Sinai Says: Fairytale movie-esque moment for rejuvenated Hapoel Tel Aviv

"From the destruction and despair, rose a team of people who achieved the impossible.”

Hapoel Tel Aviv hoops fans (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Hapoel Tel Aviv hoops fans
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
It was an impossible dream.
A heartbroken group of fans embarking on a quest to build a club from scratch amidst the demise of their beloved team.
But the inconceivable became a reality and the resurrection was finally completed on Sunday.
Rising from the ruins of the demolished Ussishkin Arena, Hapoel Tel Aviv Basketball Club finally has a home to call its own after entering its new arena at the former site of Tel Aviv’s iconic drive-in movie theater on Sunday.
Hapoel’s homecoming party was perfect, with Oded Katash’s team beating Hapoel Jerusalem 81-67 in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,500 supporters.
Captain Matan Naor, the only player on the Hapoel roster to have also played at Ussishkin, had missed the previous four weeks due to injury, but there was no way he was not going to play on Sunday.
“I have never been so excited to get on the floor,” he said after the game. “I can’t put into words how much I waited for this game. I told the players that this is a special moment for me and the fans but that we still have a long road ahead of us.”
Naor started and played 24 minutes, and despite ending the night scoreless, Hapoel outscored Jerusalem by 18 points when he was on the floor.
“I ran out of oxygen at one stage, but I got energy from somewhere. I have no rational explanation for it,” he added. “We have an opportunity to do something big and maybe even historic in this arena.
“We have a chance to do something which will affect Hapoel Tel Aviv for many years to come and we need to be stupid to squander it.”
The red fans looked to be embarking on a hopeless journey in the summer of 2007 when they set up Hapoel Ussishkin. Hapoel Tel Aviv was on its way to relegation to the third division and the team’s dilapidated Ussishkin home arena had been demolished by the Tel Aviv Municipality.
A supporters’ trust was created and the team began its life in the fifth tier. Membership was set at an annual fee of NIS 300 (since rising to NIS 400), with over 1,900 supporters currently enlisted.
Legendary singer Arik Einstein – who died in November 2013 – became the 1,000th member in 2010 and the club has named the arena after him, even though the municipality, which owns the venue, will likely seek to make a profit by selling the naming rights.
Each member has the right to vote in the non-profit organization’s general assembly held at least twice a year and can put his name forward to be chosen to the club’s management, which is selected once every two years.
Despite the cost of running a successful team in the top-flight, Hapoel fans have managed to retain an 85 percent controlling stake of the senior club and full control of the youth department.
In December 2009, another major milestone in the resurrection of the club was achieved when it took over the name and heritage rights of the original Hapoel Tel Aviv team after it was officially liquidated.
Hapoel finally returned to the top flight in the 2012/13 season and claimed its first win over arch-rival Maccabi Tel Aviv in the derby after nine years in March 2013.
The side ended up reaching the quarterfinal playoffs, an achievement it repeated last season, while also progressing to the State Cup semifinals.
Nevertheless, after three seasons, coach Erez Edelstein’s contract was not renewed last summer and Oded Katash was brought in to replace him.
The former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach, who won a BSL championship with Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in 2010, got off to a disappointing start, with the team losing three of its first four league contests.
However, five wins over its next six games, including a 20-point thrashing of Maccabi Tel Aviv on the road, got the team up and running.
Hapoel was edged by the yellow-and-blue in the cup quarterfinals last month, but improved to 8-6 in the league, just a single game behind Jerusalem in second place, with the win over the latter earlier this week.
A few hours after the end of the game, Naor summed up the emotional night on Facebook.
“I know everyone might not agree with me, but today I can say this loud and clear: We are lucky Ussishkin was demolished,” he wrote. “Not just because we received a bigger home, but mainly because of the team that rose from the ruins of Ussishkin. It isn’t that I support the demolition, on the contrary, I think it showed a lack of respect to the fans and a lack of respect to sport and the history that was lost.
“However, from the destruction and despair, rose a team of people who achieved the impossible.”