2023 Highlights: Ben Pask’s Year With The Sports Rabbi

Dec 31, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

The end of the year is a time for reflection. As we now count down the hours to 2024, it was a good time for me to reflect on my first full calendar year with The Sports Rabbi. Below I put together a list of my highlights from each month of covering sports in Israel.

Tal Brody and Miki Berkowitz – Photo Credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

January: Maccabi Tel Aviv’s visit to The Iris Smith World Jewish Sports Museum at Kfar Maccabiah

The Iris Smith World Jewish Sports Museum at Kfar Maccabiah, which opened in 2022, hosted the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team for an intimate tour in January. The Museum presents to visitors the unique and exciting story of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli sports from the 19th century until today.

The highlights of the tour included Tal Brody and Miki Berkovitch holding a replica of Maccabi’s maiden European Championship in 1977 (which of course put us “on the map”) and listening to David Blatt (who lifted the 2014 EuroLeague trophy as coach of Maccabi) giving a presentation to the players on what it takes to build a successful and sustainable team.

“The most important thing that we would like to share with you, if there is one thing that we would like you to remember, is that you’re really part of something bigger – sports that connect people,” Maccabi World Union CEO Amir Gissin told the Maccabi players prior to the tour. “Obviously, when you hear the Jewish history of sports, there are many difficult moments that the Jewish people went through. But I think the bottom line that we already can say is that sports connect people – it goes beyond religion – and we’re all a part of one big family. I think that when you hear the story of 120 years, I think you’ll feel more connected to it.”

This is a message which resonates even more after everything that happened on October 7 and since then, with the location of the Museum, Kfar Maccabiah, notably currently providing temporary homes to many of the Israelis who have been displaced as a result of hostilities from Hamas down south and Hezbollah up north.

Those interested in visiting the Museum can find more information on the Museum’s website.

J’Covan Brown – Photo credit: EuroCup

February: Hapoel Tel Aviv defeat Gran Canaria in EuroCup Action

The Drive In provides arguably the most electrifying atmosphere of all the basketball arenas in Israel on a consistent basis for both Israeli and European games. Hapoel Tel Aviv put on a show for their fans in February with a 92-70 victory over eventual tournament winners, Gran Canaria. Gran Canaria came into the game with an 11-2 record, but came away with their tails between their legs after a four-quarter effort from Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Danny Franco’s squad, led by strong performances from Jordan McRae, Chinanu Onuaku, Xavier Munford and J’Covan Brown.

“I’m very proud of our team effort,” Franco said. “The fans packed the gym in a sold out game and I am sure that everyone is proud as we compete in the EuroCup step by step and game by game. Everyone that vane off the bench contributed like a team.”

“They outrebounded us, they outplayed us, so congratulations to Hapoel Tel Aviv,” Gran Canaria coach Jake Lakovic said. “It’s one loss, we have to go on, there are still some games to play. It was a bad game for us, we need to recover, and play better. As for the fans this was a good experience for us to play in front of such good supporters.”

While Hapoel were ultimately knocked out of the EuroCup by Juventut Badalona, their impressive maiden season in the EuroCup set them up to take the next step in 2023-24, as they go into the new year in second spot in the Group A standings with a 10-2 ledger, despite the difficult situation in which they find themselves in the midst of a war.

Photo credit: FIBA

March: Elitzur Ramla’s EuroCup Quarter-Final battle against Reyer Venezia

When one thinks of Israeli women’s basketball, two of the first names to come to mind are Elitzur Ramla and Shira Haelion. Earlier this year, we saw Haelion’s Ramla team in EuroCup Quarter-Final action against Reyer Venezia. Ramla won the first leg in a come-from-behind 80-75 victory on the back of a 27-17 last quarter. However, their European season came to end with Venezia winning 59-48 in the beginning of March, the Italians going through to the Semi-Finals with an aggregate score of 134-128.

Overall it was a successful season for Ramla, winning the League Championship in April with a tough 3-2 victory over Maccabi Bnot Ashdod – Haelion’s current team – in a battle for the ages.

