Sinai Says: In total disarray, Hapoel Jerusalem must regroup to salvage season

A season which began with so much promise is unraveling at the seams and the mounting tension at the club is clearly evident.

Hapoel Jerusalem coach Danny Franco (photo credit: ODED KARNI/BSL)
Hapoel Jerusalem coach Danny Franco
(photo credit: ODED KARNI/BSL)
A good indication that matters aren’t so rosy with a basketball team is when the club’s owner takes to Facebook to threaten his players.
“It doesn’t matter what your name is, if I don’t see 100% commitment from you, I’ll send you packing. Now shut up and show some heart,” was what Hapoel Jerusalem owner Ori Allon wrote on Monday, a day after his team dropped to a humbling BSL loss to Ironi Nahariya.
It wasn’t just that Hapoel was beaten by Nahariya at the Jerusalem Arena. It completely capitulated against arguably the weakest team in the league. Hapoel led by as many as 24 points in the second quarter, only to allow Nahariya to go on a 27-0 run over nine minutes at the end of the third period and the start of the fourth to turn the game on its head and ultimately secure the win.
The defeat to Nahariya came four days after Jerusalem was officially knocked out of Europe.
Hapoel will complete its Eurocup regular season campaign on Wednesday night when it visits Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in Lithuania. Nevertheless, it already lost all hope of advancing to the Last 32 last week after falling to 2-7 with a 112-110 double-overtime defeat at home to CSU Ploiesti of Romania.
A season which began with so much promise is unraveling at the seams and the mounting tension at the club is clearly evident.
The boos from the stands have been ringing regularly over the past week and the team’s dressing room has become a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Optimism was abound ahead of the start of the campaign, with Hapoel moving into its new state-of-the-art arena and selling a record amount of more than 5,000 season tickets. The club retained the services of Lior Eliyahu, Yotam Halperin, Bracey Wright and Derwin Kitchen while bringing in Joseph Jones, Tony Gaffney and last season’s BSL MVP Donta Smith.
“All I can ask the players is to give their all. I can’t control if they win or lose but they have to fight for it and I believe we are going to have the right team,” Allon told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the start of the season. “We are going to have the talent and the right coach and of course the amazing fans in the new arena. I think they will have everything they need in order to be successful.”
Allon went on to stress that the club is focused on “building something for the very long term” and isn’t obsessing about winning titles.
There is little doubt, though, that he expected better results in the first three months of the season.
Decades of fruitlessly chasing Maccabi Tel Aviv, combined with ever-changing eccentric owners of the likes of Arkadi Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar, left many Hapoel fans disillusioned.
Hapoel hasn’t managed to win a title since lifting the State Cup in 2008, but its future has looked a lot brighter since Allon stepped into the fray last year.
He assembled a star-studded ownership group, including New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, advertising bigwig Eyal Chomski and American sports agent Arn Tellem, to purchase the club following the disappearance of Aguiar at sea.
Jerusalem progressed all the way to the Eurocup quarterfinals last season, but was stopped in the BSL semis, failing to make the final for a seventh straight year.
Coach Brad Greenberg was replaced by Danny Franco, and despite the team’s failure to come through the Euroleague qualifiers at the start of the season, it looked to be in promising form to begin the campaign.
Jerusalem easily won its first two BSL games, but cracks began to appear when it dropped to 0-2 in the Eurocup following a home loss to Krasny Oktyabr Volgograd of Russia.
Nevertheless, Hapoel looked to have found its way when it beat Partizan Belgrade for its first continental win before handing Maccabi Tel Aviv its heaviest-ever loss in local competition, winning 93-63 in Jerusalem.
But what seemed like a sign of things to come at the time is now looking like the peak of a disappointing season.
While Hapoel continued to triumph in the BSL, extending its perfect start to a club record 9-0, the vulnerabilities of Franco’s team were exposed for all to see in the Eurocup. Jerusalem lost five of its next six games, culminating in last week’s setback against Ploiesti.
Hapoel yet again failed to close out a tight contest, falling to 2-7 in games decided by four points or fewer this season.
The game was followed by bizarre scenes in the dressing room, with Donta Smith rolling on the floor in laughter while playing loud music when the journalists entered for the post-game interviews.
Smith was booed by fans during Sunday’s defeat, registering arguably his worst game of the season after finishing with four points on 1-of-8 from the field while recording six assists but also committing six turnovers.
“We entered the game against Nahariya in a bad state of mind after being knocked out of Europe,” said Franco. “Everyone took that to heart.
“Everyone knows what Donta is capable of,” he added. “The fans lifted him on their shoulders earlier this season and now they are bringing him down to his knees. He’s a major player and the team was very much built around him. But we win as a team and we lose as a team.”
The addition of Pops Mensah-Bonsu last month did little to improve the club’s fortunes, and with Kitchen struggling with injury, there seems to be little to be optimistic about at the moment.
CEO Guy Harel and several of the teams players, including Wright and Smith, had a heated exchange of words in the dressing room following the defeat to Nahariya and it remains to be seen if the club will make any other changes to the roster.
Despite all its problems, Jerusalem still has plenty of time to turn its season around. It would have likely been happy to settle for a 9-2 start in the BSL ahead of the season and will be confident of progressing to the quarterfinals of the State Cup when it visits Ramat Hasharon of the National League next Thursday.
“We are experiencing a mini-crisis and it is good it has arrived at this stage of the season,” said experienced Israeli guard Halperin.
“Every team goes through such periods and we will need to find a way to overcome it. We clearly deserved the boos.
“We have a good team with good players.
We have a lot of veterans who have been through these situations before. We will have to find a way to lift ourselves.”
Franco was handed a three-year contract in the summer, but the club has an exit clause at the end of this season. A failure to rebound and claim either the championship or the cup will likely result in Franco’s departure.
Regardless of how things turn out, Ori Allon’s Facebook page promises to make for some interesting reading over the coming months.
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