Maccabi mystique takes a major hit

The country's most dominant team lost the national championship game Thursday.

Oded Katash with trophy 311 (photo credit: BSL website)
Oded Katash with trophy 311
(photo credit: BSL website)
The mystique surrounding Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s perennial basketball powerhouse, may finally be wearing off.
The most dominant team in the country – Maccabi has won 48 of the 56 league titles – lost in the national championship game Thursday, only the third time in the last 41 years it failed to finish on top – but second in three years. Hapoel Gilboa Galil beat the favorites 90-77 this time.
“It is really special to beat Maccabi,” Hapoel Gilboa/Galil coach Oded Katash said, “even more than any other team.”
Maccabi’s recent failures can be partly blamed on a change in the playoff system. After years of winning the title by having the best record, the league implemented a best-of-three series for the first time in 1979. It was scrapped after that season, but restarted in 1983, and then was expanded to a best-of-five series in 1990.
Through those years of dominance, Maccabi had plenty of sweeps, but they also lost quite a few games in the championship series. So the current Final Four format – which has four teams playing single-elimination games – has not been so kind to Maccabi since its inception in 2006.
“That’s what happens with this Final Four system. In one game, anything can happen,” said Maccabi captain Derrick Sharp, who played at the University of South Florida before moving to Israel.
“You have to do everything right and that’s a lot of pressure. That’s the Final Four.”
David Bluthenthal, a former University of Southern California player, summed up the loss in five words: “Our shots didn’t go in.”
Besides losing in 2008, Maccabi also failed to win the title in 1960, ’61, ’65, ’66, ’69 and 1993. The team has also won five European titles, including back-to-back championships in 2004-05.
And despite the most recent loss, Maccabi will still be in the Euroleague next season – because of contractual obligations. Hapoel Gilboa/Galil has qualified for next season’s Eurocup, European basketball’s second-tier competition.
“I’ll do everything I can to see that we’re stronger and that the things that happened won’t happen again,” said Maccabi coach Pini Gershon, who blamed himself for Thursday’s loss.
“This wasn’t a championship won by one point
here or there,” Gershon said. “They managed to succeed in the areas where we failed.”
For Katash, a 36-year-old former Maccabi player who was fired as theteam’s coach halfway through the 2007-08 season, part of his reward forwinning was receiving a call of congratulations from Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu.
“What an amazing victory. Do you realize the enormity of theachievement?” Netanyahu said. “This victory gives hope also to thesmaller teams and to Israel.”
If Katash doesn’t realize just what he has accomplished, Gershon certainly does.
“I’ve been added to the disreputable list of coaches who have lost the championship with Maccabi,” Gershon said.