While Ramla is not participating in the 2023-24 EuroCup due to the war, they continue to lead the Israeli competitions at the end of the 2023 calendar year, going into 2024 with a 6-0 ledger in the League and with a ticket to the Semi-Final of the State Cup game.

April: Maccabi Tel Aviv in the EuroLeague playoffs

Maccabi Tel Aviv had its ups and downs during the 2022-23 EuroLeague season, but a strong end to the season saw the Yellow & Blue finish in fifth place, setting up a Quarter-Final series against Monaco. While Maccabi came into the series in good form, the fact that the teams had split their regular season games set up a great series. It was going to be a challenge for new coach Oded Katash, as well as the players – some of whom were making their EuroLeague playoff debuts.

“For me personally, I’m very excited to be playing in the Euroleague playoffs for the first time,” center Josh Nebo said in a sit-down with The Sports Rabbi prior to the series. “It’s a great experience for me to go through and as a team we’re also very excited – but we’re also not complacent and we want to be able to give ourselves the best chance to be able to win, so we’re very focused and trying to see what we can do in the first round.”

Monaco ended up winning the series 3-2, which ended with a Monaco run of 21-7 in the final 5 minutes of Game 5, a 79-76 Maccabi lead turning into a 97-86 loss, a disappointing end to Maccabi’s European season.

Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv

May: Winner League playoffs begin

A day after Hapoel Jerusalem lost the FIBA Basketball Champions League Final against Telekom Baskets Bonn 70-77, the Winner League playoffs got underway in the middle of May with Maccabi Tel Aviv taking vs Hapoel Beer Sheva, Hapoel Jerusalem vs Bnei Herzliya, Hapoel Tel Aviv vs Ironi Nes Ziona and Hapoel Holon vs Hapoel Galil Elyon.

The pinnacle of the Israeli season was a little strange from the get-go, with the best-of-five Quarter-Final series followed by best-of-three Semi-Final and Final series. Disappointingly for fans, three of the Quarter-Final series were sweeps, with only Bnei Herzliya managing to steal a game from Hapoel Jerusalem.

There were no surprises in the Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Hapoel Holon Semi-Final series, with Maccabi winning convincingly to make it to the final round. In the other series, however, Hapoel Jerusalem – who won the State Cup earlier in the season and had consistently been one of the top two teams throughout the season – were swept by a Hapoel Tel Aviv to set up a derby in the Final series.

While Maccabi’s European season ended with disappointment, ultimately the team ended 2022-23 with success in June at the conclusion of the season, with a 2-1 League finals victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv, the Yellow & Blue bringing home their 56th League Championship. It was a positive end to the season, which had been marred not only by the drawn-out Quarter-Final series, but also by violence in the crowds during the Finals series itself.

“There’s a difference between happy and colorful stands expressing big love for sport to those fans who bring ugly violence, vandalism and provocation,” CEO of Toto-Winner Meir Bardugo said prior to the deciding Game 3. “This isn’t love for sport – they are mishaps in sport, which endanger fans, children and sponsors, who bring new money to the League. I want to take this opportunity to call for fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv tonight to focus on the love of sport, on the love of the game and not on hate, antagonism and G-d forbid violence.”

At the press conference, Bardugo also took the opportunity to make a case for extending the Semi-Final and Final series to a best-of-five series, like the Quarter-Final series: “SemiFinal series and Final series must be best of five series. It’s best for the sport and best for the fans.”

Ari Steinberg, Chairman of the Winner League Management, agreed with the need to extend series: “I will already try now to change the Semi-Final and Final series to best-of-five games. It can provide a significant happening, where each game will give its own drama – and that’s what we need in the League, more interest, which will bring the fans and sponsors.”

The 2023-24 season has had its own unique challenges due to the war, but hopefully come playoff time, the issues that put a blemish on the 2022-23 Winner League playoffs can be fixed for the 2023-24 playoffs.

