Looking ahead

Reestablished by basketball fans in the summer of 2007, Hapoel Tel Aviv has a bright future.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans 521 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv fans 521
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Matan Naor could easily have played in the Basketball Super League this season. In fact, he could have done so in each of the past three years.
At 31 years old, he’s still in the prime of his career, and as a former Israel international he would have little trouble finding work in the top flight. However, Naor is not your typical basketball player. He follows his heart rather than his wallet. Materialism doesn’t appeal to him in the way it does to most of his colleagues, who often behave like merchandise at an auction, going to the highest bidder while ignoring any other consideration.
Instead of following the money, Naor chose to join Hapoel Ussishkin in 2009, a club set up by fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv after the demise of their beloved club. He may be overqualified, but for Naor the last three seasons have been the most enjoyable of his career. He may have taken a 50 percent salary cut, but he is determined to finally help the club back to the Promised Land.
Hapoel was already a firm favorite to win the second division championship last season, but after ending the regular season with a 23-3 record, it was stunned in the finals by BC Habika’a, losing 3-0 in the best-of-five series and missing out on automatic promotion.
Nevertheless, the BSL offered Hapoel a place in the top flight, knowing that the addition of the club would add much-needed color to the faltering league. Hapoel considered the tantalizing offer but eventually chose to turn it down, wanting to earn its place in the BSL by merit and not by virtue of political considerations.
Formed by fans in the summer of 2007, Ussishkin was established when Hapoel Tel Aviv, which for years was considered one of the top clubs in the country, was on its way to relegation to the third division, and the team’s Ussishkin home arena – named for the street on which it was located – had been demolished by the Tel Aviv Municipality.
A supporters’ trust was created, and the team began its life in the fifth tier. Membership was set at an annual fee of NIS 300, with 1,500 supporters enlisting to date. Iconic singer Arik Einstein was given the honor of becoming the club’s 1,000th member.
The resurrection of the club was completed two years ago when it took over the name and heritage rights of the original Hapoel Tel Aviv team after it was officially liquidated in December 2009. The team gained promotion with every season that passed until last year’s blip, and despite playing with just two foreigners due to National League regulations, it made it all the way to the State Cup semifinals last season while only being knocked out in the quarters this year.
One of the reasons Hapoel’s success has been so refreshing is due to the club’s policy to promote Israeli players. National League regulations dictate that teams can play with no more than two foreigners, but Hapoel plans to keep its roster as Israeli as possible, even if it plays in the BSL next season, where teams usually have at least four Americans.
One of the players benefiting from this policy this season is Bar Timor. The 20-year-old guard has seen his role increase as the season has progressed, and he is hoping to repay the club by helping it to the top flight.
“When I’m given a chance, I take it,” Timor told media representatives after scoring 18 points in Hapoel’s 80-60 victory over Ironi Ness Ziona in Game 1 of the playoff semifinals last week. “However, my personal performance is really not that important. I know this may sound like a cliché, but it is true.
The most important thing for me is that Hapoel Tel Aviv will be in the BSL next season. Our fans are incredible, and you can’t help but fall in love with them.”
Timor is only in his first season with the team, but the fact that a player like Naor has intertwined his destiny with that of Hapoel rather than a BSL club is largely a testament to the extraordinary support provided by the fans. He fell in love with the fervent reds when he played for Hapoel in the 2003/04 season and has cherished every moment of his current endeavor. Hapoel attracts more than 1,000 fans for most of its home matches at Hadar Yosef Arena, more than most BSL clubs.
Naor’s decision may have seemed risky to some, but choosing to go with his instinct rather than his agent is nothing new to him. After helping the national team advance to the European Championships in September 2008, he decided to travel across South America, thereby missing the first six months of the season.
There were those who doubted if he’d ever be back, but he eventually returned to play for Ironi Nahariya in the closing stages of the 2008/09 campaign before joining Hapoel.
Tel Aviv had expected to already book its place in the National League playoff finals on Sunday, but Ness Ziona put Hapoel’s plans on hold with an 86-81 win, forcing a decisive Game 3 at Hadar Yosef. Only a win will keep Hapoel’s dream alive, but the uplifting story of the club is far more significant to local basketball than any one result.
Tel Aviv hopes to gain promotion to the BSL this season; but even if it doesn’t, it will do so sooner rather than later.
Hapoel has a bright future ahead of it, and that is great news for its fans, as well as Israeli hoops as a whole.