The Lead Point
It was a strange feeling standing outside of Yad Eliyahu waiting for the Maccabi Tel Aviv and Alba Berlin players to arrive. Usually the area by Gate 9 is bustling with activity. Fans taking selfies with the players, onlookers straining their necks to see which of the visiting team players are getting off of the bus, well wishers biding the Yellow & Blue good luck and patting them on the back as they head inside.
However, for Gameday One of the 2020/21 Euroleague season there was none of that. There was just one person waiting for the players. Me. The Sports Rabbi. There were no fans, no onlookers and no well wishers on this night.
I spoke to Sandy Cohen for a few minutes as he was happy to see a a familiar face. Omri Casspi was likewise excited to see me and wished me well. Oz Blayzer, who made his Euroleague debut was thrilled to see me as were Othello Hunter and Angelo Caloiaro.
The newcomers, Ante Zizic and Dragan Bender were all-business like while Chris Jones was surprised to hear someone call out his name. Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos was in a good mood when he arrived as we had spoken via Zoom on Wednesday at the pregame press conference.
The arena was as quiet as a graveyard on a full moon night
It was eerie to say the least as the sun went down over the Mediterranean Ocean just a few miles away.
And that eeriness continued into the first quarter of the game. The arena was as quiet as a graveyard on a full moon night. No cheering. No screaming. No signing. And that played a massive part of Maccabi looking as flat as a sandwich over they first ten minutes.
No energy to build off of which allowed Alba to grab a very quick 12-point, 31-19 lead in a game that looked like it was heading south, very, very quickly.
However, the captain for the day, Scottie Wilbekin was going to have none of that and came out on fire in the second quarter, giving everything he had.
First it was a 3-pointer. Then it was a rebound as he led the break down floor feeding Othello Hunter. He grabbed another board and scored a deuce and all of a sudden the score was 31-28, Maccabi in the hole by only 3 points in what was a whirlwind of two minutes igniting the fans that were allowed to cheer, the players themselves on the bench.
From there it was Hunter, Chris Jones and a mega poster dunk by Sandy Cohen on top of Luke Sikma’s head and it was game, set, match as Wilbekin went back to the bench winded and wiped out. But he had done what a captain is supposed to do. Rile up his troops, lead by example and blow life into what looked like a carcass and he did just that as they roared to the win.
1) Chris Jones looked as if he had been playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv and in the Euroleague for years, not just a few minutes. The guard had swagger, the guard had guile, the guard had guts, the guard had know-how.
Jones didn’t even have a Wikipedia page!
It’s as if the Garland, Texas native has been wearing the Yellow & Blue for coach Sfairopoulos for a number of seasons. This was not a green rookie coming into his first top flight European game, this was a wily veteran knowing exactly where to go and where to be, where to find his teammates, when to shoot and when to pass. His stat line certainly showed that in a shade under 27 minutes with 12 points and 7 assists. Jones looked like the real deal. Now you can’t build Rome in a day, but this was certainly an excellent debut considering Maccabi didn’t play any Euroleague teams ahead of the season opener.
When Jones signed with the Maccabi, I tried to find as much info as I could, which unfortunately wasn’t much. Heck, he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page! I saw that he had played in Turkey last season for Bursaspor and went to a small college in Angelo State, but that was it.
Well it looks like someone did some excellent scouting to say the least. What a find and Coach Sfairopoulos was certainly happy to have Jones on the floor for his team, “I’m very happy how Chris Jones performed and we knew about his quality. He is a Euroleague player and deserved the chance he received.”
“It was a great debut,” said Jones following the game. “It was more than what I had expected. and it exceeded my expectations. Most importantly we got the W.”
Jones’s mindset is that of one wanting to show the world that he was overlooked and he’s had enough of that. “My journey’s been tough, it started in Asia and I have a chip on my shoulder. I want to come out here and prove myself.”
I’m sure Maccabi fans will hope that Jones wants to prove his doubters wrong, game after game, after game.
