Behind-the-scenes look at Maccabi Tel Aviv

Yellow-and-blue co-owner Udi Recanati dishes on issues surrounding Israel’s basketball powerhouse.

 MACCABI TEL AVIV co-owner Udi Recanati (center in white) sits on the sidelines with (from left) Shimon Mizrachi, Doron Sheffer and Doron Jamchi.  (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
MACCABI TEL AVIV co-owner Udi Recanati (center in white) sits on the sidelines with (from left) Shimon Mizrachi, Doron Sheffer and Doron Jamchi.

There’s no question that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s current campaign has been like a rollercoaster, with many ups and many downs, but with very little stability or consistency.

From battling the still-remaining challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to the mid-season coaching change and now the exclusion of the three Russian teams in the Euroleague, fans and supporters of the club alike have been a true part of this rocky ride as both the domestic and continental seasons head towards the stretch run.

In order to make some sense of the trials and tribulations Maccabi Tel Aviv has been going through, The Jerusalem Post had the unique opportunity to take part in an intimate conversation with one of the club’s owners, Udi Recanati, who is part of one of the country’s most prominent families in both the business and philanthropic worlds.

Many topics were covered, from the team’s standing among the other great European franchises to the appointment of interim coach Avi Even and the standing general manager and sports director Nikola Vujcic, as well as how the club will look to compete with the other top teams in both budget and talent going forward.

“I don’t like being out in front and prefer to work quietly behind the scenes,” Recanati modestly began. “However, due to the pressure the club has been under recently, it was requested that I talk about our current situation. Firstly, our fans and club as a whole are very important to us. Perhaps at times, we aren’t transparent enough, but I’ve been here for many years. While usually [co-owner and club chairman] Shimon Mizrachi is the one who speaks to the media, the fact is that media coverage, in general, has changed as to how news moves and we want to be out in the open, so that is why I am here.”

Djorde Jovanovic (center) has been worth every penny of his hefty fee, scoring six goals in his first six games with Maccabi Tel Aviv, all of which were wins. (credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV/COURTESY)Djorde Jovanovic (center) has been worth every penny of his hefty fee, scoring six goals in his first six games with Maccabi Tel Aviv, all of which were wins. (credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV/COURTESY)

Fans of the team are always looking for Maccabi to thrive and win championships on the court, but the club’s budget clearly also potentially helps determines that success.

“Our budget is in the middle of the Euroleague teams (80-100 million NIS) and we have never been one of the top teams. Real Madrid, Armani Milano, Barcelona and Fenerbahce are teams that are also supported by their respective football clubs. So it doesn’t matter if they win or lose one season here or there, they will always have financial backing.

“We always want to win every game, every championship and every cup domestically and internationally and in fact we are in the top three clubs that have won in Europe. Budget is something that is determined by a number of factors and we have to build a team that fits within our budget. There are times during the season where people in the organization, from Nikola Vujcic to the coaching and scouting staffs, may want to add a player and we come to an agreement to do so. We invested a lot over the years and we will do so in the future as well. This is a very expensive hobby.”

The pandemic hit many businesses around the globe and that was also true in the sports world, including Maccabi.

“The last two seasons we had to bring the budget down by 20%. But we were still able to have the club compete. We finished in the top eight in 2020 [that campaign ended early due to the pandemic and the postseason did not take place] and this season there is still a chance to do so as well. We will battle every second to accomplish that and we will battle hard. We are already starting to build the team for next year with the budget that we are setting and it may go up a bit.”

There have been rumors that Maccabi’s ownership group – which includes Recanati, Mizrachi, David Federman as well as Americans Richard Deitz and Ben Ashkenazy – may be looking for additional investors, but Recanati says that this is not the case currently.

“More money will always be helpful, but we have no plans on bringing in another person. We are working every day to help Maccabi succeed and if we need to spend more we will. It’s not something that we are planning to do and while there have been some struggles over the last few years, we have won a number of domestic league titles in a row and no other team has done that. So that in itself is a big accomplishment.”

Ioannis Sfairopoulos was one of the most beloved coaches that the franchise has ever had and the fact that he is not Israeli and fell in love with the country made him even a bigger part of the club. However, due to the troubles the team was having and inconsistency throughout the season, management parted ways and brought in the club’s head of scouting, Even, to take over the reins on the sidelines.

Even had not been a head coach for more than a couple of games prior to this promotion and while he has had a rich history as an assistant coach he did not have the experience leading a top-level European team, something that has been an issue with many of the club’s supporters.

“We all love and respect Ioannis Sfairpoulos, everyone around the club does, but we were at a point where we were struggling and we had to make a change. Ioannis did everything he could and we sat for hours discussing the future. A number of years ago we had a tough season where we had to bring in four coaches and we knew that this was not where we wanted to go. We knew that we had a number of months left in this season and we thought about our options. On one hand, we would have been happy to bring in a known top coach like Ettore Messina, Saras Jasikevicius or Zeljko Obradovic. Those are coaches who we would invest a tremendous amount in.

