In the second of BiE’s two-part Israeli adventure, it was derby night as Emmet Ryan caught Maccabi Tel Aviv’s effort to rebound from recent troubles against Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Note to taxi drivers or indeed anyone: Unless you actually are Phil Bailey, don’t try to sing his part of Easy Lover. It’s not going to end well. The ride to Tel Aviv from Herzliya was a reasonable 110 shekels but was the result of my having zero faith in my ability to navigate the bus system here.
Having found a 24 hour pub (technically a breakfast restaurant but it sold beer) near my hotel to get a beer, my mood arriving in the Nokia Arena was far more jubilant than the home team. Having been stunned by Hapoel Jerusalem a week ago, suffering their worst loss in Israeli league history, Maccabi Tel Aviv had failed to bounce back midweek and fell to Cedevita Zagreb in Euroleague. Headlines about Maccabi reeling aren’t exactly shocking, similar concerns were aired last year before they completed the triple crown, but they added some spice to this local derby.
Hapoel, long the other team in Tel Aviv, remind me of soccer clubs back home in Dublin. Over-zealous spending undid the club before fan ownership came to the rescue (including a period when there were two clubs in operation) and are back in the top flight albeit far from their former glories. Intense as the rivalry may be, or at least was, the atmosphere outside the arena was calm with Hapoel fans calmly chatting with security over a cigarette. The club is also home to one Jonathan Skjoldebrand, half-man half-not sure where hair ends and beard begins.
Within 30 minutes of me taking my seat in here, and an hour from tip, Gate 11 was in full somg and Gate 7 was warming up. This with nary another body save for the players having a shootaround in the arena. They wavered rarely, only taking a brief moment of pause before kicking off again.
When Hapoel came out for their warm-ups the whistles started with competing chants from Gate 7 and 11 to see who could put off the visitors more. The home side were naturally greeted but oh wow that team anthem is flat out adorable.
A Donnie and Marie Osmond style number was an odd backdrop to fans getting loud but it worked.
And then boom, the dramatic Hollywood style intros as business was about to get under way. The razzle dazzle just doesn’t show off where Maccabi stand in the food chain, it reminds everyone else in this league where they are by comparison. This is the team with 51 titles, the one that has owned this league as long as it has existed and if it wants a NBA style intro it’s going to point to the scoreboard when the other guy complains about it being over the top.
Loud and unwavering though the support was, the nerves were obvious for Maccabi in the the early exchanges. A Devin Smith floater went way off target and that was followed by three straight turnovers by the hosts. The after effects of Maccabi’s last two outings were showing and Hapoel were keen to strike early.
With a 4-13 deficit early, it was time to bring in the muscle in the form of Sofoklis Schortsantidis and Guy Pnini. Skjoldebrand drained a three off his beard and the gap widened in spite of the reinforcements.
Sofo got Maccabi back in business off the time-out. The big guy gets that extra loud kind of cheer from the fans here, the one that shows a level of trust as well as devotion from those in the stands. They know that him vs anybody inside is a lopsided battle so long as he gets his hands on the ball.
The team with confidence however was wearing red and Durand Scott widened the gap to 15 off a turnover. On a night where order was supposed to be restored, it was the other team in Tel Aviv playing the disruptor.
Understanding the minds of these Maccabi players is challenging. For any big club, it’s normal to have a rough patch every season. For the Tel Aviv giants, anything other than total domination is a cause for concern because in the wider scheme of things that’s what everybody is used to. Now, having lost two straight, they were in a hole against their smaller rival in the city. The context is different, Maccabi don’t win every title every year but they are having this particular struggle when faced with an upstart club in Jerusalem looking to take their place at the top of the food chain. If Hapoel Jerusalem takes the title this year they will still have 50 fewer than Maccabi.
The grand context of history doesn’t matter when this is the campaign being fought.
Right in the here and now the hosts were losing it every time a call didn’t go their way. With just a quarter played they trailed 10-25 but the mood in the arena was borderline panic. The start of the second did little to quell matters as the errors kept coming from Maccabi. Hapoel weren’t doing anything special. They were opportunistic and organised but what was really making them push so far ahead was that they were calm. This was a 2-3 club that’s supposed to lose, the only time they were going to feel any heat was if they somehow got in position to close it out.
A big block by Smith looked to be the point of inspiration Maccabi needed to get going in the second quarter but while they were looking for sparks, Hapoel were finding holes. Raviv Guy Limonad briefly stretched the advantage to 20 on an open short range jumper where Maccabi’s defence looked lost at sea. Even when alert, things weren’t going to plan. Every time Maccabi looked to have made a big play on D, they failed to convert down the other end. The pace of bleeding had slowed but Maccabi still went in down 18-36.
Smith kicked of the third frame with a three that garnered a rather defiant yell from the PA to rouse the crowd. The breaks which they simply couldn’t get in the opening 20 minutes appeared to be going their way in the early running until Yancy Gates picked up a turnover for a dunk. The PA groaned his name and the crowd sighed.
At this stage it’s hard to say what a Maccabi comeback to win would even mean. Of course they are meant to come back, it’s one of the biggest clubs in Europe against a bunch of whoevers. The damage of the first half would only disappear in the win-loss column. The Euroleague champions had started a game that was supposed to get them out of a rut by digging deeper. It was panicked, sloppy, and very un-Maccabi. As it stood the hypothetical seemed irrelevant. Gates stretched the gap to 20 midway through the third.
The gap was widening and rather than a comeback, now thoughts turned to the unthinkable. Could Hapoel Tel Aviv do what Hapoel Jerusalem did a week ago? The gap was 25 with 1.55 left in the third, a 30 point beat down was unlikely at this stage but a Hapoel win was deemed just as much before the game began.
The urgency of the matter was becoming more apparent to the crowd but Hapoel just kept making shots. Maccabi eased concerns of another record loss as the third ended but they still trailed 34-55. The horn was greeted with silence. After the first these fans expected Maccabi to rally, at the half it was still manageable, but now they were staring down a big loss to their local rivals and falling two games behind Jerusalem in the standings.
Gates opened the scoring from a most awkward stance in the fourth. The groan again from the announcer. It was Larry O’Bannon doing most of the damage, with 29 points and 11 boards but it was Gates whose name brought the dismay through the tannoy. That was enough for the fans to start making their way out. Hapoel were on their way to a famous win but what is happening with Maccabi?
Yes the line-up is different, radically, so from the one that went all the way in Milano but it’s still got players yet with 5 minutes to go at home they trailed by 26 and looked in real danger of a second straight record, as in all-time, defeat in domestic play. The fans that stayed, and most did, refound their emotion. Tonight wasn’t one for taking it out on the team but slides like this see someone play the scapegoat unless they arrest it quickly. Tonight ended 58-78. The cheers drowned out the whistles at the horn, for now at least.