After toppling Mac TA, Hap TA’s ceiling keeps rising

Sinai Says: After 9 years, Hapoel finally beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the derby, realizing the impossible dream.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It was sometime towards the end of 2008 that several Hapoel Tel Aviv fans printed a t-shirt with a checklist on its back. Of the six boxes, only the first two had been ticked off.
Israeli basketball’s five divisions were listed beside the first five boxes.
At the time, Hapoel had already gained promotion from Liga Bet (fifth division) and was playing in Liga Alef (fourth division).
The Reds went on to easily win the fourth division championship and made it three promotions in three years in 2010 to progress to the National League (second division), allowing the supporters to tick off yet another box.
It took Hapoel two seasons to gain promotion to the BSL, but after six years in Israeli basketball wilderness, it finally returned to the top-flight last May, leaving just one empty white box on the Red tshirt.
It would be no exaggeration to say that few believed the team had any chance of completing the checklist this season.
In fact, it seemed more likely that it would take several years for the sixth and final mission to be accomplished.
However, on Sunday, Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club came full circle.
A dream which looked to be impossible only several years ago and was deemed extremely improbable by most experts just hours earlier, turned into reality.
After nine years, Hapoel finally beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the derby, realizing the sixth and final target mapped out by some visionary, or perhaps delusional, supporters almost five years ago.
It looked like they were embarking on a hopeless journey.
Formed by fans in the summer of 2007, Hapoel Ussishkin was established when Hapoel Tel Aviv was on its way to relegation to the third division and the team’s Ussishkin home arena 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 over 1,800 supporters currently enlisted.
In December 2009, another major milestone in the resurrection of the club was achieved when it took over the name and heritage rights of the original Hapoel Tel Aviv team after it was officially liquidated.
However, after breezing through the lower divisions, Hapoel discovered that life is far more complicated in the BSL.
Hapoel won three of its first four games this season, but its meager budget and lack of depth saw it lose seven of its following nine encounters.
The Reds entered the derby just two games ahead of rock-bottom Ironi Ashkelon in the BSL standings, with their offense only scoring a league-low 71.9 points per game.
Maccabi on the other hand, had won its previous 15 BSL games and had reignited its Euroleague Top 16 campaign three days earlier by beating Caja Laboral Vitoria on the road for its third win in four continental contests.
There were plenty of tired legs among the yellow-and-blue players, but it still seemed unimaginable that the floundering Hapoel would snap its 12-game losing streak in the derby since thrashing Maccabi 96-71 at Ussishkin in the 2003/04 season.
The gaps in quality between the teams were clear for all to see when Maccabi crushed Hapoel 91-72 in the first derby in more than six years at Nokia Arena in December.
But they were somehow bridged in Sunday’s 69-65 win, with the likes of Bar Timor and Matan Naor stepping up with unforgettable performances.
A day after celebrating his 21st birthday, Timor played the best game of his career, scoring 20 points, including clutch baskets in the closing stages.
Naor only had eight points, but he played all 40 minutes and symbolizes the unrelenting fighting spirit of the club.
The 32-year-old chose to turn down offers from the BSL to play for Hapoel Ussishkin in 2009, taking a significant salary cut in the hope of helping the team back to the Promised Land.
Naor was part of the side which beat Maccabi nine years ago and Sunday’s win almost brought him to tears.
Hapoel is still fighting for its survival in the BSL, with the victory over Maccabi only taking it from 10th to ninth place.
However, that all seemed irrelevant on Sunday as it fulfilled the impossible dream, giving the Reds fans a priceless memory that will last a lifetime.