His right arm seems unnatural - too straight - when it collides with the basketball. But he continues to slap at it while his players stretch under the basket. He's quiet and lost in thought, following the ball with his dark brown eyes. It's one of the few moments all day when Pini Gershon's mouth is shut.
Not 10 minutes later and Gershon, the Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach, is joking around with the referees, his last chance to keep things light before his players' preseason tune-up against the NBA's Toronto Raptors
Through 48 minutes of back-and-forth basketball, Gershon, 53, paces the sidelines and yells to his players in Hebrew
and English, depending on the recipient. While he may be as swank a celebrity as any in Israel
, Gershon's ability to flat out coach affords him the admiration of others.
"Pini Gershon, he loves the spotlight," Maccabi star Anthony Parker
will later say on Orlando Magic
radio. "He's hilarious, but he knows basketball."
Pini would not disagree.
"In the last 40 years only one team took a championship from Maccabi Tel Aviv, and I coached them," he tells members of the press, referring to Galil
Elyon's 1993 Israel League championship over Maccabi.
The spotlight is on Gershon, and he has brought his dancing shoes.
Beneath a labyrinth of fancy microphones and voice recorders, a reporter for a local Canadian Jewish newspaper tries to direct a question to the coach while furiously scribbling notes in his pad. Pini sees his chance.
"You write all this nonsense?" Gershon bellows. "You write all this? Oh, very nice."
Perhaps within the informal confines of Israel, the avuncular Gershon could be expected to poke fun at the press, but the North American
reporters are unsure how to react until the silver-haired star lets out a deep and jolly laugh. The reporter stammers on, making sure that he words his question properly. He has already been put on the defensive.
Pini is Pini because he is successful, because he is charismatic, and because he is blunt. In many ways, it's refreshing that he doesn't sugarcoat a prepared and scripted response when talking to the media. They know that Pini is always good for a line. Yet, while he may not be the first person to shoot his mouth for the cameras and the papers, North American reporters seem taken back by his not-so-delicate treatment of the English language.
"He's a f-ing winner," Gershon says about former Maccabi star Sarunas Jasikevicius. "He's a killer."
Gershon, who won the last two Euroleague
titles with Jasikevicius bringing the ball up, admits that the Lithuanian point guard's early NBA success has surprised him. "He's scored in one [preseason] game 18 points or something like that," he says, pausing. "What, the game was 80 minutes?"
Uncertain silence. Did Gershon really just make fun of his former player? The performer answers the question with a deep and forceful laugh.
ISRAELI SPORTS success on an international level is a major source of pride for Israelis and Jews worldwide. Whether it's Gal Friedman's Olympic gold medal, or the national soccer team going undefeated in one of the world's toughest World Cup qualifying groups, it's clear that Israeli sports have made tremendous strides in the 21st century.
But windsurfing and soccer are lagging far behind basketball in mass appeal among North Americans
. A meaningless preseason Maccabi win over the Toronto Raptors goes a long way in mainstream America. People can relate. With Maccabi's victory, the team has staked its claim as one of the top 30 basketball clubs in the world.
And while the players - the best of whom are not Israeli - are doing a great job of representing Israel on the court, Israelis associated with Maccabi are undermining the club's success with an unguarded and shameless public display.
Yes, this includes Gershon - the same Gershon who, when asked by a reporter where he ranks in Europe
, answered, "We are fo
ur-time European champions. I got three of them. Is that enough?"
Responses like that allowed Dave Feschuk, the Raptors' beat writer for The Toronto Star
, to make the following observation: "I thought he was a quotable guy with a huge ego, not unlike a lot of people you encounter covering the NBA. But again, that's a first impression, and a brief one at that."
Feschuk was more enraged by statements that Gershon had made in the past about African-American players being stupid and having a slave's mentality, prompting the Canadian journalist to write a column about the Maccabi coach.
"Knowing the comments he has made in the past about African-American players, I just don't see how the NBA could invite his team to North America," Feschuk told The Jerusalem Post
"I have heard some rumblings that no one in the league was aware of Gershon's comments until they appeared in my column, but I can't confirm that. All I know is this: If he'd said those words in North America, he would never work as a head coach again, and rightly so."
There are certainly precedents for that. In 1988, CBS
fired football commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder for nonchalantly explaining to a reporter that "The black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way," and that "During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big, black kid, see. That's where it all started."
But Pini hasn't suffered much from his comments: Winning seems to cure all ills, and Gershon has won often since making his own offensive remarks in 2001. He has also managed, for the most part, to keep himself out of trouble with inflammatory statements, and he has gained the loyalty of his players, white or black, Israeli or American. Before the Toronto game, Raptors guard Robert Pack, a black player who spent years in both the NBA and Europe, came over to Gershon, put his arm around the man and the two chatted away.
THE PROBLEM extends beyond Gershon, however. The problem is more visible in the behavior of Maccabi's posse, better known as the Israeli press.
During the fourth quarter of a close Raptors-Maccabi game, the loudest cheers in response to good plays by Maccabi came from the handful of Israeli reporters occupying the second row of courtside press seats. With minutes remaining, one of the refs made a questionable call against Maccabi, leading one vocal reporter to unleash a curse-filled tirade at the ref as he ran by.
The bloc of reporters seated next to each other stood throughout the final minutes of the contest, cheering wildly with every play in Maccabi's favor. When the final horn sounded, the same reporters hugged, jumped around and cheered to celebrate the narrow Tel Aviv victory.
"Reporters cannot cheer for their home team," says Boston University
journalism professor Jim Schuh, who teaches a course titled Media Law and Ethics. "Reporters should have no loyalty, except to their spouses and the truth."
In the meantime, Maccabi Tel Aviv is busy gearing up for a run at a third Euroleague title in a row. And after beating Toronto, 105-103, they have to feel pretty confident about their chances. Like "f-ing winners," even. Like killers.