Daniel Raber – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

June: Israel hosts Women’s EuroBasket Group games

The local season finished and the international games got started in Israel, with The Drive In hosting 2023 FIBA EuroBasket group games, including all of Israel’s games.

Prior to the tournament, The Sports Rabbi sat down with two of Team Israel’s stars, Alex Cohen and Jennie Simms, who were excited at the prospect of playing in front of home fans.

“Every time we get to put the Israel jersey on is exciting, but to do it in front of our friends and family and our home crowd is something we’ve been dreaming about and excited about for a long time,” Cohen said prior to the tournament. “When we first got the news that it was going to be here, we were very, very excited to prepare and to show the world what we have here in Israel.”

“I know a lot of the girls just from the years of me being here,” Simms, who became an Israeli citizen earlier this year, after which she became a member of the national team. “You know, they’re very welcoming, they’re here with me, so it’s a great feeling.”

Coach Sharon Drucker’s squad were unable to win a game, but they did slowly improve throughout the tournament: a 59-108 blowout to eventual tournament winners Belgium was followed by a 68-88 loss to Italy, with the Blue & White’s tournament coming to an end after a 52-61 loss to the Czech Republic. The future does look bright for the Israeli team, with plenty of young stars still in their mid-twenties, including captain Eden Rotberg, Gili Eisner, Daniel Raber and sisters Lior and Yarden Garzon.

July: Australia and England tie The Ashes series, with Australia retaining the Urn

With it being the offseason for basketball in Israel, July was a time to focus on other sports from around the world. One of the highlights for cricket fans was The Ashes –the biennial test series played between England and Australia – which was held in England during June and July. The series was tied 2-2, which meant that Australia, who held The Ashes after defeating England 4-0 in the previous series, retained the trophy until the next series, due to be held in Australia during the 2025-26 southern hemisphere summer.

The Jewish connection to The Ashes is found in a new exhibition at the oldest sports museum in the world at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. The exhibition, which opened in June and will run until 2025, tells the story of the Jewish community’s relationship with cricket.

“We are delighted to have worked with MCC on this landmark exhibition,” Jewish MCC Members and exhibition curators, Zaki Cooper and Daniel Lightman KC, said. “We believe it to be the first one ever on the subject. As two cricket fans from a young age, we have always been fascinated by our community’s links to the great game. Short of opening the batting for England at Lord’s, this is surely the next best thing!

“The exhibition is about Jews and cricket and hopefully brings to life how a small minority fell in love with the great game and used it to build community and to frame their sense of identity. It is a story not only about recurring prejudice and the frustration and elation of sport but also of integration and belonging. We hope that people who come to see it enjoy it and it leads to other communities telling their cricketing stories.”

A’ja Wilson – Photo Credit: Derek White/NBA Photos

August: A’ja Wilson’s individual record-equaling performance

While August is still a quiet time for Israeli basketball, it was a thrill to be in attendance to see American-Israeli Alysha Clark in action for the Las Vegas Aces in their 112-100 win over the Atlanta Dream in Atlanta. The highlight of the game which will be remembered for years to come was A’ja Wilson’s 53 points, equaling the record set by Liz Cambage five years as the most points scored by a player in a WNBA game.

“A’ja is special,” Clark said to The Sports Rabbi after the game. She’s such an unselfish player and so to be able to tie the record and do it in a way that’s efficient, she didn’t force anything, nothing was hard. She flowed and that’s just the kind of player she is. She’s a great player and she’s going to go down as one of the greats in this game. So I was excited to see her go to work today. It’s always a fun thing to do when you get to witness greatness and that’s what happened today.”

The Aces continued in their victorious ways through to the end of the season, defeating the New York Liberty 3-1 in the best-of-five series to win the 2023 WNBA Championship and Clark ending a great personal season by taking away the Sixth Person of the Year Award.

Clark played an important role for the Aces in the Finals series, averaging 8.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in a little over 28 minutes per game. This was Clark’s third WNBA Championship, after previously winning two with the Seattle Storm in 2018 and 2020.

