When will fans be allowed to come back?

While games continue to be played, feeling just isn’t the same as sports are all about the spectators.

TEAM MASCOTS simply don’t have the same effect when there are no fans attending games for them to rev up, as has been the case for the past year. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
TEAM MASCOTS simply don’t have the same effect when there are no fans attending games for them to rev up, as has been the case for the past year.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic almost a year ago the world has been turned upside down, and that of course also includes the world of sports.
Sure, games are back across the globe and from basketball to football to soccer there’s plenty of action to watch on TV, however for the average fan it’s nearly impossible to attend a sporting event and watch the action live and in person.
In Israel, the situation is very similar as arenas from Nahariya to Eilat have not been able to welcome spectators yet this season with the hope that the situation will change soon with the country’s rabid vaccination program going in full gear.
But until the leagues get the OK and “Green Passports” will allow entrance to cultural and sporting activities, the only people allowed inside the facility for a game are team personnel and media members.
With that being the case, The Sports Rabbi decided to take in a unique hoops doubleheader this week in Tel Aviv. The first stop was the Drive-In Arena by the Exposition Center in North Tel Aviv for Hapoel Tel Aviv and Bnei Herzliya and then a trip down south to Yad Eliyahu for Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa.
The Drive-In Arena is a relatively new facility built in 2014 and is named as such because there had been a drive-in movie theatre on the grounds, a concept which in fact made a comeback over the summer due to the pandemic. With its red, white and blue seats and homey atmosphere, when packed with 3,500 strong the decibel levels can get quite high if it’s a derby, an Israel National Team game or even a tennis match; the Davis Cup team played in the arena a few years ago.
Hapoel Tel Aviv entered the critical contest with a 3-7 record, good for 10th place, while Herzliya sat just one spot behind the Reds in the standings, checked in with a 3-9 record in the 13-team Winner League.
This campaign, two teams will be relegated to the lower league, so each win is worth gold as the season is about a third of the way through.
Arriving at the game roughly an hour before tipoff offered me a chance to have a short pregame chat with Hapoel sharp-shooter Jon Diebler, who had been out with a minor injury but would be back in the lineup replacing the explosive and high flying swingman JP Tokoto, who broke his left ankle in the derby earlier in the week.
Yam Madar, who was selected by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA Draft this past November, has been Hapoel Tel Aviv’s star so far this season, averaging 16.4 points and five assists a game which puts him at the top of the Israeli league leaders.
Last year, that spot was owned by Deni Avdija, who was of course also picked in the 2020 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards with the ninth overall selection and is now getting his feet wet in the NBA, a destination that Madar would like to also reach.
Herzliya, which has been on an upswing of late, features Coty Clarke, who is one of the league’s most lethal scorers and began his career in 2014 in Israel’s second division, as well as naturalized Israeli rookie Max Heidegger, who signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv to begin the season but was loaned out early on in order to get more playing time.
Clarke didn’t disappoint, as the 28-year-old forward scored 22 of his 25 points in the first half to pace Herzliya in the 98-86 win. To end the second quarter, Clarke played the Reds’ defense like a fiddle, waiting for the clock to run down to then drill home a killer triple.
Heidegger, 23, finished in double digits while Madar led Hapoel with 25 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in his club’s loss.
In a funny incident near the end of the game, Herzliya coach Sharon Drucker called a timeout with under a minute to go, raising the ire of Hapoel Tel Aviv management in attendance and their voices traveled throughout the cavernous, empty arena as the catcalls rained down.
Had there been fans in the stands, those boos would have reverberated 10-fold.
Following the postgame press conference, I hopped into the car and made it to the Maccabi game in roughly 10 minutes and of course didn’t have a problem finding parking despite the matchup having already begun.
No one expected that the game between 7-2 Maccabi Tel Aviv and 2-10 Maccabi Haifa would be a competitive clash, but nonetheless you just never know what will be until the actual contest is played.
The Carmel Greens desperately needed a win, but the yellow-and-blue came out flying and put the hammer down on Daniel Seaone’s squad from the get-go, making sure that there would be no thoughts of an upset.
Angelo Caloiaro got the hosts rolling in the first half with 13 points as Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s team decimated Haifa 53-26 after 20 minutes to cruise to a 95-60 victory.
During a timeout in the fourth quarter, the few media and team management could hear Seoane screaming at his players in vain from way, way across the court of the 11,000-seat arena as the game at that point was out of reach.
On the other side of the parquet, Maccabi inserted its three young players, Dori Sahar, Eidan Alber and Yonatan Atias giving the trio some serious playing time as they all scored and looked good as well.
Sahar finished the game with 11 points, which earned him a huge cheer from his teammates as he entered the locker-room following the clash as the players’ voices rang throughout the empty arena.
Haifa also had the opportunity to show off some of its younger players, including Ilay Hen, who scored a pair of three-pointers as the game dwindled away, as well as Shaked Biala.
As I made my way back home to Jerusalem, I reflected on what was a good night of hoops in Tel Aviv, however it was clear that something was really missing.
Hopefully, what is arguably the most important part of a professional sports game – the fans – will be back where they belong very soon.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]