Cup half full

Jeremy Pargo entered the season with everything to prove and will end it as one of the most sought-after commodities in European basketball.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Jeremy Pargo had no intention of playing in Europe this season.
After helping Hapoel Gilboa/Galil get to the Israeli championship last year, the 25- year-old American guard was determined to land a spot in an NBA roster for the 2010/11 campaign.
The former Gonzaga University star put his ego aside and participated in the Orlando Pro Summer League for the Charlotte Bobcats and also played for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Las Vegas NBA Summer League in the hope of finding a home in North America.
However, Pargo’s ambition contradicted the plans of Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, who had earmarked the Chicago native as a player he would like to bring to the new team he was building at Nokia Arena.
Pargo was adamant on trying his luck in the US, forcing Maccabi to look elsewhere, with the yellow and blue eventually signing Mikhail Torrance out of the University of Alabama.
But a tragic turn of events changed everything.
While preparing to join Maccabi last August, Torrance, who had a known heart condition, collapsed on court in Florida and nearly died, spending several days in the hospital in critical but stable condition before beginning a long, and still ongoing, recovery process.
Maccabi was left to scramble to find a replacement for Torrance, but just as the Alabama guard went down, Pargo began to realize that his NBA aspirations would have to wait for at least one more year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Pargo was one of the last players Tel Aviv added to its roster, but he went on to become perhaps its most important, improving as the season progressed and eventually leading the yellow-and-blue to the Euroleague Final Four, where it will face Real Madrid in the semifinals on May 6.
“We stuck by each other all season long and always knew what we wanted to achieve,” Pargo said after Maccabi advanced to the Final Four. “I always believed we could make the Final Four in my first season at the club. I know and believe that this team can achieve whatever it sets its minds to.”
Pargo’s story this season mirrors that of his team.
The expectations from Maccabi just a few months ago were almost unprecedentedly low, but Blatt’s side went on to become one of the continent’s best teams faster than even its most optimistic fans could have hoped. After suffering a humbling defeat in its Euroleague opener at Caja Laboral Vitoria, Maccabi won nine consecutive games to end the regular season with a competition best 9-1 record.
Three wins in its first four games of the Top 16 booked its place in the quarterfinal playoffs, but to reach European basketball’s showcase event it would have to overcome a series against Vitoria, the same team that so thoroughly outplayed it in the season opener.
Pargo scored just seven points in Tel Aviv’s 76-70 loss in Game 1, but in the next three games he would go on to establish his place as the team’s undisputed star.
His basket with 1.3 seconds to play capped a dramatic comeback that gave Maccabi an 83-81 win in Spain in Game 2, and in the next two encounters in Israel, Pargo showed how talented he truly is.
With fellow back-court anchor Doron Perkins going down with a serious knee injury at the start of the second period of Game 3, Tel Aviv desperately needed Pargo to lead by example, and he didn’t disappoint.
Pargo had 23 points in Game 3 before scoring 26 in the series clincher, orchestrating his side’s play to perfection and coming up with the big shot whenever his team needed it.
Pargo hit 17 of 26 total field goals in the decisive showdowns at Nokia, including eight threepointers, while also adding nine assists and committing just five turnovers.
Contrary to all the early season predictions, Maccabi advanced to the Final Four for the eighth time in 12 years, playing both exciting and excellent basketball thanks to the likes of Pargo, who entered the season with everything to prove and will end it as one of the most sought-after commodities in European basketball.
“This is a very special team,” Blatt said after Maccabi booked its place in the Final Four. “We don’t have any really big names, but we have always focused on doing what is best for the team. We always remained humble and let our performances talk for themselves. I have worked with many teams in the past, but I have never coached a roster which works so hard day in day out.”
Blatt said that he really understood how great his team’s potential was after the Euroleague regular season.
“We have achieved something no one expected from us at the start of the season,” he said. “We decided on a certain direction and tactic and we stuck to it.
After we were so dominant in the regular season and I saw that we are doing something that no other team is doing I realized we could go far. We were so good defensively and you can always count on defense.”
His dreams of playing in the NBA this season may have gone unfulfilled, but Pargo will never forget this last year.
Just like his team, Pargo went from being an afterthought to becoming one of Europe’s best.
Next weekend, he will try to cap a remarkable season by leading the yellow-and-blue to its sixth continental title. A mere seven months ago, no one believed Maccabi was even capable of reaching the Final Four.
But Pargo always had faith in his team and he will settle for nothing less than the cup itself.
“We need to win just two more games and I believe we will do it,” Pargo said. “I believe this team can go all the way.”