I had been looking forward to this moment since the day I landed in Israel at Ben Gurion airport just a few months ago; my first Israeli basketball game. Lucky for me it also happened to be the championship game for the Israel State Cup! Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, a perennial powerhouse not only in Israeli basketball, but also in the Euroleague against an up and coming Hapoel Jerusalem team that has played great basketball of late. As soon as I entered the brand new state of the art Jerusalem Arena sporting a recently purchased Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball t-shirt, I felt the electricity in the building.
For a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles, it is hard to understand what sports are like in Israel. The reason I love sports is because it has the ability to transform and unify people anywhere in the world, and that’s exactly what is happening here in the Holy Land.
While I could see the extreme passion between these rivals, the moment that will be forever etched in my memory is when Israel’s National Anthem, Hatikva was sung by more than 11,000 strong. The reason I studied abroad in Israel, was truly indicative in that one moment in time. As goose bumps flowed down my arms, I couldn’t have felt more proud to be a Jew.
Maccabi was clearly the superior team on paper, but it did not show its true qualities in the first quarter, as Hapoel came out firing, led by Lior Eliyahu and Bracey Wright. Arguably Jerusalem’s two best players, Donta Smith and former Laker Tony Gaffney were non-existent throughout the game in a large part due to the well-coached defense of the yellow-and-blue.
After halftime my friend Josh Halickman aka The Sports Rabbi, told me that he calls the first 5 minutes of the third quarter “Money Time”, and that was spot on. Maccabi came out of the locker room on fire in the third quarter led by Devin Smith, who proved to be the best player on the court on this night. Finishing with 27 points and 7 rebounds, Smith controlled the matchup and took home the MVP honors for his effort. Hot shot guard Jeremy Pargo added 13 points and Brian Randle contributed 14 points and 9 rebounds. Maccabi showed why they are the defending champions by overwhelming Hapoel’s two big men, Donta Smith and Lior Eliyahu in the second half, while showing they were the more complete team with an emphasis on team defense and sharing the basketball on offense.
By pulling away in the third and fourth quarters, Maccabi finished the game off with a resounding win, blowing away Jerusalem with a 94-76 victory. After the game, the Israel State Cup trophy was handed to Maccabi by the Israeli President Ruby Rivlin, in a ceremony similar to the NBA championship trophy presentation. As the Maccabi players hoisted the Israeli State Cup all I could think of how this was going to be a night to remember for the rest of my life.