Mac TA’s roster highlights concern surrounding local hoops development

Sinai Says: Despite their Jewish roots, Hebrew may not be spoken in Maccabi’s training sessions this season.

GUY PNINI’S (10) Maccabi Tel Aviv 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
GUY PNINI’S (10) Maccabi Tel Aviv 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
There are many ways to look at it.
But the bottom line remains strikingly the same.
Maccabi Tel Aviv opens its 2013/14 Euroleague campaign in Vitoria on Thursday night with just two Israeli-born players on its roster.
There are four other yellow-and-blue players with Israeli citizenship due to their Jewish roots, but that won’t change the fact that there won’t be much, if any, Hebrew spoken in Maccabi’s training sessions this season.
It is not as if it has happened overnight. Nevertheless, the decline in the status of the Israeli player at the country’s far-and-away most decorated basketball program has reached a new worrying low.
Maccabi used to pride itself on the fact that its youth department nurtured players for the entire league, while carefully hand-picking the very best for its roster.
While it is true that Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel – both products of the Maccabi system – will be playing in the NBA in the coming season, few others have come through the ranks to play at a high level in recent years.
The yellow-and-blue’s youth team hasn’t won the championship since 2009, and the club’s time-worn tactic of snatching the best talent from across the country has dried up over the past few years.
There should be no doubt that this is part of a wide-ranging problem engulfing all of Israeli basketball.
However, as the showcase of local hoops, Maccabi’s situation epitomizes the extent of the crisis.
Guy Pnini is the only player who came up through the Maccabi system expected to see any Euroleague action this season, and it seems unlikely he will play more than the 13.4 minutes he averaged last term.
The top Israeli-born player on the current Maccabi squad, Yogev Ohayon (who spent his youth in the Hapoel Galil Elyon system), was on the verge of leaving the club for Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia last summer before eventually backtracking and signing a new deal with the yellowand- blue amid much acrimony.
The four American-born Israelis in the roster have diverse connections to Israel, but are all here first and foremost because of money.
Alex Tyus began his conversion to Judaism back in his days at the University of Florida, long before he ever dreamed of playing for Maccabi, and he has also been the starting center for the Israel national team in the last two years.
However, Israel is not his home.
Sylven Landesberg spent several weeks of the past summer going through basic training with the IDF as part of his military service and his desire to learn more about Israeli society is commendable. But he will still leave back for the US the day after the season ends. The same goes for newly acquired Jake Cohen, who joined from Davidson College this summer, and David Blu, who returned to Maccabi last week after a year in retirement.
Blu, who angered many when he decided to shorten his surname from Bluthenthal – claiming he didn’t want his children to be heckled like he was – was honest enough to admit that acquiring Israeli citizenship was mainly a move by which he hoped to advance his career, which is clearly the case with Landesberg and Cohen as well.
There is obviously nothing wrong with not being born in Israel. Many of the country’s most memorable sporting moments were achieved by proud Israeli olim, the likes of Tal Brody or Alex Averbukh.
But while they carry the same passport, there is a significant difference between the likes of Maccabi coach David Blatt, a Boston native who has made Israel his home in every aspect, and some of his players who consider the country as not much more than a stepping stone.
For the first time in its history, Maccabi named a non-Israeli as captain, with center Shawn James being handed the honor ahead of his third season at the club.
Three years ago, when Blatt returned to Maccabi, he stated that the club is reestablishing its Israeli identity, with Tal Burstein rejoining the team before eventually slotting into the captain’s role, and Lior Eliyahu signing a lucrative multi-year deal after one season in Spain.
The roster also included Israeli-born Elishay Kadir, as well as Pnini, but the former was quickly released after struggling to establish himself and Maccabi chose to take advantage of a clause in Eliyahu’s contract to cut him this summer and avoid paying his hefty salary.
Tel Aviv offered the forward a reduced deal, but he was quick to turn it down and is still without a team.
Maccabi understands that in order to keep up with Europe’s best – considering the local talent on offer – it must look elsewhere.
The fans seem to be indifferent to the lack of Israeli faces, with Maccabi once more all but selling out its season tickets.
Tel Aviv went from being a club that prided itself in its Israeli players to a club where one of its owners had no qualms in stating that he is “proud to have eight Americanborn players,” as David Federman recently said.
Love it or hate it, this is the current Maccabi, and there seems to be little chance of any change in the near future.
It all comes down to priorities and Maccabi made a decision long ago that winning comes before all else.
But that comes at a price, one which could alienate potential fans for years to come and prove far more costly for the development of local basketball talent than ever anticipated.