The Last Word: History in the making in J’lem and Tel Aviv

Despite the erratic nature of Jerusalem’s play this season, there is clearly something special there.

There’s hardly room to move in the small, cramped space that is the home locker room at Hapoel Jerusalem’s Malha Arena.
The facilities that serve the capital’s pro basketball team are more reminiscent of those at a high school rather than one of the most successful sports organizations in the country.
Yet it is from these humble beginnings that numerous champions have emerged.
Stuck on the inside of the locker room is a motivational poster.
“When you put on the jersey, you put on the history that comes with it. And you need to do that history proud and respect what has come before,” it reads.
This season hasn’t been simple for Hapoel. Nearly every time the team has played well and looked like it has found the elements of spirit and connection, it has followed a big win with disappointment.
Just last weekend, for example, Guy Goodes’s side fell to an unexpected and embarrassing league defeat at Ironi Nahariya, only a couple of days after stunning Turkish side Galatasaray with a 44-point fourth quarter to secure a place in the Eurocup quarterfinals.
But despite the erratic nature of Jerusalem’s play this season, there is clearly something special there.
When players like Dijon Thompson, Yogev Ohayon and Yuval Naimi are on fire, few teams are able to stave off the red force. And if everything comes together at the right time, this could be one of the most significant seasons in the history of the club.
After a number of years away from the limelight, Israeli hoops is finally making a real impact on the European scene.
Fans are now hoping this season could mirror the legendary 2003/04 campaign, when Jerusalem won the ULEB Cup and Maccabi Tel Aviv claimed the Euroleague title.
It isn’t easy to imagine either Maccabi or Hapoel going all the way in their respective competitions, but there is every chance they will both make it to the Final Four, the first time this has been achieved since 2004.
And while teams such as Barcelona and CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague and Bilbao and David Blatt’s Aris in the Eurocup have far stronger squads than Maccabi and Hapoel, anything can happen at a Final Four.
Reflecting their team’s ambitions, it was reported on Thursday that 4,000 Maccabi Tel Aviv fans have already bought tickets for the Euroleague Final Four in Paris.
The coming week could therefore be one of the most significant for local basketball in many years.
On Tuesday and Thursday Maccabi hosts Partizan Belgrade in the opening two games of a potential five-game Euroleague quarterfinal series, and on Wednesday Alba Berlin visits Hapoel for the first leg in a two-game Eurocup quarterfinal.
While Jerusalem is considered to have a good chance against its German opponent, Tel Aviv is an odds-on favorite to get the better of the team from Serbia.
Just a couple of months since declaring his side was not good enough to make it past the Top 16 phase, Pini Gershon has forced a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the yellow-and-blue, characterized by its superb showing at Real Madrid last Thursday.
Maccabi was far from its best for much of the game, but a combination of willpower and desire drove it back from a 16-point deficit to victory in the Spanish capital.
Stephane Lasme was particularly impressive for Tel Aviv in the final quarter and will undoubtedly be relishing the chance to face Belgrade, the team he left to move to Israel in the summer.
Home court advantage will be crucial in both match-ups.
Hapoel’s quarterfinal will be decided on an aggregate basis, so the Israelis will need to win by a significant margin in order to have a good chance of completing the job in Germany a week later.
Maccabi, meanwhile, will be banking on taking a 2-0 series lead before flying out to Belgrade to play at a packed Pionir Hall in front of the infamously fanatic “Grobari” supporters with their drums and flares.
With the crowd behind them, the players will feel that anything is possible.
History is in the making next week. Let’s hope the teams do our country proud.