Hapoel Tel Aviv shoots for EuroCup success

Buoyed by a deep roster of Israelis and foreigners, the Reds are off and running with continental expectations.

 Hapoel Tel Aviv is the third Israeli team for J’Covan Brown, who is in his second season with the club. The 32-year-old American guard is the Reds’ vocal leader (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
Hapoel Tel Aviv is the third Israeli team for J’Covan Brown, who is in his second season with the club. The 32-year-old American guard is the Reds’ vocal leader
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

The atmosphere in the Drive-In Arena was absolutely electric.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans packed the northern Tel Aviv facility to the rafters and sang to the top of their lungs, cheering on their heroes who graced the floor and defeated the London Lions 76-59 to record their first ever EuroCup victory.

Reds coach Danny Franco could not have asked for a better debut in the competition as his team came out flying from the get-go and ran up the score by finding the bottom of the basket early and often as star guard J’Covan Brown scored at will to strike a vicious blow to the British newcomer.

On Wednesday night, Hapoel will look to duplicate the success from its home game when it faces another new team to the EuroCup, in Paris Basketball, and if the Reds can keep the same momentum up in France they should be in good shape to take another victory.

But it’s crystal clear as to who Hapoel looks at as the team’s vocal leader and that’s Brown, who was on his game against London right from the tipoff hitting 3-of-4 from long distance to chalk up 19 points and six assists. The rest of the squad followed suit as Tel Aviv put together a 24-13 lead by the end of the first quarter to break the game open.

  TOMER GINAT is definitely a fan favorite. But the Hapoel Tel Aviv forward brings much more to the table, and hopes to lead the Reds to success at home and in continental play after returning to Israel from an extended stint in France. (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN) TOMER GINAT is definitely a fan favorite. But the Hapoel Tel Aviv forward brings much more to the table, and hopes to lead the Reds to success at home and in continental play after returning to Israel from an extended stint in France. (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

Hapoel Tel Aviv's coach and players comments on the game

“J’Covan is very important for this team to succeed,” Franco said. “He’s a leader as he brings his experience right at the start of the game at home and he was aggressive right from the start. We need him healthy and playing well.”

Big man Chris Horton (six points, 12 rebounds), who also made his first start in EuroCup play, will be on the receiving end of plenty of Brown passes this coming season and he understands just how important the guard is to the team.

“It’s fun playing with Brown. He is a great leader and communicator. It just makes my job easier.”

One Hapoel player who is very much used to playing alongside Brown is Bar Timor, who has been with the American guard both at Hapoel Jerusalem as well as in Tel Aviv. He needs no introduction of what type of added value Brown brings to the team.

“I am kind of used to him as we have been together for four years. He was great and he had some great moments in the first half where he knew when to stick the knife in and to increase the gap to keep us in front. He made very good decisions as the game wound down when they started to come back a bit and we began to tire. Hopefully it will continue this way.”

With Brown going off the way he did to set the tone for the entire 40 minutes, it makes any defense’s job that much harder.

“It’s very difficult when you give Brown space and time in the first half and the more space you give him the more dangerous they are,” said London coach Ryan Schmidt. “You need to make them play in crowded spaces and we didn't do a good job with that in the first half. He’s a hell of a scorer and hell of a player who can make it a long night.”

However, for Schmidt it wasn’t just Brown who made it a long night for his team but the fact that London’s star Sam Dekker turned his ankle and had to leave the contest before it was even 10 minutes old which turned the game on its head.

How did the game develop?

What was supposed to be a tight clash between the two continental newbies ended up being a one-sided affair that the Lions never quite were able to get into. While the Hapoel fans were thrilled to leave with the win, it left a bit of a bitter taste for the basketball fan that was asking for more.

Sure, London under the wonderful tutelage of Schmidt tried its best to come back, with terrific games from Tomislav Zubcic (21 points) and Kosta Koufos (14 points, 9 rebounds), but it really missed Dekker and what the former NBA man – who most recently played with the Toronto Raptors – brings to the forefront.

However, those are the breaks of the game and while Dekker originally had wrapped his ankle in ice, he took it off and tried to convince the staff to put him back into the game to no avail. It’s only one game and there is a long marathon ahead. No reason to risk further injury and there will be a rematch in England in January.

“Obviously, a tough game for us,” Schmidt said. “Losing Sam in the first five minutes was obviously a pretty devastating blow, especially from the offensive standpoint. Everyone knows [Dekker] is kind of our offensive go-to scorer. You have other weapons on the floor, but as you can tell, it was a tough shooting night. On nights like this when shots aren’t falling – I think we shot 15% from three – to be able to have a guy who can create his own shot, missing him hurt us.”

While losing Dekker would seem to be a plus for Hapoel, Franco spoke about how when a player of that caliber leaves the game early, it may cause a negative effect on the team and complacency may set it in.

“When you play against Sam Dekker, you put together a game plan that you will use against him on both sides of the court and we invested a lot of energy into that. But sometimes when a player of that caliber goes out, there could be a decrease in intensity. But we started focused and didn’t go backwards. I am happy that we didn’t lose that mindset.”

Timor also referred to the loss of Dekker as having been a key to the club’s maiden victory.