“Avi Even did coach Maccabi a bit in the past and was an assistant with Pini Gershon, David Blatt, Guy Goodes and Tzvika Sherf. Oded Katash was a possibility and we all love him as he grew up in Maccabi. But we knew that Avi would be able to acclimate much quicker with the club and had been working with Nikola and the professional staff already. Everyone knew him and he knew all about the team. He fit like a glove. We asked Katash and he didn’t want to come and coach for just a few months until the end of the season, which is his right. We asked Avi and he didn’t say yes right away as he was content with his scouting role. We had to convince him and I’m very happy that he did want to do it. I’m also happy with how things have been going so far.”

While Even is an interim coach, which allows Maccabi the option at the end of the season to see which direction it wants to go, Recanati would not rule out the idea of him staying on in the role next year.

“There is always a possibility… We were only going to sign a coach until the end of the season no matter what and we wanted to leave ourselves the right to build a new club should we want to do so.”

The yellow-and-blue has had an issue keeping players on the team after developing them for one or two seasons. That includes both foreigners as well as Israelis, with a number of productive players departing the club over the last few seasons. Recanati acknowledged that this is certainly something the club is struggling with, but that it is working on trying to find solutions as well.

“If we could keep a nucleus of four or five players for a number of years, that would have been able to temper some of the issues that we have had recently. In the past, we did have that nucleus and we are always trying to do so. Scottie Wilbekin has been here for four years and is signed for a fifth. We worked with Elijah Bryant and Tyler Dorsey developing them and then they left for more money. We are counting on Iftach Ziv, who is acclimating to the club, and he came here to Maccabi which is a pressure cooker where everyone wants to win every game. We all want to succeed and keep the players, but as every year goes by it’s harder and harder.”

One of the constant complaints that fans have is the lack of Israelis that are playing for Maccabi that can really contribute to the team’s success. Recanati noted that while the yellow-and-blue does have a number of high-quality Israelis, the same issue is true with clubs from other countries.

“It’s hard for me to find Italians when I see Milano and that’s true for the Spanish and Turkish teams as well as others. I would love to see five Israelis on the court at all times. But in order to compete in Europe you need players that can compete at the highest of levels. When I see one or two Israelis on the court I’m happy. But we also have a team that needs to win games. The coach will select the players who can give the most to the team and that is a challenge when we have a roster of 14 players. We are always looking at which Israelis are playing outside of Maccabi and in Europe as well. We want the best Israelis with Maccabi.”

In the specific cases of Yovel Zoosman and Yam Madar, both are not at Maccabi Tel Aviv, with the former leaving to play in Germany and the latter plying his trade in Serbia with coach Obradovic and Partizan Belgrade.

“I sat with Zoosman and his parents for hours, but he wanted a new experience which wasn’t related to money. He wanted to do something new and different. Maybe in the future he will return to the club down the line. As for Yam Madar, he isn’t at Maccabi not because of us and perhaps not because of himself. We all know that he is a good player. Hopefully one day he will be with Maccabi. It’s also an issue right now that we have players in his position like John DiBartolomeo and Iftach Ziv.”

Another contentious issue among the fanbase has been the track record of sports director Nikola Vujcic. There have been question marks about numerous players that he has brought into the club and the (lack of) success that the team has had over the past number of seasons. While Vujcic is approaching a decade with the club in a management role, Recanati is not guaranteeing that he will still be with the club, however, there is much appreciation for his work and how he has handled his role.

“Anything can happen… we look at each individual and there are no untouchables. Nikola has won a number of titles and was one of the club’s great players. He is much more than just a sports director, people know him from all around the world and he has a lot going for him. He knows a tremendous amount in basketball and has contacts with the agents as well executives. He is tough and knows how to negotiate a contract. In his first season, the club won the Euroleague title and since then we won titles in Israel and also reached the top eight in 2020.”

The Euroleague has had its own challenges over the past number of seasons, from having to cancel the 2020 campaign due to the pandemic to now finishing this current season without the three Russian clubs after they were withdrawn from the competition due to the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. While there has been some instability with the league, Maccabi has been constantly trying to improve it as well.

“We are always trying to be more active in the Euroleague, improve its standing and figure out how to work on competitiveness going forward. As for next season – we don’t even know what will be next week due to the war that is going on with Russia and Ukraine. There are three important clubs in Russia who have their own issues and they are in a super tough position. Hopefully, this war will come to an end and things will return to how it had been in the past, but we will wait and see. Sports aren’t a [profitable] business and no team in the Euroleague makes money.”

As for the possibility of working together with the National Basketball Association, according to Recanati, the Euroleague isn’t now on the top of the NBA’s pecking order.

“In the past, Maccabi played a number of games against NBA teams which raised the profile of the club and those were some very good games for our fans in Cleveland and Brooklyn.

“One day we thought that there would be some kind of collaboration between the Euroleague and NBA, but really it’s more of a dream. The Euroleague is a different style of basketball and in fact, it takes time for American players to get used to the play here. Right now, the NBA feels that there is more potential in China than in Europe.”