On Heat: Haifa sets the league on fire

The revitalized basketball team is having a significant impact on sports in the North.

maccabi haifa BASKETABALL 248.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
maccabi haifa BASKETABALL 248.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
Nobody would blame the fans at the Nokia Arena on February 19 for not recognizing the 56-year-old team in green and white playing in its first State Cup final for 24 years. At the end of a pulsating game the Maccabi Haifa Heat lost to the defending Israeli league champion Hapoel Holon by a single point, but then defeated Holon convincingly four days later in the league to regain recognition. The path from anonymity to becoming one of the top teams in Israel has been one of the quickest turnarounds in league history. But until the last two years, Haifa simply suffered a long history of losing. Following the 1992 season, Haifa spent the following six seasons outside the top division. Current Maccabi coach Avi Ashkenazi is familiar with those times as he was also the coach in 1995 when Haifa was in the third division. It wasn't until 1999 that the Heat (then known as BC Haifa) returned to the BSL, but failed to make the playoffs for two straight years and struggled to survive financially and was once again relegated to the second division. Maccabi continued to have difficulties on the court, and off. Aside from staying out of the top division, it also could not fill the 3,000-seat Romema Arena through the 2006-07 season. That summer, the team fell into a perfect storm as American businessman Jeff Rosen saw his investment of the Israeli Baseball League turn south during his visit to Israel. Determined not to let his visit end on a bad note, Rosen looked into purchasing the Hapoel Tel Aviv franchise, but that also didn't work out for him. As he was getting ready to head back to the US, he learned about an opportunity to purchase Maccabi Haifa. On paper, Rosen knew that Haifa had a long way to go after struggling to get out of the second division, but he was impressed with the organization and its fans along with the city itself, so he decided to buy the team. "I could sense that the Haifa fans were yearning for BSL basketball," Rosen says via email. From day one of his ownership, Rosen promised to bring the Heat back to the Israeli Basketball Super League in one season. He made his first mark on the team by signing American players looking for good competition internationally with former Illinois center Deon Thomas being his biggest signing. Thomas was selected 28th by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1994 NBA draft, but chose to spend his career in Europe and Israel. Following a broken leg that sidelined him from playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2005 Euroleague Final Four, Thomas bounced around Europe for a few years. He came back to Israel for the 2007-08 season to anchor a rebuilt Maccabi Haifa team for a season, which also featured US guards Mike McKinney from Northern Illinois and Wyoming's Jay Straight. Maccabi finished 15-11 and upset No. 1 seed Maccabi Netanya in a best-of- five game series, 3-1, to qualify for the Ligat Leumit Championship and earn an automatic bid to the BSL for the 2008-09 season. The following summer, Rosen stepped up his efforts to make the team more competitive. He held tryouts at Nova Southeastern University to sign more American players in the offseason before the team's first BSL season since 1999. Those tryouts ended with the signing of Todd Golden, Ben Strong and Tamir Goodman, who was branded the "Jewish Jordan" by Sports Illustrated when he was in high school. "Our coaching staff and management are very experienced when it comes to scouting talent," Rosen says. "They are meticulous when it comes to selecting foreigners for the team." Rosen also used the tryout to promote his new team in the US But for a team that struggled to draw even 1,000 fans, he knew that he was going to need more than a tryout to gain support. He bulked up marketing efforts by using strategies that are used by NBA teams such as sending email updates to fans, in-game promotions, giveaways and an online store. In addition to these efforts, Maccabi Haifa posters were put up around the city to promote the team. In order to bring in American fans, Rosen puts every Haifa Heat game online for free. "We want to build our fan base in North America and throughout the globe," Rosen says. "By broadcasting Haifa Heat games online, fans will be able to follow along with the team and feel the excitement that Haifa brings to Romema Arena." Although basketball hasn't reached the popularity that soccer has in Haifa, the success from its first year in the BSL since 1999 has intrigued fans generally interested in basketball or soccer fans looking for another team to root for. Hanan Beleg, a longtime fan of Maccabi Haifa says that the new ownership has made him interested in watching basketball again. "Basketball has a great history here in Haifa and thanks to Jeff Rosen, they're starting [a new legacy] again this year," Beleg says. All of this publicity, however, would not keep fans for long without a successful team. Rosen raised expectations again this season with his stated aim to reach the BSL Final Four. In hopes of making that dream a reality, Rosen made a number of signings. His biggest coup was Davon Jefferson, the No. 15 ranked high school basketball prospect in 2006 who was Pac-10 Honorable Mention and First Team All- Freshman. Jefferson declared for the NBA draft after his first year and went undrafted. After not getting a lot of interest from the NBA, he turned his attention overseas. His agent told him about a team in Israel playing its first season in the BSL, looking to add some pieces. "My agent just told me about the situation a couple weeks before signing and he told me it would be a great situation for me," Jefferson says. The UCLA standout adjusted fairly easily to his new environment with generally warm weather, a friendly city and supportive fans. "[Fans] are coming out more and more to every game. The city supports us really well and when we're driving around to get stuff to eat," Jefferson says. The second big acquisition was point guard Doron Perkins, who topped the Belgium league last year in assists (5.7) and steals (3.1) with Basket Bree. Perkins says Maccabi Haifa gives him everything he's looking for in a team. "[Haifa said] I'd get to play my position and lead the team which is what I like to do," Perkins says. "The only thing they really promised me was that I'd get to run the team." The Santa Clara point guard has had the opportunity to do just that, averaging 15.7 points and 5.5 assists, while leading Haifa to a 10-5 record. Perkins says having unselfish teammates has made it easy to do his job. "Unlike the Americans, they're always in a good mood," Perkins says of his Israeli teammates. "They don't complain, they listen, and they play hard all the time." Despite having to deal a groin and stomach injury for the past few weeks, Perkins feels confident that when he returns, the Heat will be even better. Ashkenazi has noticed a drastic improvement in the quality of play no matter who Rosen signs. Between the Perkins injury and Ronald Ross leaving Maccabi Haifa to play in Belgium, the Heat picked up guards Cheyne Gadson and Malik Dixon to fill the gap. In his first game as a member of the Heat, Dixon, who played at Holon last season where he scored the winning basket in the BSL final, finished with 12 points on 40 percent shooting on Monday against Galil Galboa. Getting additions such as Gadson and Dixon at a critical time for Haifa do not go unnoticed, especially with three of its seven remaining games against top four teams. With a third place standing in the BSL and a championship appearance in the State Cup, Maccabi comes closer to clinching a spot in the Final Four with every win. "I think it's a gift from God because [Rosen] doesn't only invest money, but also participates in the decision process," Ashkenazi says. "[He] helps us in support and everything. The bottom line is that he's the most important man here." Rosen wants to see the team eventually compete in Europe and become a dominant franchise for years to come. As someone who has seen Maccabi Haifa at its worst, Ashkenazi can appreciate his owner's ambitious goals. It's why Ashkenazi doesn't care what country his players are coming from as long as they come to help Haifa win. If Rosen has his way, Ashkenazi will have plenty to be enthusiastic about.