The Israel National Team gets back onto the court this weekend for a pair of games in 2023 World Cup qualifying, as it hosts Finland on Friday at the Drive-In Arena and then travels to Slovenia for a Monday tilt.
While the blue-and-white has been officially eliminated from the tournament slated for the summer in Indonesia, Japan and Philippines, interim head coach Nadav Zilberstein has a young squad to work with as the future of Israeli basketball will be on full display.
While veterans including Idan Zalmanson, Bar Timor and Itay Segev are part of the team, 22-year-old Itay Moskovitz and 18-year-old Noam Yaacov were also called up for camp, which includes 15 players.
Ahead of the pair of games, The Jerusalem Post spoke to the captain, forward Tomer Ginat, as he looked back on his career as well as the challenge that the National Team will face when Finland arrives with almost a full squad with NBA All-Star Lauri Markkanen not making the trip, as well as taking a break in the middle of the club season and representing the blue-and-white.
Interviewing Tomer Ginat
“Being a part of the Israel National Team is the biggest honor that a basketball player can ask for and it is a true privilege,” Ginat began. “Some players from abroad get a chance to go home and others get a few days off to continue on in the domestic season, but we are doing the most important thing for Israeli basketball players, which is to play for our country of Israel. Everyone is happy to be here and we have all dreamed about being a part of the National Team when we were younger.”
Ginat was once a young player on the Israel National Team and this window will feature a few up-and-coming players who will be getting their first taste with the senior team in Yaacov and Moskovits, while Gaby Chachashvili – who has been with Israel on occasion in the past – looks to have an expanded role this time around.
“I think that playing for the National Team is an honor at any age. Gaby has been with us for some time and is having a great year in Germany, Itay and Noam are talented and we see what they are doing in our league and they can both help us now and in the future. These are great moments and a very special time to be part of the team at this age and they will help us. The future is very bright.”
While Israel can’t advance to the World Cup and Finland will be featuring in this summer’s tournament, the goal still remains the same with a lot of younger players in camp, which is to get the most out of the pair of games and win them as well.
“We have two tough games this week and Finland has come without just Markkanen. We have a young team with some veterans as well along with players who are very talented and we want to win these games. We know that we can do that and I have no doubt everyone will contribute and we will all play together working towards the same goal.
“In order to win these games we will need to play quality basketball, play together and enjoy playing with one another on the court. This is a chance to take two wins and then we will take a step back, relax and see who will be the new head coach going into the next campaign.”
As for a new head coach, legendary bench boss Pablo Laso had been a candidate to lead the National Team, but the Spaniard decided at this time to look at other options. Ginat feels that the Israel Basketball Association is doing its utmost to find the most suitable candidate for the job.
“I think that the association is doing the best to figure out who the best option is and they should take their time in order to try and find the right person who will lead the team over the next few years. They have the tools to make the correct selection and as players we are waiting to hear who it will be.”
After these pair of games, pre-Olympic qualifiers will begin in August and this will really be the first test of the newly revamped Israel National Team with a new coach and new players in the mix, as with Ginat as captain going into a new campaign.
“We are all waiting to begin a new campaign and we just need to see who the coach will be. As captain, my role will be to bring this group together and it will be a great honor as we have some great players here with me. Ultimately, we want to enjoy the upcoming games and win.”
Growing up in the north of the country, Ginat was part of the Nahariya basketball program as a child. Interestingly enough, he only realized that he could make a professional career out of the sport he loved when he was 18, when her was with one of the youth national teams under the direction of Sharon Drucker.
There were a number of players and coaches along the way who helped influence Ginat as he took every experience gained to forge his career as a professional.
“The two players I liked to watch were Lior Eliyahu and Elyshay Kadir. They were my role models and I really connected to them and I learned a lot from them. Fortunately, I also had the chance to play with Kadir at Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“As for coaches, Sharon Avrahami and Danny Franco were very important for me, but I really took something from everyone along the way and was helpful in my development. The two years with Danny was my breakout and I understood during those seasons as to how far I could go. But I really took something from everyone throughout my career.”
