Israel is known as the Holy Land and a place rich with history and culture, but what many people don’t know is that it is also home to high level basketball. Since 2000, Israel has been one of the biggest basketball hotbeds in Europe. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s top team, won Euroleague titles in 2001, 2004, and 2005, and reached the Euroleague title game in 2006 and 2008. They also produced NBA players Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Maceo Baston, and Sarunas Jasikevicius, and beat the Toronto Raptors in an exhibition game, 105-103, in 2005. Additionally, many NBA players including Jordan Farmar, Trevor Booker, J.J. Hickson, and Avery Bradley spent the lockout playing in Israel. I caught up with David Pick, a writer for Eurobasket.com covering the Euroleague and Israeli basketball, to talk about the lockout, the Israeli Super League, and LeBron James.
Dime: Talk about the basketball environment in Israel. Is there a rabid basketball following within the country? What is the level of interest?
David Pick: Basketball is second fiddle to soccer here in Israel. I think throughout Europe, except for maybe Spain, because of the European titles they’ve managed to achieve and their number of NBA players, basketball is generally viewed as being the “second sport.” I think Omri Casspi (Israel’s first ever NBA player) has definitely contributed to the way basketball is looked at locally, and the fact that he played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is one of the powerhouses of Europe, has helped elevate the game in Europe.
I think the American players who came to play here get treated with respect here that they don’t receive at home. Whether it’s discounts at restaurants or free meals, never waiting on line at clubs, and the luxury of the local women and the access they have to them here. Except for Spain and some parts of Italy, Israel is the best place to be basketball-wise and culture-wise.
Dime: There is a certain perception of Israel in the news as being a dangerous place, but the reality on the ground is a lot different. Are a lot of American and non-Israeli players surprised by Israel when they get there?
DP: I think for the most part they are, and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that a lot of them spend time traveling the country. They go to places like the Dead Sea and occasionally you’ll come by Twitter or Facebook photos of players riding camels by the Dead Sea with the tag ‘Just got my new pet, going to try to bring this home with me.’ And I think that Israel is not at all what these guys expected, it’s portrayed very negatively in the news, but that’s not at all what this country is about and what it has to offer.
Dime: When an American player comes over to Israel, is there any name recognition based on his college career in the States?
DP: No, not really. Rookies, who are playing internationally for the first time are usually known for their college success, if they are known at all. For example, maybe one out of 20 people on the street here would know who Zack Rosen is and that’s because he’s a Jewish player. Recognition of guys like Keith Langford, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past year, comes from their European careers, not what they’ve done in college or in America.
Dime: Of all the players in the Israeli Super League this year that you saw play, do you think anybody has a legitimate shot at playing in the NBA next season?
DP: Tough question. In terms of if they are really ready to compete at that level, only guys who have played at that level would really be ready to play in the NBA this season. There are guys like Keith Langford, Joe Crawford, and I think Alex Tyus can be a legitimate NBA player despite being undersized. Bryant Dunston and Richard Hendrix are both guys who are pretty prominent bigs here, and Dunston has received some interest from the Nets.
Also, Yogev Ohayon, who emerged as one of the top point guards in Europe this past year and I believe the Nets and Lakers are eyeing him. I think he will definitely be the next Israeli player to be drafted, but I don’t know if he will be the next Israeli in the NBA. We have two guys, in Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu, whose draft rights are held by NBA teams, but I don’t think either one has as good of a chance to play in the NBA as Ohayon. He really opened a lot of eyes with his play in the Euroleague playoffs showing off great quickness and point guard skills.
Dime: Talk about Maccabi Tel Aviv – they just won their 50th Israeli Super League title this year. Is there an aura of invincibility around them at this point?
DP: Absolutely. The League format over the last seven years has been a Final Four format like in college basketball, where you win or go home. This was designed so that on any given day a team could actually beat Maccabi Tel Aviv because the chances of a team winning a series versus them are small. Teams have beaten them a couple times since that rule took hold and the system is working. It was designed to create competition but on any given night they can blow you out by 20 or 30 still which is crazy.
Dime: Is there any way the other teams in the League can compete financially to get the same caliber of players Maccabi Tel Aviv does?
DP: No, not at all. There is no competition for players whatsoever between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the other Israeli teams. Guys like Shawn James who played the last few years for B’Nei Hasharon and made maybe $140,000 a year then makes the jump to Maccabi this past year and makes $350,000 this year. Other teams can’t compete with that kind of money, and they brought Keith Langford in this year for $700,000 for six months and the second highest paid player here (not on Maccabi Tel Aviv) is probably Carlos Powell on Haifa and that’s because they also have an American owner. Israeli owners and Israeli companies and the magnitude of their capabilities are nowhere close to what Maccabi’s owners can provide.