“I wouldn’t say we dominated, but we controlled the game from the get-go. After our opening they didn’t come back and I have to admit that the injury to Dekker really slowed them down. We controlled the defensive side of the game despite the fact that they grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. But we knew how to take advantage of the low score and run.”

Israeli teams in the EuroCup

For Hapoel, save for some of the rebounding issues, it could not have asked for a better opening game in the EuroCup and it was hard not to ponder two interesting facts.

The first is that Hapoel Tel Aviv is participating in the continent’s second-best competition and that it had the desire, drive and determination to do so. The last time an Israeli team took part in the EuroCup was back during the 2019/20 season, when Maccabi Rishon Lezion decided to join the league.

However, the club was ill-prepared to really make a dent in the tourney and ended up being outclassed by the vast majority of the teams. Last year, Rishon dropped into Israel’s second division after numerous poor decisions across the board, from the construction of the squad to funding to management.

Prior to Rishon participating in the EuroCup, Hapoel Jerusalem was a stalwart in the competition, even having won it back in 2004 when it was called the ULEB Cup. This brings us to the second fact, which needs to be looked at in depth.

For years the Reds took part, and attempted to make waves, in the EuroCup when hi-tech mogul Ori Allon bought the club as he tried to find a way to enter into the Euroleague.

However, that door was shut from every which angle. The only exception was if Jerusalem would win the entire competition and therefore would be given an automatic place in the continent’s No. 1 league.

But Jerusalem was never able to put it together and win the EuroCup, and when Allon felt that there was no chance to find a way into the Euroleague, he decided to move on as did the club when it went to FIBA’s Champions League, which would pay a tidy sum for the Reds to participate in their European league.

Bar Timor is a EuroCup veteran and is happy to be back playing in the continent’s number two competition,

“It’s very special to be a part of the EuroCup. Everything happened so quickly as we finished last season in seventh place and we didn’t win a playoff series. When we decided to play in Europe in this competition I was happy as we took a step forward for the club and the players. It’s an incredible feeling. I played in the EuroCup for a number of years in Jerusalem and I am happy that I am back, it’s a lot of fun and excitement.”

Jerusalem ultimately gave up on the dream, which is now in the hands of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s cross-city rival Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Reds ended up winning the EuroCup and then play in the same European league as Maccabi? That’s quite the point to ponder!

But before putting the cart before the horse, the EuroCup is not only a very, very long regular season, but it is followed in the Round of 16 with a one-game knockout, which is a cruel reality.

One win won’t be enough and yes, Rome can’t be built in one day, but Hapoel Tel Aviv looks to be a team that can make some waves in the EuroCup this season and the fans will play a huge role at home.

Xavier Munford knows what type of factor the Reds’ home supporters can play.

“They come every time with good energy, these are probably the best fans I’ve ever been part of in Europe so far. So I’m loving it so far and hope to keep it all year round.”

“They come every time with good energy, these are probably the best fans I’ve ever been part of in Europe so far. So I’m loving it so far and hope to keep it all year round.”

Xavier Munford

“This atmosphere is crazy,” Horton added, understanding full well how much that means to the Reds. “These fans and what they bring to the gym is crazy. We don’t play this well without them.”

Timor also sees how the team can benefit from the fans in the stands.

“I don’t remember seeing the crowd so intense like this and we will get that twice a week now. Every time we step onto the floor we can’t stop smiling that we are part of this. To think of where we were two years ago with Corona restrictions to where we are today is quite amazing.”

Of course, it’s not just the fans but the quality and quantity that the team has within its squad. With arguably the deepest Israeli squad in the league and some of the best foreign players that have ever suited up in the Holy Land, Hapoel could very well have much success in both the domestic league and in Europe.

Franco knows that he needs his full roster to contribute due to the volume of contests Hapoel will have this season. and he doesn’t care if the players are Israelis or imports but rather how much they can help.

“We had a very high intensity week as we opened up both the Israeli league and a historic season in the EuroCup. We have to take a bit of air and I hope that we can come into our next domestic game with the right attitude. I don’t differentiate between the players if they are Israeli or not. Some players didn’t play much and some more. I don’t look at the Israelis, but the entire Hapoel Tel Aviv squad.”

Timor also isn’t checking out passports as to who takes the court, and with Hapoel Tel Aviv’s depth there really isn’t a difference between the Israelis and imports.

“I hate to say that whoever is good plays, but we have a very deep squad and we have a game coming up on Sunday so it’s important that everyone contributes. We will play not because we are Israelis but because we are good players. We had a good game today so we played, but if we don’t we would play less.”

As for expectations for the season ahead. Horton stated clearly what Hapoel wants to do each and every game.

“The goal is always to win. Our sights are on winning it all and show why we belong here. We play to win.” Munford concurred.

“I don’t want to put too many expectations on our team but we have a great team.” Munford confidently said. “We all have the same mission and the same goal. We want to win this whole EuroCup, so that’s our goal, we come in strong and try to win this whole thing," Munford said. “We all have the same mission and the same goal. We want to win this whole EuroCup, so that’s our goal, we come in strong and try to win this whole thing.”