Aiming for the top

Succeeding so far with only the smaller clubs he has coached, Oded Katash is still determined to achieve glory with one of the leading teams.

Oded Katash and Jerome Tillman 521 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Oded Katash and Jerome Tillman 521
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
The roller-coaster that is Oded Katash’s career simply refuses to slow down.
Israeli basketball’s favorite son is just 38 years old, but he has seemingly already seen and done it all.
Forever an overachiever, he is remembered as one of local hoops’ greatest players despite seeing his career effectively come to an end at the age of 25 due to a complicated knee injury.
Katash’s early retirement only added another layer to his enigmatic persona, which remains as ambiguous as ever.
He surprised many by going into coaching after his playing days were over, but it was to no one’s surprise that his magic touch on the court also translated to the sidelines.
He guided Hapoel Gilboa/Galil to the BSL Final Four in his second season with the team before making a stunning move to Maccabi Tel Aviv in June 2007.
However, his coaching career looked to have bottomed out when he was unceremoniously pushed out of the country’s most illustrious club on January 1, 2008, following an unsuccessful seven months in charge.
But as low as he seems to fall, the higher the crest he ultimately scales.
After a mere couple of months out of the game, he rejoined Gilboa and went on to lead the club to one of the greatest upsets in Israeli basketball history.
Katash was given the time and peace he required to build a winning team, but few expected him to take Gilboa all the way to the title.
The northerners shocked Maccabi Tel Aviv in the BSL championship game in May 2010 to lift a second league title in club history, reestablishing Katash’s place as one of the brightest coaching prospects in the country.
WITH MACCABI no longer an option due to bitter memories and David Blatt’s arrival at the helm, he left Gilboa for what is considered the second-most challenging job in local hoops.
Hapoel Jerusalem has been a perennial underachiever for nearly a decade, failing not only to mount a serious challenge to Maccabi, but also struggling against far poorer opponents.
Katash arrived at Jerusalem with lofty expectations in June 2010, but it quickly became apparent that achieving success at the Malha Arena pressure cooker would be anything but straightforward.
There was little to cheer about in his first season in the capital, with the team crashing out of the Eurocup in the regular season while losing in the State Cup quarterfinals and falling to Gilboa in the BSL Final Four semis.
He threw in the towel in December of last year after a largely disappointing 18 months at the helm, capped by a 22-point BSL thrashing at the hands of BC Habika’a.
At just 37 years of age, he already seemed to be unwelcome at both of the country’s top two clubs, raising the inevitable question: What next? One of the problems with predicting Katash’s next move was that even in the best of times there were always question marks hanging over his conduct, with doubts arising regarding his professionalism and relationships with his players.
He always did things differently, and no one dared to question him in his time as a player. But going out until the early hours of the morning with several of your players is bound to result in criticism when the team you coach is going through a crisis.
One of the recurring themes in the critique of Katash has been that he is not a basketball lifer and is not committed enough to his profession.
But like former Israel and Chelsea soccer manager Avram Grant, he possesses a charm that looks inexplicable from afar, yet is irresistible from up close.
Still, the aura from his playing days is quickly fading, leaving him to prove the hard way that he belongs in a list with the country’s top coaches.
HIS NEXT destination after Jerusalem was the subject of much speculation, with the prospect of retirement also suggested.
However, after a six-month break, he announced he was joining Hapoel Eilat, once more catching everyone by surprise.
After 13 years, the city of Eilat has a team in the top flight again this season, with BC Habika’a owner Doron Herzikowitz choosing to move his club to the country’s southernmost city six months ago after Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi promised him NIS 1.5 million.
One of Herzikowitz’s first moves was to bring in Katash, hoping a big-name coach could guide Eilat back to its past prominence.
Hapoel Eilat was one of the country’s top clubs in the 1990s, gaining promotion to the top flight ahead of the 1991-92 season under the guidance of current national coach Arik Shivek and remaining there until 1999.
Eilat recorded its greatest season in 1997- 98, losing in the playoff finals to Maccabi Tel Aviv and claiming a home victory over Greek giant Panathinaikos in the last 16 of the Eurocup before ultimately being knocked out on the road.
Katash built a new roster from scratch in the summer, and the early signs couldn’t be more encouraging.
Eilat won six of its first eight BSL games, with Katash seemingly hitting the jackpot with all four of his American recruits.
Scotty Hopson (18.0 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game), Austin Freeman (14.4 PPG), Jerome Tillman (14.1 PPG, 8.0 RPG) and Eli Holman (13.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG) have all settled quickly despite being relatively young players making their first steps as professionals.
Katash has also assembled a reliable Israeli core of players, including Afik Nissim and Avi Ben-Shimol, and the BSL acknowledged Eilat’s promising start to the season last week when Katash was named coach of the month for November. Tillman was selected as the league’s player of the month.
“I’m proud to be part of this amazing project being built in Eilat,” Katash said after hearing about the honor he had received. “This is only the beginning of the road for us, and we have still got some better days and not as good periods ahead of us. I believe that with the help of our extraordinary fans, the management, and of course the players, we will be able to guide this club back to prominence in Israeli basketball.”
Even with his renewed success, Katash faces criticism that he only ever does well at smaller clubs, as he can’t handle the pressure.
He regularly brushes aside any such suggestion, however, and is determined to prove his doubters wrong by achieving glory one day with one of the country’s top teams.
In the meantime, he is focused on leading Eilat back to the top.
And if the course of his career so far has taught us anything, we’d be foolish to bet against last season’s nadir being followed by a dizzying peak.