It was also an emotional moment for Clark, whose father, Duane Clark, passed away in September 2022. “He’s been with me all season, he’s been my sixth man and I know he would be so happy right now and I’m just so happy,” a teary Clark said immediately after the end of game 4 of the series. “I know he’s with me, and I wish he could be here. I wish I could call him. But this is for him. This entire season, I showed up every day because I know he loved watching me play.”

Photo Credit: Ben Pask

September: Maccabi Ramat Gan prepares for its return to the Winner League

September was officially the last month of the offseason, with teams making their final preparations for the 2023-24 season and Hapoel Jerusalem defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv to take out the preseason tournament.

It was also exciting to see the newly-promoted Maccabi Ironi Ramat Gan prepare for its return to the top Israeli League after its relegation following the 2009-10 season, which the team marked with a press conference at its refurbished Zisman Arena.

“It’s very exciting, I played basketball for 16 years and this is my eighth year as a coach, it’s a good time to say thank you to the players from last year and this year, thank you to Chen [Shnaiderman, the team’s chairperson] and to the Ramat Gan Municipality who have made my dream come true,” coach Shmulik Brener said. “I’m proud to be a part of this, thank you to the mayor for the things that he said. We believe in excellence and we haven’t just said that we’re aiming for the upper bracket of the league, we really believe in ourself and what we’re building.”

“It’s very exciting that the management and staff see the spirit that I bring and my way on the court, that I am worthy to wear the jersey and lead the team,” captain Adam Ariel said. “There’s a new energy with the team, it’s special. I believe that our goal as players and as a team is to bring this energy to the court. I hope that this arena will be full. We want to win and we won’t give up. For many of us this is a new beginning and we want to grow with the club.”

The Sports Rabbi also had a chance to catch up with JP Tokoto, who was not only excited to play with his new team, but also excited to play against his former team during the season.

“There’s no ill-feeling against Hapoel Tel Aviv, but that’s been my home for the last three years, so going back there will be nostalgic for me, it’ll be very nice,” Tokoto said of the scheduled matchups between Ramat Gan and Hapoel Tel Aviv. The fans – I’ve been around the city for three weeks now, in Ramat Gan and in Tel Aviv and it’s the same as if I was back with Hapoel Tel Aviv. I just had a fan yesterday stop and say, ‘JP, we love you, Hapoel!’ So it was nice to have that warm welcoming as if I’m still with them. So going back to the gym, I expect nothing less than positivity and ‘we miss you, we love you’ and all that. But then when the game starts, it’s different, it’s all respect! It’s great and I’m looking forward to it.”

Ramat Gan currently sit in 5th spot in the Israeli League with four wins and two losses. They will start 2024 with a home game this coming Saturday night against second-placed Hapoel Holon.

Lorenzo Brown – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

October: The opening round of EuroLeague 2023-24

Before October 7, Israeli basketball fans were focused on the start of the 2023-24 season. For Maccabi fans, October 5 was their return to Yad Eliyahu for the team’s Round 1 EuroLeague game against the visiting Partizan Belgrade. Prior to the game there were concerns with injuries to stars Wade Baldwin IV and Josh Nebo. However, the Yellow & Blue came away with a resounding 96-81, led by Lorenzo Brown, Nebo and Roman Sorkin.

“Especially when we don’t have Wade, I think that’s a great start for us and offensively,” coach Oded Katash said after the game. “I think Lorenzo [Brown] in the first few minutes pushed us for the right tempo that we need. I think offensively we were great in the first half. We played against a very talented team and I’m very happy for the W.”

This was of course the only EuroLeague game played to date at Yad Eliyahu due to the current war. We will have to see whether we will be able to see EuroLeague action live in Tel Aviv again in the 2023-24 season, but this of course won’t happen in the foreseeable future.

