With Maor at the helm, intriguing next chapter for Hapoel Jerusalem

The appointment of Mody Maor as Hapoel Jerusalem’s new head coach caught most experts by surprise, but it remains to be seen if he has indeed being handed the role on a permanent basis. (photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
The appointment of Mody Maor as Hapoel Jerusalem’s new head coach caught most experts by surprise, but it remains to be seen if he has indeed being handed the role on a permanent basis.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
The bottom line, of course, is what will ultimately determine whether the move made by Hapoel Jerusalem owner Ori Allon will be remembered as a stroke of genius or as a bad joke.
While the firing of coach Fotis Katsikaris last week was far from surprising, the appointment of his assistant Mody Maor in his place both baffled and bemused.
The fact Hapoel chose to put its faith in someone who had never previously worked as a head coach is nothing short of incredible.
Maor worked under Simone Pianigiani at Jerusalem last season and also was on the coaching staffs of the likes of Tzvika Sherf in the past.
All his former bosses speak highly of him. But there is a big difference between serving as someone’s assistant (or as a scout, the way he has done with the Israel national teams) and orchestrating the show yourself.
Maor may very well have everything needed to be a successful head coach.
But is he ready to be the head coach of Hapoel Jerusalem? Only time will tell, of course. But there is no hiding from the fact that Allon has taken a huge gamble. A major leap of faith is required to name as your head coach someone who only celebrated his 32nd birthday earlier this year and is discovering for the first time what it feels like to shoulder the full responsibility of a team.
There is no reason Maor’s age should hold him back, but his lack of experience is glaring.
It is hardly surprising that the 35-year-old Allon is the person behind this bet, with Hapoel’s boss selling two startups to Google and Twitter by the age of 30 and his current real-estate startup company, Compass, being valued at over $1 billion.
Clearly, Allon believes that if you are good enough, you are old enough.
Maor’s first game in charge went reasonably well, with Hapoel hitting the ground running and surging to a 25-point lead against Ironi Ness Ziona in BSL action on Saturday, before returning to its old habits in the second half.
Jerusalem scored just 25 points in the third and fourth quarters combined and had to overcome a few nervy moment before completing a 74-59 victory and improving to a 5-1 record in local league action.
However, Maor’s first real test will come on Wednesday when the team hosts Lietkabelis Panevezys of Lithuania in Eurocup play.
Katsikaris lost his job mainly due to the team’s struggles in the Eurocup, with Hapoel at 1-4 at the midway point of the regular season. After going all the way to the semifinals last season, the expectation was to take another step forward and reach the final in 2018. That seems like an unrealistic dream at the moment, with Hapoel fighting to simply avoid a humbling exit in the regular season.
After hosting Panevezys, Hapoel plays three of its final four Eurocup regular season games on the road, against Buducnost, Bayern Munich and Galatasaray.
The top four teams in the group will advance to the Top 16 and Jerusalem is still very much in the mix, sitting only one game back of Reggio Emilia in fourth place. It can scarcely afford any additional slip ups though.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Maor seems to be on a relatively short leash. No one at the club has agreed to go on camera to confirm that he will guide the team until even the end of the season and he seems well aware that the head coach position may only be his for the short term.
“Hapoel Jerusalem is my home and I’m here,” was what he answered when asked if he will coach the side until the end of the season.
“I love challenges and I love Hapoel Jerusalem and the combination between the two is fantastic,” added Maor, who isn’t lacking in life experiences having served as a combat officer in the IDF.
“If I doubted my ability to do this job I wouldn’t have accepted it. I’m certain that we can succeed together and that is why I took it wholeheartedly. I know there will be some difficult days ahead, but we will be ready to face them together.”
Understanding that its problems go far beyond the coaching position, Jerusalem continues to make changes to its roster, bringing in forward Ronald Roberts on Monday. The 26-year-old was set to play for the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian league this season, but was cut last month, with the team claiming he is suffering from a knee injury.
Roberts tweeted in response: “Actually I have no injury whatsoever... reports are false, I’m 100 percent fine.”
Jerusalem also signed Kalin Lucas at the start of last week, with the guard being brought in to fill the void left by the departure of Curtis Jerrells.
Hapoel may well be regretting the release of Jerrells last month, cutting its top scorer from last season’s triumphant campaign because he clashed with Katsikaris.
Allon prides himself at being patient and giving his coaches every chance to succeed. After all, he was under pressure to sack Pianigiani at stages last season, but ended it celebrating a second BSL championship in three years after the team had also reached the Eurocup semis.
Putting faith in the coach rather than a star scorer is a decision that has become a rarity in the sports world over recent years. But Allon did that with Jerrells’s release, something which also cost the club around $100,000.
Nevertheless, with the side being booed off the court in Jerusalem by many of its fans following last Wednesday’s Eurocup defeat to the previously winless Galatasaray, Allon must have felt his team could be on its way to a lost season with Katsikaris at the helm. He notified him one day later that he was fired, just one month into the campaign.
In many ways, the fact Katsikaris lasted that long is a testament to Allon’s composure. Far more unexpected though, was the promotion of Maor.
While Hapoel dug itself a hole in the Eurocup under Katsikaris, should it fail to progress to the Top 16 under Maor, the failure will scar both the coach and those who appointed him.
Hapoel’s hopes of one day playing in the Euroleague are very much connected with its results in the Eurocup, making this a high-stake’s gamble.
It is not quite an all-or-nothing situation for Hapoel, but it isn’t far from it.
Maor said after his head coaching debut that he had fun. With so much at stake and the pressure only expected to grow, everyone connected with Hapoel Jerusalem is praying that won’t change anytime soon.