Hapoel Jerusalem in opening semifinal Friday

Unsung hero Mareks Mejeris talks about how his life led him to basketball and to Hapoel Jerusalem.

 HAPOEL JERUSALEM coach Aleksandar Dzikic (left) shows some love to guard Or Cornelius during the Reds’ 64-55 Champions League victory over AEK Athens.  (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
HAPOEL JERUSALEM coach Aleksandar Dzikic (left) shows some love to guard Or Cornelius during the Reds’ 64-55 Champions League victory over AEK Athens.
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

Hapoel Jerusalem is readying this week to face Tenerife in the opening semifinal game of the Basketball Champions League Final Four on Friday, which will be taking place in Spain’s southern coastal city of Malaga. This will be the first time that the Reds will be playing in the last stage of FIBA’s top European competition, as a champion will be crowned on Sunday between the winner of Jerusalem’s game and that of Bonn and the host Malaga.

Tenerife will be no pushovers for Aleksandar Dzikic’s team as they will be taking on the defending champions and a club that has won the competition twice while also finishing as the runner-up a number of years ago as well. The Canary Islands squad’s head coach Txus Vidoretta has been behind the Tenerife bench since 2018 and has also been able to guide his team to the ACB Spanish League semifinals in three of his four seasons. This season they are currently sitting in 4th place in domestic league play just behind powerhouses Barcelona, Real Madrid and Baskonia, as they will be a tough foe for Jerusalem.

However, Dzikic will be working hard to ensure that his team will be able to match up well against the Spaniards with a full complement of players including unsung hero Mareks Mejeris. The Latvian forward is your typical blue collar player – one that will work the paint, try to get a rebound, deflect a ball and just do a ton of other things that don’t show up on the score sheet.

Just ahead of Jerusalem’s semifinal clash, Mejeris sat down with The Sports Rabbi at the team’s practice court at the old Malha arena as we looked ahead to the win-or-go-home contest, and talked about his growing up in Latvia and being a part of the national team, his time with the Reds thus far and the excitement that is building ahead of the big game.

“We are happy to go to the Final Four – this is what we were aiming for,” he said, adding that they have been “talking about this for most of the season as a goal and as to where we want to be. We’re getting more excited with every day that goes by.”

 LEVI RANDOLPH (2) and Hapoel Jerusalem players celebrate at the end of their dominant 91-51 victory over AEK Athens to advance to the Champions League semifinals (credit: BERNEY ARDOV) LEVI RANDOLPH (2) and Hapoel Jerusalem players celebrate at the end of their dominant 91-51 victory over AEK Athens to advance to the Champions League semifinals (credit: BERNEY ARDOV)

As to why the team has been so good this season and what the secret recipe may be, Mejeris went straight to the top: “The coach. He’s the maestro of the team and the one guy who is leading us and we are following. I’m happy that this team has improved as every week has gone by in the season. At the start of the season, if we had a problem, we might have lost the game or even a few, but now we are going to fix it as a team or a unit in a few minutes. That’s how we have progressed through the year and how we have figured out to work as a team and trust each other.”

ONE OF the unique characteristics of Jerusalem is how the players have all sacrificed a part of themselves as individuals for the betterment of the collective: the team as a whole. “When you are winning, it’s not so difficult, as it comes down to wins and losses at the end of the day, which determines the success of the season,” he said.

“At the start of the season each player is trying to establish their ground and trying to prove themselves. At this point, the balls have all fallen into place and it just happened. Usually six to eight months after the season begins, it should happen naturally – but we were able to reach this point by the end of December when we really started picking up the pace and playing better. We figured out who does what and we really started playing better.”

Unfortunately for the teams and its fans, the Final Four will take place in Malaga and not in Jerusalem, which was originally the first option for the crown jewel of the competition. But the 31-year-old is taking the disappointment in stride. “It’s unfortunate, but as a player it’s just an obstacle that we can’t change... and we will just go to where it’s taking place – there’s nothing to do.”

In one winner-takes-all game, it all comes down to 40 minutes of basketball that will see who the victor will be – which means Mejeris’s Jerusalem will need to have a solid game plan that can give them the best chance to win against a highly regarded opponent.

“It’s only one game – and sometimes in these games the tactics are secondary. It’s mostly about the will power and how much you want it. How much are you willing to sacrifice in this one 40-minute game – because if it’s a series, you can see how it goes first game then second game and so on. Now, you have to put all out from the opening seconds of the game and keep going like this for all 40 minutes.

“I think we have a really good chance to play well,” he predicted, “and if we do that, we are a really good team and a string team – and we are hard to beat.”

"I was rolling balls on the sidelines and I basically started when I was one."

Mareks Mejeris

BASKETBALL HAS been a part of Mejeris ever since he can remember – although he may not have been a fan per se, but one who enjoys participating in all different types of sports.

“I was around the basketball gym ever since I was a kid as my mom played for a college team – and when she went to practice I went with her,” he said. “I was rolling balls on the sidelines and I basically started when I was one. I wasn’t much of a basketball fan and not so much a sports fan. I like to play sports but not as much watching them. I didn’t really follow the NBA or the Euroleague growing up and I only really started watching after the age of 20. Before that it was just really about having fun.”

After having featured for his local home town team of BK Liepaja Lauvas, Mejeris made a serious jump to playing in Spain, which was certainly an eye opener for the youngster. “It was different than living at home, and I had heard a lot of stories about how difficult it would be to be away from my family, especially in the first year. But it worked out for me and I didn’t feel lonely at any point. Those three years made me live a grown-up life and I took care of myself.”

