JUBILANT Israeli basketball fans are still celebrating Maccabi Tel Aviv’s dream season, which culminated with an overtime victory over Real Madrid in the Euroleague basketball final in Milan.
Thousands of fans clad in Maccabi yellow filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square overnight yesterday, with many jumping into its landmark fountain. Celebrations erupted in other cities as well, with TV and radio stations airing special broadcasts.
According to initial ratings figures, about a third of the country watched Sunday’s game live on TV, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres. Both men called head coach David Blatt after the game to offer congratulations.
“You were an example of determination. The whole team fought like lions and won,” Peres told Blatt. “I watched the whole game and nearly had a heart attack. You are heroes and have brought incredible pride to the state of Israel.”
Peres, who said he was wearing a yellow tie, invited the team to his residence for an official reception upon their return. “Israel is good at impossible things,” he said.
A nation of eight million, Israel still has a small-town feel to it when it comes to its international sporting successes. Dominated by political conflict and a sense that it is harshly judged by the outside world, it relishes any opportunity to flaunt a sense of normalcy on a global stage.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been a source of national pride, even as its player base has become less and less Israeli.
Maccabi has seven Americans who played at US colleges, and only two Israel-born players are part of the regular rotation. Their foreign players, including former Boston College guard Tyrese Rice and former UNC Greensboro point guard Ricky Hickman, were instrumental in Sunday’s victory.
Maccabi has dominated Israeli basketball for decades and has grown into a European powerhouse, winning five titles. But, in recent years, the team’s aura has faded. Last year it lost the Israeli title for the third time in six years – after having lost it only once in the previous 39 – and entered the European championship as a huge underdog.
The team that won back-to-back European titles in 2004-05 featured future NBA players like Anthony Parker, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Maceo Baston. Later, homegrown talents Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel also migrated to the NBA.
In contrast, this year’s team was devoid of big stars. It needed a dramatic win on the road to even make it to the Final Four and its victories over heavily favoured CSKA Moscow in the semi-finals and Real Madrid in the final were sparked by the outstanding play of its bench. Rice, the tournament’s MVP, hit the game winner in the semifinals and dominated the final game, scoring 26 points, including 14 in overtime. “No-one believed in us,” Maccabi captain Guy Pnini said. “It is hard to fathom and this will take a long time to sink in.”