The way Maccabi Tel Aviv fans sing his name at the top of their lungs – “SCOTTIE, SCOTTIE WILBEKIN, OH LE, OH LE, OH LE. SCOTTIE, SCOTTIE WILBEKIN OH LE, OH LE, OH LE!” – you would be forgiven for thinking Scottie Wilbekin is Israeli.
Seeing the American-Turkish 28-year-old’s reaction to the Israeli supporters - loving every second of the passion and affection that the fans show him - you realize the star guard is a Sabra at heart.
The way he wrapped himself in the flag, the Israeli flag, with the blue-and-white shimmering in the spotlights of Yad Eliyahu, showed to the world where his heart and where his soul is as he has become one of us right after nothing a playoff spot with a 94-73 win over Villeurbanne.
“A lot of times people ask me if I want the flag and I feel kind of weird because I am not Israeli,” Wilbekin explained. “But with the stuff going on right now I felt that it was ok to show support and everybody loves it.”
Showing support in the country’s time of need is what both Scottie and his wife, Maria Wilbekin, have done time and time again. Whether it is right now with the spate of terrorist attacks throughout Israel or last year during the indiscriminate rocket attacks emanating from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel, the couple has been a beacon of light. They could have left Israel to safer havens abroad and no one would have raised an eyebrow or criticized them.
But no. They stayed like all of us. They went on television to talk about why they remained and supported Israel in what was an incredibly special and moving moment. It was not their conflict to be a part of just like now where the Wilbekins don’t have to insert themselves into our national trials and tribulations, but they have. They have gone above and beyond what anyone or anybody could have, should have or would have expected.
The guard time and time again tells it like it is. He never minces words. He’s as honest as they come by. He says the truth each and every time he speaks to the media no matter what the situation is. From the good to the bad, Wilbekin is straight, honest and to the point.
There are occasions when some don’t want to hear the truth and just want to sugarcoat a difficult situation. That has never been Wilbekin and he has proved that time and time again over the past year and over the past couple of rocky road months which saw his world, along with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s, turned upside down.
“I don’t really want to talk about that and I think you know how I feel about coach Ioannis [Sfairopoulos],” Wilbekin said when asked about what Avi Even as the interim coach has brought to the team. “He’s doing a good job. But it’s us players who have made the change with ourselves.”
The results have been positive and that is always the best-case scenario, but Scottie being Scottie also knows that there had been some very low points that hit him hard, hit him in the gut and broke his heart. Everyone knows how close he was with Sfairopoulos, a coach that looked at him as the unquestioned leader of the team who has tried to take Maccabi to the promised land from the day he landed with the club.
However, there is plenty to battle for after not clinching a playoff spot since 2020 in a season that the postseason was canceled due to the pandemic. Wilbekin is well aware that the journey in front of the yellow-and-blue will still be a long and arduous one, but one that may be very fulfilling at the end of the day with a chance to do something very, very special.
“We were playing like this in the beginning of the season and then started struggling,” the guard noted. “But over the past few weeks we have found our way and hopefully we can play like this the rest of the way. Every game we go into we think that we can win. Now that we have qualified, we will play against a good team and we think that we can win as we have a chance.”
Keenan Evans, who has been a terrific compliment for Wilbekin in the backcourt and in fact a much better fit than Chris Jones, who played on the opposite side of the court, has oozed confidence for a while as Maccabi has played with an edge over the last month and change.
“Definitely we are playing with an edge,” Evans said. “I said that before the three Russian teams got kicked out of the Euroleague that I thought that we were a playoff team and we are building towards that. I think we are the most dangerous team in the Euroleague and right now we are on a streak and we want to continue on this streak as we head into the playoffs.”
With Maccabi playing its best ball of the season right now under interim head coach Avi Even, the yellow-and-blue has the opportunity to dream and be a team that no one will want to face in the quarterfinal round. Whether it's Milano, Olympiacos, Real Madrid or Barcelona, Maccabi will take on all comers and try to reach European glory for the first time since 2014 when the Euroleague championship came back to Tel Aviv.
But Wilbekin knows that it won’t be easy to go deep into the postseason.
“It’s always a tough thing to get to the playoffs and I was there early on in my career. It’s tough to get there and we are all happy and humbled to play in the top eight.”
Maccabi’s positive and motivated basketball has helped it punch its ticket to the playoffs with two games to spare and there isn’t anyone at Yad Eliyahu who can’t see that one of the reasons the Israeli powerhouse has been at the top of its game is because of the fun that the players are having with one another on the court.
With a broad smile, Evans spoke about that fun and how much it means to him.
“I just want to have fun and want all the guys to have fun when we play hard.”
One of those fun moments was when Wilbekin went up for an alley-oop off of one of Evans’s four assists that left everyone on the court and off of it with huge grins on their faces.
“The whole season he’s talking about me dunking,” Evans said with a glimmer in his eye. “After one of the plays I told Scottie that ‘I got you next time.’ I saw him at half court and he wanted to jump. When I see other guys wanting to have fun, I have fun too.”
Wilbekin. who had a tremendous back pass a few minutes earlier for a massive Ante Zizic dunk, wanted to be a bit modest about his own jam.
“If it’s a pass like that, I’ll take it every time. I don’t dunk that often so the fans liked that but I’ll always take the pass.”
Coach Even knew how badly Wilbekin wanted to put the ball down just as he did a couple of weeks earlier in the All-Star game.
“Scottie is so happy about the dunk,” Even laughed. “It’s fun and that says it all. But Scottie said himself that he likes to pass the ball better even more. It’s about his desire to do something for the club and that says it all about the team right now, playing together as a team. We believe in what we are and their desire to be at the top.”
Yes, Even put it poignantly that the team is playing together and having fun. This breeds a winning culture, confidence, and the desire to succeed at the highest of levels.
But do you want to know the real secret of Maccabi’s success?
It’s the white jerseys in which Maccabi is 6-0 while wearing them!
It looks like those whites will be worn for quite some time going forward and in fact, Wilbekin wanted to start wearing them much earlier.
“I wanted the white jerseys from the beginning of the year and we are playing well with them.”
Playing well is perhaps the understatement of the season right now as Maccabi is the hottest team it seems in the continent and as Even says riding that wave to playoffs is really credited to everyone surrounding Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“We were in the playoffs three years ago, twice in three years and that makes me very happy. It’s something very important to the players, the club and the fans. It’s a wonderful feeling.”