Hapoel Holon reigns
Hapoel Holon is the Israel basketball champion once again.
It may have taken 14 years in between titles for the Purples, but they did it methodically by building a strong base over the past number of seasons to finally be able to lift the championship plate with a 2-0 series win over Bnei Herzliya in the final, to the delight of their rabid fans.
With strong management along with intelligent and savvy moves, Holon was able to rise from the depths in its new ultra-modern arena and become a true force in Israeli basketball. A force that all comers in the Holy Land need to be wary of for years to come as the club continues to strive for greatness.
The 2021/22 season had plenty of ups and downs as there was not only a coaching change at a critical juncture of the campaign but also the addition and subtraction of some players as well.
However, the core of Holon remained throughout.
The heart and soul of the team, the building blocks and the cornerstones that were laid were what helped this franchise to reach the heights that it has while seeing improvement from year to year and season to season.
The most important of those anchors was bringing captain Guy Pnini to Holon in 2017 after a spectacular career at Maccabi Tel Aviv which included a Euroleague title in 2014 to go along with three Israeli league championships and a slew of other trophies and awards. Holon had signed its rock and a Sabra to build the team around.
The club was able to capture the 2018 Israel State Cup under head coach Dan Shamir and began competing in the FIBA Champions League, which helped broaden the depth of the club and continued to build a tradition in modern basketball.
In Europe, Holon learned some stark lessons and experienced heartbreak, which is something that not only makes a team stronger, but also continued to build its character to take it to the Final Eight last season under the tutelage of Greek bench boss Stefanos Dedas.
That taste of success was followed up by a Final Four appearance this campaign in Bilbao thanks to veteran Israeli maestro Guy Goodes, who saved the team’s season after he arrived in January and replaced Italian Maurizio Buscaglia.
The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers have long gone by the motto, “trust the process” and that is exactly what Holon did over the past half decade.
It trusted the process by continuing to find the right pieces of the puzzle.
During the 2018/19 season, Holon only played with four foreign players although the Israel league rules allowed it to feature five if the club would pay a penalty.
Midway through that campaign, as Holon saw that it was on an upward trend, it decided to add a fifth import which was a welcome move and another indication that Holon was serious about competing at the top level of the sport.
CEO Eitan Lanciano made sure to keep his sponsors and ownership group together despite the club’s biggest supporter, Shlomo Isaac, taking a step back.
That allowed the team to bring in the likes of hard-nosed defender and former NBA veteran Chris Johnson along with all-world guard Tyrus McGee plus Israeli Frenchman Frederic Bourdillon for the 2020/21 campaign as they helped the club take the next step in Europe.
However, the key to that season was the fact that the Purples were able to hold onto Johnson and Bourdillon for the championship run this year and then were able to bring back McGee midseason to push the team over the hump and become part of a spectacular one-two punch with Euroleague veteran Joe Ragland.
Added to the mix was center Michale Kyser, Israeli forward Rafi Menco (who returned home after a year in France) and an expanded role for Niv Misgav, and the stage was set with the core of the championship team in place.
But Buscaglia, who was named as Dedas’s replacement after the latter decided to return to his home country of Greece, struggled.
When Holon went down 0-1 in the best-of-three Champions League Play-In series against Besiktas, Holon’s brass saw enough and hired Goodes – who had recently departed a sinking ship at Maccabi Rishon Lezion – to help save the season.
And save the season he certainly did.
With a number of masterful performances in do-or-die situations, including a win in Turkey thanks to a Pnini triple, another victory at home to punch its ticket to the Round-of-16 Group Stage to go along with a State Cup semifinal appearance against the same Herzliya that it disposed of in the final, and Holon was on their way.
Goodes was able to guide Holon through a very tough BCL group as well as a quarterfinal round to get to the Final Four in Bilbao, while also making sure to chalk up enough wins in Israel league play to hold onto home-court advantage in the quarterfinal series against a pesky Hapoel Galil Elyon, which had been a thorn in Holon’s side all year long.
Holon ended up falling to the eventual BCL champ Tenerife in the semifinals, but the club was accompanied by over 1,000 supporters to the Basque region of Spain and hopes were high when they returned to Israel and the domestic playoffs got underway.
After downing Galil Elyon 3-0 in their quarterfinal series, Holon dropped Hapoel Jerusalem in the capital city in Game 1 of the semifinals.
However, the Purples laid the proverbial egg in Game 2 and allowed the Reds to do as they pleased, which sent the series to a decisive Game 3 back in Jerusalem.
But Goodes and assistant coach Amit Sherf found a way to take the win in a tough atmosphere on the road to make their way to the finals.
Once Holon took the Game 1 win at the tiny Hayovel Arena, it knew that there would be no repeat performance from the semis back on its home court and the Purples took care of business with a dominant 90-74 title-clinching conquest that was never in doubt.b
Sports are dynamic, especially in Europe and even more so in Israel where the emphasis is typically put on the here and the now while not looking at the big picture and the long-term growth of a franchise.
Holon has bucked that trend big time as it has set the wheel in motion to build on the tradition that it has laid the groundwork for over the past number of seasons.
Goodes and management will now see which players will stay and which will go, who will join the team and who will leave, while understanding that they have also set the bar a lot higher for the franchise and Israeli basketball as a whole.
Holon will want to continue its continental success and return to the Final Four with the goal of winning that title next season while also maintaining consistency domestically as well.
If the past half decade is any indication, then there is no reason to doubt whether this can occur.
Next season will be the true test for Holon as every team will be gunning to take down the champ. But if what we have seen to date can continue, Holon will continue to grow and strive as it looks to reach the next level of success.