One record defines Hapoel Jersualem’s past, another could hinder their future. Emmet Ryan on the rising Israeli club’s bid for the big time
For the bulk of fans and observers across Europe, Maccabi Tel Aviv are Israeli basketball. They have all but owned the national league forever, they are the club that has climbed the mountain to claim Euroleague and its predecessor the European Champions Cup 6 times, they are the team associated with putting Israel on the map for more than basketball. For a decade, no other club from Israel has warranted the eyes of fans afar. Hapoel Jerusalem know all too well, their win in the ULEB Cup (precursor to Eurocup) in 2004 the one time they have briefly stepped out of their rival’s shadow.
Even calling it a rivalry is being kind to Hapoel. In their 6 trips to the Israeli league finals, they have lost the lot running up an 0-6 record to Maccabi when it mattered. It was always Maccabi. The Tel Aviv giants have rarely looked threatened on home soil, only falling in recent years when faced with single-elimination format finals and Jerusalem never caught them cold in those scenarios.
This season looked to be different in the early going. Hapoel got off to an absolute flier, inflicting the biggest defeat Maccabi have ever suffered at their home Nokia Arena. Watching them against Bnei Herzliya in November, they had all the hallmarks of an upwardly mobile club. That night was the first round since their historic win in Tel Aviv and they destroyed Herzliya in a high school gym. The bulk of teams in the Israeli league play in modest arenas. They lack the wealth of Maccabi and all their glory. Hapoel Jerusalem are a rare exception. This season they moved into the shiny new 11,600 seat Jerusalem Arena, a big jump from their old home the Malha Arena which couldn’t take a quarter of that. Tonight they were back in one of those more modest barns with an eye on changing that 0 to a 1 in their finals record.
The Begin Arena in Eilat can only house 1,300 and it was packed to the rafters for the first game of the two-legged Israeli finals. Hapoel Eilat had shocked Maccabi 3-2 in the semi-finals, the first time the Tel Aviv giants hadn’t made it to the decider since 1993. Eilat are not on Euroleague’s radar. Their barn is too small and so is their budget. Israel is not a priority growth market for the top flight of European basketball. Britain, France, Germany, and Turkey have been listed as the priorities for wild cards in next year’s competition. There are 5 to give out and Britain is already out but the others will get at least 3 between them. Growth however remains the goal for Euroleague and that’s where geography comes into play. While Israel as a whole doesn’t offer massive growth potential, Jerusalem itself is a huge market to pursue and one where the league will see value. Hapoel however need to make themselves a priority and that’s where the road to the big time becomes more challenging.
Through their hot start at home, the Jerusalem club was failing disastrously in Eurocup. A 1-9 record in the continent’s secondary competition brought a swift end to their involvement. The domestic dominance soon became a touch more ordinary, Maccabi overtook them and while Hapoel remained in second they weren’t the all-conquering beast of autumn.
Late season has changed that, Hapoel remained strong as Maccabi faded badly before falling to Eilat. When the red and black club rolled into town this evening, they were in a mood to show they had left their humble days behind. It wasn’t a rout but Jerusalem looked dominant and by the half the gulf in quality was clear. The long wait for a first championship, after a 72 year wait since foundation, is nearing an end. A year early they exited the playoffs meekly, this time around they took care of Eilat 65-80 on the road and are 40 minutes from their first title.
That’s the first step and it will be a huge one but whether it’s enough to move them on to Euroleague remains to be seen. If they are borderline, that Eurocup record is going to hurt them badly. More likely they will be able to overcome that blotch on their resume. Ambition counts for a lot when it comes to making the big show. The arena was a big step in that direction and a first Israeli championship could well get them over the line. Right now it’s out of their control but another display under the bright lights of Jerusalem Arena on Thursday could make all the difference.