2) Oz Blayzer is another player who wanted to show that he belonged with the big boys and he did just that. The Israeli forward signed with Maccabi in the offseason after just having fallen to the Israeli league champions when he was with Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion. The move certainly raised some eyebrows as the word had been that the Yellow & Blue had been trying to pry Ronan Sorkin free from Maccabi Haifa to replace Jake Cohen who went on to Obradoiro in Spain. However, things didn’t work out with Sorkin and Maccabi looked to have settled on Blazyer.
“I never thought I would start”
Well, it looked like Coach Sfairopoulos was very happy to settle on Blayzer and had him in is starting lineup! Who would have ever thought that was going to happen?!?!? I asked the coach about how it’s possible that Blayzer looked as if he had been playing with the teams for years and he was absolutely thrilled with the question. “I am so happy you asked about Oz. He looked like he has always been here. I was very happy with how he performed and he has a big heart. I knew him as an opponent and I’m happy that he signed with us. He gave his best for the team.”
What did Oz think about his debut, but not only a debut but starting his first ever Euroleague game, “When I signed here I never thought I would start but once the practices began and there were some injured players, I took the opportunity with both hands. I worked on the mental side of my game as well as to how to take advantage of the situation I was in. I feel that my debut was good and I will improve over time.”
The Kfar Tavor native continued, “I dreamed of the chance to play in the Euroleague. This was a target for myself since I started playing. I’m happy we started with a win in a tough game.”
As to what Blayzer needs to do to continue to be an important part of Maccabi, he pointed out a couple of things, “One has to improve with intensity and the practices are very intense which helps out. My defense and 3-point shooting will be my ticket to stick around.”
3) Think about the following for a moment. Angelo Caloiaro was trying to be desperately offloaded by Maccabi during the summer of 2019 and they couldn’t find any takers. How lucky were Maccabi Tel Aviv? Caloiaro became a huge part of the team last season and was critical in helping the club win the Israeli league title while showing how important he was against Alba with 18 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Not bad. But it’s not just what he does on the court, it’s how he is off of it as well. When I was watching the players pull up to Yad Eliyahu, I believe that Caloiaro arrived in an old tiny, white little Picanto unlike his teammates who all had bigger, SUVs and the like. He’s just a modest guy, nothing more and nothing less. “You know how much I like him,” said Sfairopoulos. “But I love all of them, they are my boys. Angelo is a fighter and is always there when you need him. He is always self sacrificing. I’m very happy with him and he’s one of our big pillars of this club.” What did Caloiaro have to say? “I’m just going to do what I always do, be in the right spot and play hard for my team.” ‘Nuff said.
It’s clear that Ante Zizic was a step slow as the big man plodded along during the 15 minutes he was on the court. But nonetheless, it was a decent start for the former Cleveland Cavaliers big man. Zizic hasn’t played in Europe in a number of years and it will take time for him re-adjust to the style play a bit, but that’s fine. Despite coughing up the ball 5 times he also scored 6 points in the paint and will be a force to be dealt withy the other team’s in the continent. In addition to Zizic, Dragan Bender made a 3 minute cameo in the fourth quarter as he donned the Yellow & Blue of Maccabi for the first time since 2016.
Coach Sfairopoulos spoke about how the pair will adjust, noting that without Israeli league games for the time being will be a plus for Zizic and Bender, “Without the Israeli league we will have some time to improve and practice. On one side we won’t have games to find our rhythm, but more importantly we have practice. For Bender it will be easier for him to find his rhythm with 4-5 practices before our next game. Ante still needs to find his rhythm and control the ball. He needs time to adjust like Bender.
And-1 and Some
I asked Alba coach Aito Reneses Garcia if he thought that perhaps his team was going to take the win after an excellent first quarter. He brushed that off fairly quickly knowing that his team needed to do much more in order to beat Maccabi Tel Aviv on the road despite not having any fans. “We never think it’s going to be an easy game and after ten minutes we have to keep playing. We have to play the full 40 minutes in order to take the win.”
Marcus Eriksson and Simone Fontecchio were the stars of the show for Alba while Jayson Granger tried to bring his team back in the second half. However, poor games from Niels Giffey with 6 turnovers, Luke Sikma with only 2 points and 4 turnovers along with Jonas Mattisseck and Maodo Lo not finding the basket in close to 12 minutes and 15 minutes respectively did the German team in.