The Israel National Team will begin the 2024 Paris Olympic Pre-Qualifying on Saturday night as the blue-and-white will tip off against North Macedonia in Estonia in the first stage of the tournament which includes three-round robin group games.
Israel’s group also includes the Czech Republic and the host nation.
Should head coach Ariel Beit Halachmi’s squad finish in one of the first two places, it will then head to the final four of the competition in Gliwice, which is also hosting a group that includes Portugal, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Poland.
The last team standing will earn a ticket to the Olympic qualifying tourney itself next summer just ahead of the Paris Games.
Israel will enter the games this weekend with a very young squad, one that has not had much experience with the senior National Team, but one that does have a lot of drive, determination, and desire. The player that most embodies those attributes is without a doubt Netanel Artzi.
Netanel Artzi to prove his worth
For the first time in his career, the 26-year-old forward will have a significant and critical role with the blue-and-white as Beit Halachmi will rely on Artzi to provide plenty of energy and grit on the floor. The pair has worked together for a number of years and the trust between the two is unbreakable, making Artzi a key component to the success of the squad in the upcoming competition.
Just ahead of the tournament, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Artzi to discuss his ascent in Israeli basketball, the challenges ahead, playing against Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and the importance of wearing the blue-and-white.
“It’s very exciting that after many years of being a part of the Israel National Team program, I will have an integral role and that I can give even more than what I had been able to in the previous games that I played in. It’s really a huge opportunity for me to represent the country. Every time that I am called upon, whether it’s the 3x3 or anything else, I will be there. I’m very proud. This is the greatest service I can do for my country.”
The squad will no doubt be tested against some teams that have played together for some time, but the way to win will be by playing their style of game, explained the Kiryat Bialik native.
“The staff has tried to implement a certain style of play where we will be the ones who will control the clock, be the first to gain possession of the ball, go for every rebound, all the little things that can help impact the game. I believe that if we come into the tournament with that attitude, focus, energy, and fire in our eyes then we can do some very good things. While we are a young team, we have been playing with each other in league play and our communication is very good. The one thing that we really made a point of working on is being together, being with each other as much as possible, because, at the end of the day, we want to be a team that will win.”
Heading into the tournament, a number of players did not come to camp citing other personal commitments as well as injuries, and unfortunately during the lead-up to the games, the team also lost the captain Tomer Ginat, Nimrod Levi, and Will Rayman to injuries as well. With so many players not available, Artzi became one of the veterans, along with acting captain Bar Timor and Oz Blayzer.
“Those that are here are here and we want to accomplish our goal which is very clear, win and trust one another. There are players who are injured and we have to take their energy and bring that to the court. Any time that we put on the Israel National Team uniform, the responsibility always increases and the expectations are very high. We understand that as professional players we have each other here to pick us up and push us as much as we all can. There are some players here who aren’t making their first appearance with the team and they have plenty of experience that can help out the new players and the younger ones.”
Artzi and the Beit Halachmi have known each other for a long time and the relationship between the two has continued to strengthen and evolve, making the head coach the perfect man in charge for the forward.
“Ariel and I have known each other for many years, which began right after I was with the Under-20 team on the Olympic squad where we really connected, and then continued to club teams as well. Let’s just say that I would do anything he would ask straight away without thinking twice...I believe in him."
Artzi has worked hard over the years to get to where he is and he knows full well that this is the chance of a lifetime.
“There’s no question that things have changed due to the many injuries. My role will be much more important and I feel that I am ready for this after many years with the National Team where I would end up being the 13th player and just miss out on making the squad. I am happy that I was able to learn from so many players including some that have retired. I believe that I connected with many players both on and off the floor, including when I mimic some of the players which made people laugh. That also helped me a tremendous amount.
“Right now I am grabbing this opportunity with both hands just like I do in the league for every team that I have played for and I will do the best that I can. It starts with defense and I have a lot of confidence in my defense, to give energy to the rest of the guys and I believe that will set the tone for the rest of the game. I want to be that ‘Red Bull’ on the court.”
Before finding his niche as a basketball player, Artzi started out with soccer being his No. 1 sport. However, that changed as he was about to enter his teenage years and got a boost when all of a sudden he was paired with the first Israeli in the NBA.
“Before I was a basketball player I played soccer and that was my dream. At the end of sixth grade, a good friend of mine said that I should try to play hoops and that is where the story began. I was tall and athletic coming from soccer and I only knew how to dunk. I then took part in the Telma Challenge with Omri Casspi and from there I was just able to chase my dream. I took small steps along the way, one at a time, as I was able to keep moving up the ladder and here I am having a significant role with the National Team. I am living the dream.”
At the end of last season, Artzi moved to Hapoel Holon from Hapoel Eilat, which allowed him the opportunity for the first time to play for a perennial contender.
While LeBron James may be Artzi’s favorite player, and the fact that he also played against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers back when he was a member of Maccabi Haifa, it was a pair of players from his time at Hapoel Gilboa/Galil who he considered the greatest he had ever played with.
“Jamar Gulley at Gilboa/Galil was a player who could score points sitting on the bench! I have never seen anything like it before, he was a point machine. Another player was Kerry Blackshear, who was a 4 that was a guard. He simply knew how to manage the game from the paint and shot three-pointers at the highest of levels. That last season with Gilboa was incredible as we made it to the final. We were so close to winning the championship and I could touch it.”
As for the encounter he had with Bryant, it was something unforgettable.
“I never thought that I would ever be in that position. During warmups and after a layup I put in I was jogging back into line and then all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing right there at midcourt chewing on some gum. It was amazing. It was his last year in the NBA and it was really fulfilling a dream. These are things that will never happen again. I am so happy that I was able to meet and play against one of the greatest players who ever played.”
Artzi also spoke about the future of Israeli basketball and how some of the younger players can make an impact around the country.
“There is a future for Israeli basketball and you can see that right from the youth national teams.
As for career goals, Artzi has a number that he wants to accomplish.
“I want to win a league championship, play in Europe, and to maximize the potential of my career. It could be that I will be a coach but that is still far off. I still have plenty of time but I want to play until I’m 40.”