In the first of two on the ground reports from the Winner League in Israel, Emmet Ryan went back to school to learn about the rising force that is Hapoel Jerusalem.
“You are a journalist about both technology and basketball, that is strange?” This could easily have been my mother talking but instead of Ma’s bemusement it was security in Heathrow before my flight with El Al to Tel Aviv. Redeye flights are rarely a joy and the so-so air-con on this 777 had me questioning the sanity of the latest BiE adventure.
Sunrise in Tel Aviv totally fixed that and sunset, which was shortly after I woke up, left no doubt that this doubling up of my jobs was an excellent idea. Hapoel Jerusalem’s journey to Herzliya was a lot shorter than mine but the one they are on is of major interest to European basketball. Israeli basketball essentially is Maccabi to the bulk of observers across the continent. The Tel Aviv giants dominance of the domestic game and repeated success in Euroleague makes it so. After the high of that 30 point beat down over Maccabi, Hapoel Jerusalem arrived in this game having been brought down to earth by Asesoft Ploiesti in EuroCup during the week.
Hapoel Jerusalem’s brand spanking new arena hinted at where they wanted to go but it was their historic pounding of Maccabi a week ago that sent the big message. This is a team that wants to be at the top in this game and to do that at Euroleague level they have to take care of businesses in places like here in the HaYovel High School, home to Bnei Herzliya.
The gym seats around 1,700 and it really is a gym, with young girls being taught ballet in the same building a few hours before opening tip.
Getting here two hours before tip gsve a sense of the arena. Silk scarves for the home team adorned a couple of hundred seats, two fans ‘warmed up’ the drum in the stand, a local band rehearse, Hapoel players did their stretches right below the press bench, and the 5Sport crew was still busy setting up for the night’s action.
That early arrival led to some slight cultural misunderstandings. Dipping outside for a cigarette after taking my seat in the media area led to a few linguistic challenges returning to my spot on press row. On the upside it meant less smoking which is good for my lungs I guess.
The noise really picked up inside around 15 minutes from tip, a journalist to my right was smart enough to bring ear plugs to quieten the din although it was still manageable enough to say hi to David Pick. None of the fans, for all their chanting, could compete with the PA whose audio arsenal was without mercy.
The visitors, clad in black, owned possession for the first minute albeit with only an Lior Eliyahu dunk to show for it from the field. The confidence in the Jerusalem club on offence howeve was obvious, with Yotam Halperin lurking in the corner for the three despite the best efforts of Jasper Johnson closing him down. Johnson has the build of a man designed to get cult status with disproportionately slender arms.
Johnson’s entertaining stature could do little to stop the bleeding. Jerusalem looked fluid in the half court and raded into an 18-5 lead before the hosts called a timeout with 4.37 left in the first. The visitors asserted their strength again with immediate effect as Joseph Jones made a block before Donta Smith and Eliyahu combined to put Halperin in again. It was basketball without mercy, a form Hapoel need to make their way of life. To have ambitions of running with the big boys in this continent, they must learn to keep the hammer down against lesser opposition so as to sharpen the senses for the bigger tests in Europe. On the horn Bracey Wright slipped inside Johnson for the lay-up and Hapoel led 27-12.
This league seems to love the inside game in a most physical way. Every dunk attempt or rebound was seen as an opportunity for boys will be boys level jostling. It was a giddy approach to the more violent part of the sport. After clearly taking out Tony Gaffney, Johnson couldn’t help but smile as he pleaded his innocence. While Herzliya’s big was having a fun time out there, Jerusalem’s play started to stutter. The lead remained huge but the onslaught that had come in the first was being followed by some clunky play im the secomd frame. Wright brought the spark back with back to back threes and the visitors led by 22 with 5.56 left in the half.
It was in the second frame where the full range of this Jerusalem outfit became obvious. Backed by an aggressive interior D, the men in black could stretch the court offensively through Wright, Eliyahu, or Bar Timor. The one thing missing was Donta Smith, the star of that rout of Maccabi, was getting his minutes but making no real impact. Jerusalem’s success without Smith getting it done spoke more to their depth. Danny Franco has a roster that gives him options and keep the hammer down when minds might wander.
Smith finally had his highlight moment late in the first, catching and offloading a pass in one movement to put Gaffney in. With 20 minutes to play, the only question was how wide the final margin would be as Bnei Herzliya trailed the visitors 26-50.
The Jerusalem D, led by Jones, stepped up a level upon the resumption. Admittedly with the aid of some utterly baffling plays by Herzliya on offence, the visitors shut things down and held the hosts scoreless through the first six minutes of the third. The PA made a desperare attempt to get a Herz-l-iya chant going while the home team floundered. Kyle Weaver finally opened their second half account with a mere 3.31 left in the quarter.
And it was because of that gulf in quality that it’s still hard to know what to make of this Hapoel Jerusalem side. Much as landmark results are meaningless without the follow-up performances, ground out shellackings like this only serve to show where Hapoel are in the context of their own league. They are a team most teams will assume mean another check mark in the L column, they can rack up silly margins, but can they translate it onto the next stage? Essentially the challenge with observing Hapoel is working out where they are in terms of development.
When they are running Maccabi or even Herzliya off the floor, they look at team capable of going deep in EuroCup yet they are struggling at 1-3 after four games. It’s a progress thing and time is what looks to be the ultimate cure. The fans will cheer a rout like this when Wright is ending quarters with buzzer beaters, he closed the third as well to make it 36-71, but to go deep in EuroCup and to challenge Maccabi come season’s end it’s about honing everything. They closed out this one with a few fast breaks to ensure the traveling fans sang them home to a comfortable 62-93
When it’s time to get down and dirty, they need to be more dough than show. That’s when the rest of Europe will acknowledge their arrival. That said, for now, the show is pretty fun.