Basketball fans across the Holy Land are all geared up for the Israeli Classico between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem in the State Cup Final on Thursday as both teams will look to hoist the coveted trophy by the end of the evening.
The yellow-and-blue last won the title in the 2021 season with a victory over a depleted Maccabi Rishon Lezion squad, while the Reds last lifted the trophy in back-to-back seasons, 2019 and 2020.
One player who made sure to leave his mark on the State Cup was James Feldeine when he helped lead Hapoel Jerusalem to those two titles.
Feldeine played college basketball for Quinnipiac University before playing professionally in Spain, Italy, Puerto Rico, Greece, Serbia and Israel. The New York native played with the Reds under then-head coach Oded Katash between 2018-2020 when he was the star of the show and the leader of the team in two unforgettable seasons for Jerusalem fans.
Since his stint with Jerusalem, the 34-year-old shooting guard has played for Coosur Real Betis (2020-21), Kuwait Sporting Club (2021) and Fortitudo Bologna of the Italian Lega Basket Serie A.
Just as the 2023 State Cup final is about to tip off, Feldeine took time out of his busy schedule to talk with The Jerusalem Post as he gets ready to return to the court following a layoff due to a torn patella tendon in his left knee.
“I have been trying to stay steady,” the shooting guard began from Orlando, Florida. “It’s been a long process and a long 10 months but I am getting better. It was a freak injury and now during my rehab I wanted to be careful with my age and not come back too early, but it’s hard not to push myself to the limits.”
During his time with Hapoel Jerusalem
Feldeine was unquestionably a star around Israel when he played with Hapoel Jerusalem winning his first State Cup final in 2019 over Rishon Lezion, when he scored 15 points at the Jerusalem Arena, and then capping that off with 23 points in the 2020 final when the Reds downed Nahariya at Yad Eliyahu.
The common thread for both of these games was exactly that, the threads that Jerusalem wore for the two title games which were the club’s back uniforms and that was something Feldeine was very much a part of.
“We did it on purpose, wearing the black uniforms. The crazy thing was that they let us pick what color we wanted to wear and they asked me or J’Covan Brown what color we wanted to wear for certain games and black was my favorite. I think that black was the fan favorite as well and I always picked black because it brought us a lot of luck. We wore it a lot in the Champions League and we played the best in those jerseys.”
In his first season with Jerusalem, Feldeine averaged 16.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 54 games across all competitions in what was a new team that Katash had put together over the summer. Winning the State Cup that season surprised a lot of people.
“The first one was really great and people were surprised with the team and the chemistry that we had right away. Many people felt that Maccabi Tel Aviv was going to win the cup that season, but we ended up winning it. People were surprised and signing a player like me and TaShawn Thomas coming from Holon, who had to sit out the preseason, we were able to help the team do something big for the city and it was also a big accomplishment for us. That was also especially true for Oded and Tamir Blatt, who was so young and was our starting point guard. We heard everything people were saying.”
This season’s State Cup will see Katash returning back to the arena where he had some of his finest moments, but this time as the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. Feldeine and Katash had a wonderful relationship from the get-go that just became stronger and stronger as each game went by.
“When I signed, he wanted me to be the leader and voice as I am an outgoing person who tried to get along with everyone. He saw that with me coming in, which was a surprise that I even signed in Jerusalem, he knew I had something to prove and that I was out for vengeance. We got very close and as a former player he understood our bodies and our minds and what it was to also have fun. He knew some guys couldn’t take criticism the right way and he would use me as an example. He always knew it was for the best of the team with him coming at me. He was a players’ coach. I was close with his family, we sat together on the plane and it was just a great connection. It was my first time overseas that I had that type of connection with a coach.”
Knowing what type of coach Katash was, Feldeine wasn’t surprised that the bench boss would eventually take over the reins at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“He has built a good team and Lorenzo Brown is a great player and an ex-NBA guy. With his system if you are able to play basketball and have a high IQ you can do well. Lorenzo is showing that. You want to be undefeated, but the Euroleague is tough and I am not surprised he is there. I want Jerusalem to win, but I am also rooting for him every single time. Now that Jerusalem and Maccabi will meet in the State Cup championship, I will be torn.”
One of Feldeine’s former Jerusalem teammates and 2020 State Cup winner Suleiman Briamoh is now playing under Oded Katash at Maccabi Tel Aviv and Feldeine is certainly happy that “Su” is getting the chance to play at the highest level in Europe.
“It was crazy that he is at Maccabi. I was just talking to him a week or two before he joined Maccabi and he wanted to see if I was ready to return and if I could go to the team he was playing with in Turkey and help out. Then all of a sudden I see he signed with Maccabi!
“It was always his goal to play in the Euroleague and when we played together he asked me a lot of questions about the talent and I am happy that he finally made it. He deserved it. He knows Oded’s system in and out and he is the perfect 4-man for the pick-and-roll. He is a grinder and hustler and he will do well. He will be a key guy both in the Euroleague and in the Israeli league.”
Another one of Feldeine’s teammates under Katash was Blatt, who is now playing with Alba Berlin. There was always doubt that Blatt would be able to play at the Euroleague level due to his height and speed, but the point guard has proven all of his critics wrong, Feldeine explained.
“I am not surprised that it happened even when he signed when I was still at Jerusalem and he was loaned to the club for his first year. I also wasn’t surprised that a team like Berlin would sign him. They are a Euroleague team but also a great team in Germany. I never doubted him as he has a high IQ, he’s been with his dad [David Blatt], Oded, the Israel National Team and Jerusalem. He can shoot and no matter how small you are, if you can shoot, you can make it.”
Brown was another one of Feldeine’s teammates who was part of the two Jerusalem State Cup titles and he is still working his magic in Israel with Hapoel Tel Aviv as he has been able to lead the Reds to some terrific wins this season both in league play and in the EuroCup.
“I talk to him at least twice a week and he is on a mission and a different animal right now. I never doubted it. Someone has to give him a shot and he belongs in the Euroleague. I am happy to see him play and he’s a guy that every team who gives him the keys, lets him do his thing. I am really happy for him.”
With his return imminent to the hardwood, Feldeine would be happy to come back to Israel and thrill the fans once again. His smile, attitude and all-around tough play made him a fan favorite and one of those players that you would always want to have on your team and not have to play against.
“I would definitely be open to returning to Israel to continue my career and it’s one thing my agent and I talk about all of the time coming back from injury. I am definitely not trying to push it too hard, but Israel is at the top of my list as I want to show people that I can still play and help the young guys out. If I did sign in Israel it would bring a lot of attention but right now, I will give myself 2-3 weeks to get into game shape and be ready for my next adventure.”