Early on in his career, Mejeris headed to the United States where he took part in NBA workouts for a number of teams including the Detroit Pistons. But as he explained he was a bit in over his head.

“It was somewhat unexpected and at first I was sent there and had practices with the agency,” he said. “From there we had practices in front of NBA scouts and GM’s. They saw something interesting in me and wanted me to go to practices with teams, and one of them was the Pistons. It was a great experience but back then I wasn’t ready at all. I was a kid from a small town who played a little bit in Spain. That level was too high at that point as everything was new and ‘wow.’ I was not ready for that.”

Mejeris has been a part of the Latvian National Team program for many years and this coming summer he will be battling it out for a spot on the squad as they ready for the World Cup.

“The Latvian National Team has been a part of me since 2010. It’s something that has been part of my yearly routine and it’s always great to play with the National Team as it’s fun and a different type of basketball,” he said. “This summer we are playing in the World Cup for the first time and it will be a fight to make it into the roster because everyone will want to be there. It will be intense and high quality basketball and I think that we can do well and have some good things happen.”

 JOSH NEBO (center) and Maccabi Tel Aviv were too strong for host Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night, handing the Reds an 88-74 defeat in local league action. (credit: DANNY MARON) JOSH NEBO (center) and Maccabi Tel Aviv were too strong for host Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night, handing the Reds an 88-74 defeat in local league action. (credit: DANNY MARON)

THE BIG MAN began to really make inroads in his club career when he played for Latvian powerhouse VEF Riga, where he was able to compete year in and year out for titles and trophies. “My career really grew during my time at VEF as I started as a role player and became the team captain and leader of the team. It gave growth to my personality and my ability as a basketball player and helped me become who I am now. Many of these lessons are ones that I use here to help the guys and try to help the young guys get from a junior level to becoming a more mature player.”

Mejeris has played under a number of top-level coaches including Luca Banchi, who is the coach of the Latvian national team; his former coach at Parma Kazys Maksvytis; and of course his current bench boss Aleksandar Dzikic who all bring their own unique style to the table.

“At the end of the day they are all human beings who are doing their job but I can take something from everyone as they each have a different philosophy,” Mejeris said. “You try and take as much as you can, learn as much as you can and accept as much as you can. Each one has a totally different personality which gives one a special feeling and gives that unique feel.”

When Mejeris played for Parma during the height of COVID-19, his team played in Israel against Nes Ziona in the Europe Cup semifinal that saw his team lose in heartbreaking fashion when Wayne Selden drilled home a game winning 3-pointer.

“It was a great experience but unfortunately he hit that shot. We weren’t 100% at that moment as we had a number of injuries. We were up by a couple of points late in the game and we were really hoping to go to the final,” he said. “The one thing I hate about Final Fours is that you have to play the third-place game, which is a miserable feeling. As a professional player you have to put the emotions aside and keep playing, which is the tough part.”

Mejeris signed in Jerusalem after a conversation with Coach Dzikic and he has easily acclimated to the city and the coach’s work ethic. “Everything in Jerusalem has been great and the team has been as well. The club takes care of everything we need and the city is just great. Everything has been professional and it’s one of the best places that I have been,” he said.

“As for coach’s practices, they are not so bad. I was looking for something different because of his passport but it turns out that he is not an old school Serbian coach. It’s been great and he’s not killing us too much, but it’s still hard – and we put a lot of work in every day and I like it.”

Once in a lifetime achievement

BACK IN February, Jerusalem and Mejeris captured the Israel State Cup with a win at home over Maccabi Tel Aviv, which was a high point at the time as they work their way toward their other season-long goals.

“The Cup thing is really for the fans and of course, it’s great to win something, as a win is a win and a cup is a cup. But it’s mid-season and nobody prepares for this. So it’s an achievement on the way and it’s great but at that moment, every team is still under construction. The season is something you prepare for, for many, many months, but it was a great feeling and the [Cup] game itself was great with a great atmosphere and great basketball.”

In order to advance to the Final Four in Malaga, Hapoel needed to get by AEK Athens in a series that saw a lot of emotions from both the fans and players. “It was a roller coaster: the way we started in the first game and then how it leveled out. Then the game away – it was tough but it helped us become a stronger team and a better team that was able to deal with problems even better. I hope that this experience will help us in the Final Four in Malaga with the problems we will have to face during the game.”

Jerusalem supporters to the tune of 4,000 will be packing the arena in Malaga with the chance to win the big prize, a European title for the first time since 2004. “I didn’t know so many would be joining us and that’s great – the fans really give us a boost and drive us. It’s always better to play with fans who will cheer you so it’s an extra energy pack for us. They will push us – and without them it’s tougher.”

Of course, Tenerife will be no easy opponent as the defending BCL champ will want to hold onto their crown, but Mejeris feels that Jerusalem has the right formula to win the game, “We have to just give it our all from the first minute. Coach has said all season long that when you are on the court, don’t think about the next 5-10 minutes but [instead about] the next play – and for the next one minute give it your all. From there you’ll see how it will go.”

As for the thought of hoisting the trophy at the end of the competition, Mejeris sees this as a special opportunity and one that could be a once in a lifetime achievement. “It would be great and that’s the goal. It’s always nice to achieve the goal and that’s what it is. It would be a dream come true.”