Against all odds

Maccabi Tel Aviv joins Barcelona, Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague Final Four.

Yogev Ohayon drives to the basket during a Euroleague game. (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Yogev Ohayon drives to the basket during a Euroleague game.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
The players and fans alike erupted at the final buzzer.
Music blasted from the speakers of Nokia Arena as over 11,000 supporters screamed and danced in the stands and a tightknit group of players and coaches partied on the arena floor.
One could hardly blame them for going wild.
After all, for much of the season, this team was castigated as being mediocre by Israeli standards, not to mention European levels. But despite all the criticism and against all odds, Maccabi Tel Aviv advanced to the Euroleague Final Four last week, joining continental powerhouses Barcelona, Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow in European basketball’s showcase event.
Maccabi will face CSKA in the semifinals in two weeks on Friday, May 16, in its first appearance in the Final Four since 2011. Since winning the title in 2004 and 2005 and losing in the final in 2006 and 2008, Tel Aviv has only reached the Final Four once in six years.
It lost in the 2011 final in the first season of coach David Blatt’s second term at the club, but came up short in its quest to reach the Final Four in the following two campaigns, falling in the quarterfinal playoffs.
The yellow-and-blue was thoroughly outplayed in a 3-0 series defeat to Real Madrid in last season’s Euroleague quarterfinals before also dropping the league title following a loss to Maccabi Haifa.
Winning the BSL championship is almost a given at Maccabi, with all four of the previous coaches who failed to clinch the Israeli league trophy in the past 45 years being sacked following the loss of the local crown.
However, Maccabi’s management stuck with Blatt ahead of this season – not so much because of its love for the coach, but mainly due to his binding contract and the lack of adequate replacements.
Blatt’s clashes with several of the club’s owners have been well documented, although the coach has always insisted that it is simply a family feud. As he put it in his press conference following Maccabi’s 86-66 victory over Olimpia Milano at Nokia Arena last week – which secured the side’s progress to the Final Four with a 3-1 series win – “you are not always fond of every one of your family members, but you put that aside for the good of the family.”
Blatt, who was reportedly on the verge of being sacked during the season, said he wanted to remain at the club, but only if he received a contract extension. His current contract runs until the end of next season, but both he and the club can opt out following this campaign.
“I want to stay, but it takes two to tango, and I don’t want to be a lameduck coach again next year,” he explained. “I don’t forget that when times were tough, they supported me, and I appreciate that. As long as there is a will on both sides, I’m not going anywhere.”
Maccabi got off to its worst start ever in the BSL this season, suffered its heaviest home defeat in history in any competition, and stuttered into the Euroleague quarterfinals after winning just four of its final 10 Top 16 contests. But despite the yellow-and-blue’s struggles throughout the season, Blatt claimed he had always believed in his team.
“We had to rebuild the roster, and at Maccabi it takes time for the team to gel,” he said, adding that he couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a day off or slept well at night. “We worked methodically and quietly throughout the season, believing we could achieve something special.”
After almost being cut from the roster earlier in the season, guard Tyrese Rice and center Alex Tyus established themselves as two of the team’s most important players in the series against Milano. David Blu’s return from retirement at the start of the campaign also proved to be crucial, with Devin Smith and Ricky Hickman providing key contributions at the crucial moments. Greek giant Sofoklis Schortsanitis may not be the fittest player in Europe, but he dominated under the baskets when he had the energy to run up and down the court, while the only two Israeli-born players on the roster, captain Guy Pnini and Yogev Ohayon, give the team some much-needed local identity.
IT IS hard to make sense of Maccabi’s season so far – unless, of course, you consider Blatt’s track record and his ability to create a winning team from a mediocre roster.
Apart from last season’s tight loss to Haifa in the league final, the yellow-andblue has won every local competition it has contested in six seasons under Blatt as head coach (2001-3, 2010-4).
It is a testament to Blatt’s capabilities and character that he became the first coach since Tzvika Sherf in the 1980s to start four straight seasons at Maccabi. For much of the season, it seemed that the only way Blatt would not be leaving in the summer was if he were sacked beforehand.
However, he weathered the storms at the club once more and may after all be back for the final year of his contract, with the team exactly where he wants it to be at the business end of the season.
Time and again, he has been forced to rebuild teams almost from scratch at the start of the campaign due to Maccabi’s financial inability to retain the services of its better players.
That means he requires much of the first half of the season just to find a winning formula, but he has always managed to do so by the decisive stage of the year, a fact that seems to be lost on his detractors, both in and out of the club.
It is only a matter of time until the Maccabi ownership loses its patience with any coach, regardless of his identity. A Maccabi coach has to guide his team to a win in every game. And he has to do so in style, preferably with Israeli players making significant contributions.
Such a level of success simply cannot be maintained over the long run.
Blatt has managed to stick around longer than most, but the impossibly high level of expectation at the club will also end up costing him his job. It seems likely that at any other club he would have been handed a contract extension long ago, but the miracles he has worked with the limited budget at his disposal often seem to go unappreciated by those who make the decisions at Maccabi.
Still, for the time being, he’s a hero once more. Progress to the Final Four is one achievement that cannot be ignored, and Blatt has no intention of stopping there.
“We are going to the Final Four with the aim of winning, not just to make up the numbers,” he said. “The Final Four format gives the underdog an advantage. There should be no doubt that we are entering the Final Four as a Cinderella team. However, we have proven this year that we can beat any team. Even when we lost to Real Madrid and CSKA, we were there and could have won. We are not better than any of these teams, but we can compete with them.”