Interview: Balinko's little team that could

The Ironi Ramat Gan coach is sure the club can reach this season's BSL Final Four.

balinko 88 (photo credit: )
balinko 88
(photo credit: )
When Robi Balinko took charge of Ironi Ramat Gan in the summer the club had just one goal - avoid relegation. On Sunday, Balinko takes his team to the Malha Arena to face Hapoel Jerusalem with both sides tied for third position in the league, each with 25 points after 16 games. Despite having one of the smaller budgets in the BSL at his disposal Balinko has managed to build a team capable of pushing for a Final Four berth. Balinko's men have already proven their potential this season by beating each of the Final Four favorites, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Jerusalem, Bnei Hasharon and Hapoel Holon. Another win against Jerusalem on Sunday will give Ramat Gan a massive advantage in the race for a top four finish, but the 46-year-old coach is not getting ahead of himself just yet. "I'm optimistic, but cautious. I know Jerusalem is a very good team and is the favorite. I think we have a 20 percent chance of winning," Balinko tells The Jerusalem Post. "Playing Jerusalem in Malha is no simple task, but we're entering the game with the aim of claiming a win." Ramat Gan is coming off a heartbreaking loss to Ironi Ashkelon, a defeat that ended a three game win streak. "The defeat to Ashkelon was very disappointing and very frustrating. "This was a game we had to win. If we aspire to compete for a Final Four berth we have to win these kinds of games. Every game from now on is essentially a playoff game," the coach says. Balinko is the main reason behind Ramat Gan's success this season, building a balanced roster in which every player knows his place. "The key to our success is the lack of ego on the team. The players put their egos aside for the greater good. "We manage to get the maximum out of our players. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Balinko says. "Through the years all the sides I coached were typified by the fact that they played as a team and were not too dependent on any one player. With this system you can't stop the team by stopping a single player. "This also allows the team to overcome injuries and the absence of players. "We were without the injured Ori Itzhaki for a while and Jerome Beasley had to go to the US for personal reasons, but the team still functioned." Balinko began his basketball career older than most coaches after serving as a company commander in the paratroopers 890 regiment. "I think my leadership skills come from my army service," he says. "A coach is the leader of the team and there are some similarities between being an officer in a fighting unit and a coach of a team. Of course there's a huge difference because in the army you're fighting for you life." Balinko had to wait longer than most of his colleagues to finally get a real chance in the top flight, but after so many years in basketball wilderness he's at least making the wait worth while. "I always believed I could coach at these levels. There were years I believed more and years a believed less, but I always knew that if I get the right chance I'll be able to display my abilities." Balinko used the fact that almost everybody wrote Ramat Gan off even before the season began to his advantage, motivating his players to prove their critics wrong. "We were spurred on by the fact that we were labeled as a relegation favorite at the start of the season. "I told the players that the only thing we can do about the fact that commentators and journalists are saying we're going to be relegated is to prove them wrong on the court," Balinko stresses. Despite claiming wins earlier on in the season over Bnei Hasharon, Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv the coach admits that he only truly believed that his side can achieve more than just BSL survival after the 99-77 victory at Hapoel Afula/Gilboa on January 13 . "I think that I understood what we're capable of after the win in Afula. We won by 20 or so points, recording our fifth win of the season, and I felt the team was gelling well. This win came after the victories over Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem and was a test of our character," he says. One of the biggest surprises in Ramat Gan and for that matter in the entire league is the play of Nir Cohen. The 26-year-old, who spent the last two seasons at San Diego University, is averaging 10.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in 24 minutes on court. "I thought Cohen was a good player, but I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be this good," Balinko says. "I knew all about his abilities, having trained him in the past. He came to train with Ramat Gan in the summer only because he couldn't find a team to sign for. "After two training sessions I told the chairman that Cohen is not leaving this arena. We didn't plan to sign him, but I told the chairman that Cohen can make the difference. The truth is that I never dreamt he would make such a significant difference." Another key member of Ironi's unlikely success is Jerome Beasley. "I was surprised that we managed to sign Beasley," Balinko admits. "Part of being a coach is knowing how to take decisions under pressure on the court and off the court. "We were given the option to sign Beasley and I immediately called three coaches, David Blatt, Erez Edelstein and Sharon Druker, and after talking to them I decided to sign him. I didn't even have a chance to watch his DVD."