am happy with the seasons that I played here. I don’t know what the future holds, but I enjoyed coming back to play here.”

When the 23-year-old swingman was introduced to the crowd during the pregame player presentation, the reactions were mixed with some cheers and some boos as Zoosman was now identified with an “enemy” team after leaving Maccabi for Berlin during this past summer.

“It was very exciting and not simple at all. Maccabi was better than us and they deserved the win. I know that in part it was due to my feelings and when I do have such feelings I try to control them with my head and not my heart. I can understand the fans and what they are thinking, but I must do what I can for the club.”

For many, it was odd to see Zoosman sporting the blue jersey of a team not called Maccabi Tel Aviv, which was true for fans and former teammates alike.

“It was very weird,” said Maccabi center Ante Zizic. “We played against him once before, but to see him here in a different jersey was weird. But he’s doing well and I wish him all the best in Berlin.”

Zoosman is of course going through an adjustment period, which began when he arrived roughly half a year ago to the once divided city of East and West Germany.

“It’s a process and it’s not easy, but I am maturing and growing while learning a lot about myself. I have a lot of time when I am alone and playing abroad as a foreigner is an entirely different story.”

One saving grace for Zoosman, however, is that he has a teammate that he is very familiar with in Tamir Blatt, who plied his trade for the last few seasons with Hapoel Jerusalem and played with the Kfar Saba native with the various Israel National Teams.

“It’s really helpful to have someone with me and to hang out with,” noted Zoosman. “It’s really important. This is a tough business and you have to really come together as you know they will be with you for the good and the bad. We talk about everything. On the court we can connect by just using our eyes and we are together off of the court as well. It’s a dream for us to play together.

“Tamir has experience playing against Maccabi and he knows what to do and what not to do. I want to win every game, but of course playing against a team that I grew up in is much more than that. Last time against them, we did enough while this time we just didn’t.”

Zoosman has continued to develop his skills under the tutelage of Berlin’s head coach Israel Gonzalez, who has been very acute to his improvements since joining the team.

“He’s a young player and we can’t forget he’s only 23. He struggled a little at the start as we play a lot of transition and we don’t over-execute the plays. He’s doing better every game and he demonstrated in this particular game that he is a mature player by maintaining his composure and his emotions. I’m very happy with his progress and he’s very smart.”

“We are the German League Champions and everyone wants to beat us,” Zoosman said. “So that has been a challenge just like it was with Maccabi. I am trying to improve from practice to practice and from game to game.”

Ioannis Sfairopoulos, who coached Zoosman with Maccabi between 2018-2021, also reflected on his time with the Israeli star.

“I’m happy to see players that I believe in and players who I gave time to on the court improve and continue their careers. I’m very happy as to how he is playing. We gave him the first stage and direction as to how to play.”

As Zoosman began to gather his bags and prepared to depart, he contemplated the choice of moving to Germany and not to continue with the yellow-and-blue.

“I am satisfied with my decision. The choices we make mold our lives and I am happy with the decision I made because due to that my life continues to take shape.”

Following a round of hugs from loved ones, Zoosman reflected on his return home.

“It was very difficult for me to land here. It was very emotional to come back to Israel and see my parents once again. I haven’t been here in about six months and that is the most time that I have ever been away from home. Now I can understand what it’s like to be a foreigner who misses their home, as it’s very tough not to have that support and the support of your family and friends. I appreciate every moment that I will have here with my family before boarding the airplane.”