BETWEEN THE LINES: The death of Ussishkin

The gym in north Tel Aviv has served Hapoel Tel Aviv longer than anyone can remember.

ossishkin 88 (photo credit: )
ossishkin 88
(photo credit: )
Woody Allen, in his classic book, Without Feathers, tells a story about Rabbi Zwi Chaim Yisroel, "who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West." What Woody didn't know is that his famous Rabbi Yisroel now has some serious competition: all of those supporters, public luminaries and others, whining incessantly and bemoaning the almost-certain destruction of the pathetic Ussishkin gym, long-time home to the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club. For those who are not following this momentous story - perhaps some people have more important issues on their minds - the Ussishkin gym in north Tel Aviv has served Hapoel Tel Aviv longer than anyone can remember, and its impending destruction is being currently delayed (one assumes not indefinitely) by highly-publicized court orders. Naturally, one of those ubiquitous tent cities that seem to appear every time there is an issue of great social importance (or not), has also appeared on the scene. What is it that we are talking about anyway? "Ussishkin", as it is universally known, has been an inappropriate venue for professional basketball from time immemorial: maybe 2,000 uncomfortable and mostly stone seats, a marginally legal court with horrible ventilation, a bad floor, lack of space at the base lines, small, cramped dressing rooms, awful to nonexistent communications and public facilities and maybe 20 adjacent parking spots. My junior high school gym in Tacoma, Washington - any junior high school gym - was decidedly better than this. But, Ussishkin is not the problem: it is only perhaps the worst of the symptoms of one of Israeli basketball's major problems (refereeing is currently the other; but we will save that for another day) - that of small and inappropriate facilities for staging professional games. Let's go down the list: ok, you might say, Nahariya and Ashkelon have quite new gyms and that's true, but they are still too small; neither of them are big enough to be able to provide much economic benefit to the teams that play there. This creates pressure to raise funds year in and year out from sponsors and individuals, which is a very precarious way to run a professional sports operation. Nokia Arena, formerly known as Yad Eliyahu, home of Maccabi Tel Aviv, is of course sui generis as far as Israeli basketball is concerned - but far from ideal. Built initially as a 5,000-seat, open-court facility, it was covered in 1972 and 5,000 seats were added, increasing capacity to 10,000. It was not built with modern, professional basketball in mind, and for years, its physical plant - dressing rooms, communications centers, public facilities, etc., were far below standard. Too many seats were too far away from the court and even its scoreboard looked like something out of a 1948 NBA game between the Providence Steamrollers and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. The Tel Aviv Municipality deserves a lot of credit for its recent upgrade of the stadium, though, while the slope of the seating sections has been changed, many fans are still farther away from the court than what is otherwise desirable. Just as an example, during a recent trip to the US I went to a college game in Seattle between Washington and Stanford. We sat in the second to last row of the newly-refurbished 10,000 seat Hec Edmunson Pavilion - it wasn't courtside, but we certainly felt a part of the game. Many other major college facilities in America are of the same size and nature - and the fan definitely feels a part of the game, and just as important, the stadium provides a definite economic benefit. Jerusalem has recently (finally) broken ground for its new 10,000-seat stadium, but who knows how many years it will take before its first opening tip-off? In the meantime, Hapoel Jerusalem continues to play in an "arena" that holds 2,500 (so they say - perhaps including those standing on the upper levels). Its physical plant borders on the ridiculous: two small dressing rooms for the teams and a room for the referees that barely holds two referees, let alone three. Proper basketball arenas of significant size (10,000+) are not just Israel's problem - they are also a problem throughout Europe and is no doubt one of the main elements that is causing David Stern to think twice when considering expansion of the NBA across the Atlantic. You will not see me whining about the future destruction of Ussishkin: as far as top-level basketball is concerned, good riddance. But, the elimination of Ussishkin is just a symptom of a much bigger problem that leaves no room for the progress of professional basketball in Israel as well as for much of Europe. Todd Warnick was a professional basketball referee from 1973-2004, including 25 years in Israel's top league and 20 years at Europe's highest levels