Ginat played with Kiryat Ata in the Leumit League, Israel’s second division, between 2014-16 before joining Hapoel Tel Aviv and those two years were very formative as he eventually took the jump to the Premier League.
“The years I spent in the Leumit League were great. I was still a kid and all you did there was just play basketball and you want to do as best as you can. At Kiryat Ata I had Sharon Avrahami and Yossi Bonen as coaches and they really believed in me. Those years really gave me the confidence and drive to become the player I am today. The Leumit is a great league and a great place for the development of young Israeli players.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv has been home for Ginat now for five seasons, with his second stint with the Reds beginning this past summer after two years playing in France. Hapoel has changed over the past few seasons into a force to be reckoned with as the Reds are real threats to win both the domestic league and the EuroCup.
“Hapoel Tel Aviv is a big club with an amazing tradition and over the course of the past two years the franchise took a huge step. Playing in the State Cup final last season brought the club even more and more fans who are very important and influential to its success. The club keeps growing and the franchise is very important to Israeli basketball as a whole.”
Over this past summer, Ginat was weighing the option of signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv after two terrific seasons with Metropolitans in France, where he was a part of a team that competed for the league title and also advanced to the quarterfinals of the EuroCup. However, the 28-year old decided to follow his heart and return to his home at Hapoel Tel Aviv which was also the most memorable moment of his career.
“I look back at the summer, and it’s history at this point. I am very happy to be back at Hapoel with a very good team and a successful one as well. I am happy to be here and to be with Bar Timor, Idan Zalmanson, Adam Ariel and Gil Beni and all of the Israelis along with Jordan McRae – who I was with last season in France – J’Covan Brown, Xavier Munford and everyone else, it’s been really great.
“Coming back to Hapoel Tel Aviv was a moment that was huge for my career and my family. It was a moment that I will never forget. I won’t forget all of the love that was showered on me and incredible messages. It was such an emotional moment that I will take with me for the rest of my life.”
Mental health has become a prominent topic over the past few years and Ginat has been at the forefront openly discussing this issue that plagues athletes as well as the common person alike.
“At the end of the day, athletes are regular people who experience things just like everyone else. We face a lot of pressure and constant changes where the soul has to deal with things at a very young age. Many athletes deal with this and it’s important to continue to work on this area as it’s very important.”
Ginat has faced the emotional rollercoaster as a player, with one incident in particular standings out from back to 2018. Israel had seemingly wrapped up a shocking win over Germany that would have moved it into prime position to advance to the World Cup. With Israel ahead 92-90, Ginat was on the free-throw line with under a second remaining in regulation, but missed hitting the rim on the back end of a pair of foul-shots, allowing Germany to tie the game up and win in overtime.
However, despite this one difficult moment in time, Ginat was able to turn that into a positive, “This was a very influential moment in my career that I will always think about. This was a mental mistake and not part of basketball so to speak. I was able to take that to a positive side and learn how to deal with such an incident and put it behind me. I am someone who always tries to look at the good things and move ahead.”
Where Ginat once looked up to older players as a role model, he is now most definitely a role model for the upcoming generation of basketball players.
“It’s a huge privilege and honor to be a role model for youngsters. Every time I see a young player, I try to help them and give them something from my experiences and from what I have been through. I am very happy with the state of the younger players here in Israel.”
With Ginat and the entire Israel squad wanting to experience success with the pair of games coming up, Ginat knows that the players will give it their all as they look at this window as a springboard going forward.
“We have a great team and one that is very talented. We are a new team with younger players with the goal of taking the team to where we believe it should be. We want to be in a big tournament once again and are ready for a big campaign. We are hungry and have a huge desire to do just that and we can’t wait for it to happen.”