Hapoel Tel Aviv hoops: Israel’s little engine that could

The rebirth of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s basketball team is undoubtedly one of the more uplifting stories in Israeli sports in recent years.

Hapoel Tel Aviv (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The rebirth of Hapoel Tel Aviv’s basketball team is undoubtedly one of the more uplifting stories in Israeli sports in recent years.
Formed by fans in the summer of 2007 under the name of Hapoel Ussishkin following the demise of their beloved club, the team proved beyond any doubt earlier this week that it is back in the big time and is here to stay.
Ussishkin was established when Hapoel Tel Aviv, which for years was considered to be one of the top clubs in the country, was on its way to being relegated to the third division and the team’s home court, Ussishkin, named after the street where 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 and 1,400 fans have since enlisted.
The resurrection of the club was completed last year when it took over the name and heritage rights of the original Hapoel Tel Aviv team after the latter was officially liquidated in December 2009.
The team gained promotion with every season that passed and is currently a firm favorite to reach the BSL next season after beginning its National League campaign with a 13-0 record, winning its games by an average of 17.2 points.
However, the real revelation came in the past few weeks when Hapoel defeated BSL opponents Hapoel Holon and Maccabi Haifa to progress to the semifinals of the State Cup despite playing with just two foreigners due to National League regulations.
The future is looking very bright for Hapoel and it has no intention of stopping now.
“Since our foundation we have always made sure to think two years forward,” Hapoel general manager Uri Shelef told me on Tuesday. “Our budget has doubled with every year and it will double once more ahead of next season. We believe in what we have built and in the support of the fans.”
Despite the financial difficulties competing in the BSL presents, Shelef believes the team can continue at its current format, although he would not rule out receiving outside support.
“We will never relinquish control of the club,” he noted. “In principal, if someone or a group of people want to take over the team they will have to meet a contract they sign with us and if they don’t we will take back control.
“We are aspiring for a budget of NIS 5-6 million assuming we are still the ones running the team. If someone else comes in the budget might be much higher.”
Hapoel prides itself on its Israeli players and plans to continue to do so in the future despite the fact most BSL teams have four or more foreigners on their rosters.
“Before the cup games I was certain we would have to follow suit from the rest of the BSL and sign at least four foreigners,” Shelef admitted. “But after the games I’m not so sure.
“Either way, our base will be Israeli and we will add foreign players to that. We will not be like the rest of the teams in the league who first sign foreigners and then complete the roster with Israelis. The game against Haifa proved that no matter how many foreigners you have that guarantees you nothing. We saw the difference between a team with seven Americans and a team with two Americans and Israeli players that nobody knows.
As soon as you play as a team and give Israeli players a chance they prove that they are no less effective than the foreigners.
“I was surprised with the way we played against BSL opponents,” Shelef added. “However, after the win against Holon I was no longer surprised with our performance against Haifa. I believed we could make the semifinals and so did the players.”
Hapoel will be joined in Wednesday’s semifinal draw by Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Ashdod and Barak Netanya and Shelef is hoping to avoid a derby showdown until the final.
“We know our place and Maccabi’s place in Israeli basketball. We would rather not face Maccabi in the semifinals because we want to reach the final,” he said. “It is not that we are scared, but clearly it would be better to face Barak Netanya or Maccabi Ashdod.”
Hapoel has made Hadar Yosef Arena its home in recent years, but with well over 1,000 fans attending most its games in the second division, Shelef is hoping the team will soon have an adequate replacement for Ussishkin.
“Hadar Yosef has been our home, but in the last couple of games we saw that it isn’t enough for our needs,” he said. “If we sell out within two hours that shows that the arena isn’t big enough and clearly we need a new home. There are plans for a new arena in Tel Aviv and they are supposed to be approved in the Tel Aviv municipal budget in a couple of months.”
After its tremendous success to date, there is a danger that once Hapoel returns to the BSL its remarkable story will lose all its romance and magic.
However, Shelef believes the special history and present of Hapoel will ensure it maintains its unique place in Israeli basketball for many years to come.
“We will certainly want to maintain our Israeli identity and keep as many players as we can from the current roster,” he said. “We really don’t want to be like Maccabi Haifa or other teams which replace nine or 10 players every year, with six or seven of them new to Israeli basketball.
“We will never be just another team,” he noted. “With fans like ours we can’t be just another team.”
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