The Last Word: Maccabi, Hapoel back, just the way we like it

A BSL without strong TA and J'lem squads is like Scottish soccer without a dominant Rangers and Celtic.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
When Hapoel Holon nicked the BSL championship from Maccabi Tel Aviv last May, it felt like a time of momentous change. The days of yellow and blue dominance were gone, to be replaced by a genuinely competitive Israeli league, a situation nearly everyone (apart from those involved with Maccabi) seemed to want. Not only was the perennial champ pushed out of the limelight, but Hapoel Jerusalem, its main challenger in recent years, hadn't even made the Israeli Final Four. Although this may have made the league a little bit more interesting in certain ways, it also felt as if something was missing. Israeli basketball without the contribution of strong Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem squads was like Scottish soccer without a dominant Rangers and Celtic. Fans soon began to look back with fondness to the 2007 title game, when Jamie Arnold scored a last second basket to give Tel Aviv the win over Jerusalem. So it is with delight and anticipation that we can see both teams rising back up, close to what they once were. On Sunday, Hapoel Jerusalem visits Maccabi Tel Aviv knowing the winner will take a massive confidence boost into the second half of the season. Unlike last season when Coach Dan Shamir failed to build a solid Jerusalem side, Guy Goodes, another former Maccabi Tel Aviv assistant coach, has worked wonders. Little was expected of Jerusalem this season, but the team from the capital is top of the standings with an 11-1 record, just ahead of Maccabi (10-2), having won nine straight BSL games. The Reds' 91-77 thrashing of Maccabi Tel Aviv at Malha back in the second game of the season created a momentum which has hardly stopped. Former Maccabi Rishon Lezion power forward Omar Sneed (17.4 ppg) was rightly named MVP of the first round by the BSL and has become an inspiration for his teammates, including Timmy Bowers who has also had a wonderful season. And the team is not without its Israeli stars as well, most notably point guards Moran Rot and Yuval Naimi. Rot, one of the driving forces behind Holon's title win, is a phenomenal replacement for Dror Hagag, who has spent most of the season sitting on the Maccabi Bench. The 23-year-old Naimi, meanwhile, returned to Jerusalem from Givat Shmuel to give Goodes a quality alternative to Rot on the floor. So there is no doubt that Jerusalem has a genuine chance of overturning Maccabi on Sunday. But the Maccabi which will play at Nokia this weekend will hardly resemble the team which fell apart at Malha on November 20. The return of Coach Pini Gershon has reinstalled the grit and speed to the attack of a Tel Aviv team which no longer includes Jason Williams or Esteban Batista. The recent addition of Dee Brown could prove to be the key move in the title race. The University of Illinois graduate showed what he can do in just a few minutes on court in the Euroleague game against Alba Berlin last week with some quick fire three-point moves and super dunks. Add an on-form Carlos Arroyo and a confident Lior Eliyahu to the mix, combined with a packed Nokia arena, and Sunday's game is building up to be a real thriller of a match, with both teams realizing the significance of the game. Unlike Tel Aviv, Jerusalem does not have the distraction of a European campaign to hamper its Israeli title bid, having already been knocked out of the Eurochallenge earlier this season. The team from the capital will also be boosted by the knowledge that it has every chance of winning the league and cup double, a feat which it only missed out on by a few seconds in 2007. If Jerusalem gets the better of Tel Aviv this weekend, it could very well spell a new era in Israeli basketball, one in which Maccabi has a real, quality fight for the title each year. While we do not want to see the over-dominance of one team, a weak Maccabi is bad for the sport as a whole in this country. The current season, which has also produced an exciting challenger in Maccabi Haifa, is becoming one of the most interesting in recent years and this weekend's game will give us a very good indication of what we can hope for in the weeks and months ahead.