Hope for Hapoel After years of poor management

The Jerusalem basketball team has a chance at last.

Hapoel Jerusalem forward Lior Eliyahu goes up for two points (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Hapoel Jerusalem forward Lior Eliyahu goes up for two points
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
This season was supposed to be all about rebuilding for Hapoel Jerusalem.
It is safe to say that so far, it has gone a whole lot better than anyone dared to imagine.
After only officially taking over the club in July of last year, the new ownership group, headed by Ori Allon, did its best to temper expectations.
Decades of fruitless chasing of Maccabi Tel Aviv – combined with ever-changing eccentric owners of the likes of Arkadi Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar – left many Hapoel fans disillusioned, resulting in half-empty stands at numerous team games last season.
Not only has Hapoel not managed to win a title since lifting the State Cup in 2008, but it has also failed to even reach the league (BSL) or cup final since.
However, of far more concern was the way Hapoel was managed over recent seasons, with owners coming and going and infighting threatening to tear up the club.
Now, that has all changed, and the stability off-court seems to have had a direct influence on the team’s success on it.
Early in the season, however, there was widespread concern that it was going to be the same old story and that Hapoel fans were headed for another heartbreaking campaign.
Despite the signing of Jewish American coach Brad Greenberg, who led Maccabi Haifa to a surprise championship last season, and the high-profile addition of Israel national team guard Yotam Halperin, Jerusalem lost its first two league games and dropped to a 3-3 record after suffering a humbling 28-point thrashing at the hands of Ironi Ness Ziona on November 11.
Hapoel hasn’t lost in the BSL since.
Greenberg’s men claimed their 11th consecutive victory in local league action on Sunday, avenging the defeat to Ness Ziona by beating it 106-91 at Malha Arena.
Jerusalem regained sole possession of first place in the standings with a 14-3 record, one game ahead of perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv (13-4).
Hapoel hit 16 of 22 attempts from three-point range in a sensational scoring night, with Halperin accounting for seven of those baskets, ending the encounter with 29 points.
“This was a super-important win, but there is still a long way to go in the season,” Halperin said after the game.
“We are halfway through the campaign and there is still plenty more to be done.
I hope we are still in this form in May, when it really counts.”
The team’s winning streak included an 87-85 triumph over Maccabi at Malha, after which Allon famously celebrated on the shoulders of the fans.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of the season, Allon insisted: “We aren’t interested in what will happen in the next year or two, but in where the team will be in five and 10 years.”
Surely recent success has whetted his appetite.
If the first half of the season is any indication, Jerusalem looks to have a real chance of lifting silverware this season.
Hapoel leads the BSL in scoring, averaging 82.7 points per game, and has also impressed on the European scene. Jerusalem is on the verge of qualification for the Eurocup eighth finals, after winning three of its first four games in the last 32.
Jerusalem can secure its progress to the next stage by defeating Olimpija Ljubljana at Malha next week, and Hapoel fans are beginning to dream of a repeat of the triumphant 2003-2004 campaign when the club claimed the ULEB Cup, which preceded the Eurocup.
However, as promising as the present seems for Hapoel, the future looks to be even brighter.
The team will move into the new Jerusalem Arena at the start of next season, and Allon and his ownership group, which include New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, advertising bigwig Eyal Chomski and American sports agent Arn Tellem, intend to increase their investment in the coming years.
After signing Halperin, Allon vowed that Hapoel will continue to do whatever it takes to bring aboard the best Israeli players. Maccabi Tel Aviv previously had a monopoly on the local talent base, sometimes even signing Israeli players just so its rivals would not be able to benefit from their services.
Yet that all seems to be changing now, with Israel’s best beginning to buy into Allon’s brainwave.
The 33-year-old Allon has plenty of experience marketing his ideas to others, making his fortune by selling hi-tech startups to both Google and Twitter. In 2011, he sold his company, Julpan, to Twitter, going on to work as the director of engineering at Twitter’s NYC office. Previously, Google acquired his patented thesis work called Orion. During his time at Google, he led a search quality team that integrated the Orion technology and algorithms with the Google search engine.
Allon, who earned his PhD in computer science at Australia’s University of New South Wales, recently raised $20 million in a series A funding round for his third company, Urban Compass, which is aimed at making apartment hunting and local social networking easier.
After securing the services of Halperin, Jerusalem pounced to capture the signature of one of the country’s top players over the past decade, Lior Eliyahu. the 28-yearold forward, starred for Maccabi in six of the previous seven seasons, playing an integral role in the yellow-and-blue’s triumphs in Israel and abroad.
S t i l l , Maccabi c h o s e to take advantage of a clause in his contract and cut him last summer to avoid paying his hefty salary. Tel Aviv offered the forward a reduced deal, but he was quick to turn it down, waiting until mid-November, when he signed a three-year deal with Hapoel – as the offer he was waiting for from a European club never materialized.
The signing of Eliyahu proved that Allon was willing to make an unexpected investment when it was required, and the forward has quickly repaid the owner for his faith, carving out a major role for himself on the team.
Matters couldn’t have really gone any better for Hapoel since the start of the season. There will inevitably be a let-down at some stage, but that should do little to dampen the optimism at the club. Few people expected the new era at Hapoel to get off to such a fantastic start, and the occasional hiccup is part of even the most successful of sporting programs.
For the first time in decades, time looks to be on Jerusalem’s side. After years of heartache, Hapoel supporters can’t quite believe their luck. Their wildest sporting dreams have at last become possible.
The pace of progress will likely slow, but the ultimate goals can finally be realistically achieved.