There is no question that Maccabi Tel Aviv is happy to get its 2021/22 Euroleague season under way, as the Israeli powerhouse looks to return to the playoffs of the continent’s top competition for the first time since 2015.
Last year, the yellow-and-blue struggled out of the gate and finished outside of the postseason yet again with a 14-20 record. The campaign prior to that saw Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad in prime position to punch a playoff ticket, but it was denied due to the COVID-19 pandemic which cut the season short.
To take the team back to the promised land, management looked back to the recent past and brought in a number of players who had helped Maccabi achieve success two seasons ago. One of those players is Jalen Reynolds, who arrived in December 2019 as an injury replacement for center Tarik Black and contributed to the club’s positive showing.
Maccabi decided not to re-sign the big man for this past season and Reynolds ended up joining Bayern Munich, where he had arguably his best year as a professional. With the yellow-and-blue looking to rebuild its squad for this coming campaign, Reynolds was at the top of the wish list and the Detroit native was happy to oblige as he returned to the Holy Land for a second stint.
Just as the new season tipped off – with Maccabi opening against Bayern late Thursday night – Reynolds sat down with The Jerusalem Post to look back at his career to date, how he began playing basketball, his breakout season in Germany and what made him decide to reunite with Maccabi.
“It feels good to be back,” began the 28-year-old hoopster. “This is definitely like a second home to me and I enjoyed playing here in the past. I’m looking forward to the new season and what is has to offer us. I showcased my talents here two years ago and I tried my best to help the team, both on and off the court. I think they noticed my talent as well last year and from the year before and brought me back. I’m happy to be back where I am made to feel welcome. It’s a good thing to feel wanted. The weather is great, the people are good and the food as well. You can’t go wrong.”
The 2019/20 season offered many highlights and Reynolds spoke about how the previous campaign would influence this one.
“The organization is so professional. Playing for Coach Sfairopoulos again is such a great feeling because I also know the system and what he expects from his players. It’s going to be a good year for us and a chance to jump back into it and get it back the way it should be here at Maccabi. I am ready to showcase my talents and help my teammates as much as I can.”
Just as the club was peaking during the last month of Reynold’s first season with Maccabi, the coronavirus reared its ugly head and everything came to a grinding halt.
“When everything stopped it was a terrible feeling. All I know is basketball and family. When basketball stopped, it changed my outlook. It made me realize not to take anything for granted because it can be taken away from you at any moment. Every player that plays basketball realizes that and just how important this sport is to each of us.”
Reynolds took a huge step in his career at Bayern Munich last year as he averaged 13.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in just over 21 minutes a contest as his game developed and improved under Italian bench boss Andrea Trinchieri.
“I think my game has definitely matured. I want to possibly carve out that leadership role, help some of the young players on the team and lead my example on the court. Hopefully that will rub off on some of the younger players and they can emulate what I am doing. My shot has gotten a lot better and I am reading situations better and just being more locked in.
“It was great working with Coach Trinchieri. We obviously bumped heads. I think I’m right, he knows he is right. Overall, the man knows basketball and I can’t take that away from him. He is a good coach and he never told me anything wrong. He really truly cares about his guys and will go to battle for his guys and that’s good for me – if you go to battle for me, I’ll go to battle for you.”
Reynolds credits his personal motivation over the course of the year as the main key to the improvements that he made to his game.
“I think it was more so me being hungry and how bad I really wanted it. I was just focusing on the negative parts of my game and just trying to turn them into positives. Just overall wanting to be better. You can say this and that, but how badly do you really want it and are you willing to put that work in? To work on your weaknesses and turn them into your strengths I think was very beneficial for me last year. Putting in those extra hours in the gym when no one was watching and just being locked in during games.”
Reynolds was born in Detroit and grew up a Pistons fan as basketball was coursing through his veins from an early age.
“I was too tall to do anything else and I was rapidly growing so for me it was something I fell in love with and I just stuck with it, not thinking that I could do this on this level that I am now. If you would have told me when I was in fifth grade where I would be today, I would have said you’re joking. To say that I would be able to go play basketball and you’re going to excel and you’re going to be wanted. I think that it’s a great feeling inside to be able to do what you love day in and day out.”
As for players he grew up emulating, Reynolds was quick to point to one of the players he shared a locker-room with just a couple of seasons ago at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It’s funny you ask that because he was actually my teammate two years ago, Amar’e Stoudemire. I always wanted to emulate what he does and be that force on the court. I don’t know if I ever told him that because we were teammates and we were battling at the same position. Overall, him and Dwight Howard I kind of modeled my game after. Nowadays all the bigs want to shoot, like KD (Kevin Durant) and Kristaps Porzingis, they are such good shooters.”
After spending high school at Brewster in New Hampshire, it was off to Xavier University under the leadership of Chis Mack, who helped the team make it to three NCAA tournaments and the Sweet 16 over the course of his college career.
“Xavier stuck out to me because it wasn’t so far away from home. I had a good time, I wish things could have been a lot different. I did my best to get where I wanted to go, which is the NBA. It’s an unbelievable feeling to put all that work in and have it pay off the way it did. To beat U of C (Cincinnati) all those years I was there that’s obviously a big rivalry and I tip my hat to say that we never lost to them which is something I’ll take the rest of my life. Making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament was something truly special. That was a heck of an accomplishment for us and an unbelievable feeling.”
The NBA is, of course, the goal of most basketball players and while Reynolds would consider it, he’s having a good time overseas as well.
“I’m definitely open to the opportunity, but I am enjoying playing basketball in Europe and I am having a lot of fun here. I’ve carved out a space for myself to showcase my talents and people are excited to see what I am going to do and what we are going to do.”
Reynolds had the opportunity to play with Israel National Team captain Gal Mekel at Zenit St. Petersburg a few years ago and the guard left a very good impression on the center.
“Gal was a great teammate and such a nice dude. Family oriented guy and does all the right things, there were no errors with that guy. Such a good guy always talking about life and basketball. I loved being around him with good energy and on the court he was a heck of an athlete. He went in for contact and also passed me the dime many times, so I loved that. Very humble guy.”
The 6-foot-10, 250-pound center is familiar with not only some of the players that he had shared the floor with a couple of years ago, but also with some of the new ones who have joined the yellow-and-blue, but it will still take some time to get everybody on the same page as they look to succeed where recent Maccabi teams have not.
“I played against a few of the guys and I worked out with Keenan Evans in Dallas a few times. He’s a good guy and solid. I played against Derrick Williams and he is a freakish athlete. He’s a great player, a warrior. Scottie Wilbekin can shoot the ball at such a high level. We just got to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I’m looking forward to it.
“This season is still kind of an open book and we don’t really know what to expect. That’s the beauty of it because everybody is talented. Once we figure it out and put the pieces to the puzzle together, the sky’s the limit for this team. I am very excited and everybody on this team loves to hustle and work hard. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what this team has to offer and I’m feeling really good about it. From what it was last year, I think we are going to be a lot better.”