Photo Credit: Oded Carni

November: The new Israel and the challenges facing Israeli athletes

On October 7, 2023, everything in Israel changed. Hamas terrorists launched a barrage of rockets at Israel, massacred 1,400 innocent Israelis around the Gaza envelope and took more than 240 men, women and children hostage in an attack referred to as Black Saturday in Israel, which marked the start of the Swords of Iron War between Israel and Hamas, now in its thirteenth week.

Everyone in Israel and around the Jewish world has been affected in one way or another by the events of Black Saturday and the Swords of Iron War. In Israel especially, even for those who are not directly affected by those massacred or taken hostage, or the soldiers who have fallen protecting their country since the outbreak of the war, they still feel it each day.

In the sports world, it was clear very early on that the October start dates for the local sporting leagues would need to be changed and teams would not be flying to Ben Gurion Airport for European or international competition anytime soon.

Following the outbreak of the war, The Sports Rabbi had a chat with A.S. Ramat Hasharon forward-guard Leila Deluty, who is now in her second year playing as a professional in Israel. While no one would have blamed the 22-year-old Englewood, New Jersey native from going home after the outbreak of the war, Deluty stayed in Israel and has been helping in various ways with the war effort.

“My agent texted me, my agent is an Israeli guy, his name is Eran, he’s great,” Deluty said a back in October. “We’re in touch every so often. He just texted me a few days ago. ‘Thought of you, how are you doing? Are you going back to the States for a while?’ I wrote, ‘Hey, I’m ok. Not planning on going home anytime soon, I’m going to stay here and help as best as I can.’ He wrote, ‘Aren’t your parents very worried?’ I wrote, ‘They are, but they know this is my home and I need to be here.’ He wrote, ‘That’s the greatest answer ever.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.’ He wrote, ‘Proud of you.’

“People think we’re crazy! People are sending me emergency charter flights back to Newark, and I’m like, I don’t want to go home. Why would I want to be there when I can be here?”

Deluty’s efforts to help out include raising money and buying much-needed supplies for soldiers serving and families who were evacuated from war zones.

“I’ve just been literally driving through all edges of the country, I’ve spent half my days waiting outside army bases,” Deluty explained. “But me personally, so I decided with my friends who are here, one from Florida originally and one from New Jersey, I grew up with her. We decided that we need to raise money. We’re getting texts from our friends [in reserve duty] that they don’t have underwear, socks, food, helmets, vests, gloves, nothing – they have nothing – and they’re going to war. We know that we love our country, it’s a little bit of a mess right now. It was a little bit of a mess to begin with and right now it’s even more of a mess. We don’t love it any less, but our soldiers are not as prepared as they should be. No one should ever have to prepare to call back 300,000 reservists to be able to be on the frontlines, so it makes sense that there is equipment that they need, but we need to get it for them.

“I think the most influential thing that I’ve done so far which feels like it was two years ago even though it was Sunday night [the 8th of October], was my friend from Raanan got a text that a family of 14, who just came to Raanana to live in an empty apartment and they had nothing, they had to leave everything behind and that’s 14 of them and they have nothing,” Deluty said of her most meaningful contribution in the days following the war. “So we were like, ok, let’s go, this is what our money is for. We went to AM:PM, like I said, we bought the entire store, we went through our closets, we took out all the clothes we don’t need, sheets, pens, pots, and we drove to Raanana. This is like at 12:30 on Sunday night, this family hadn’t slept in two days, didn’t shower, didn’t eat, the kids were sitting there like, speechless, couldn’t speak, wouldn’t look at us. This mother opens the door and was afraid to even come outside because she was afraid of the terrorists. It’s like me and my three friends, we’re like 22-year-old white Jewish girls, we’re harmless. We walk inside and give them bags and bags, we brought them like containers of stuff and they’re looking at us and they said, ‘You’re our angels.’ We’re like, we didn’t do anything. Someone gave us money, we have the means and we did the action. But they were crying, strangers, crying with us, the safta was kissing me, I didn’t even know who she is. They were taking pictures of us and that, in that moment, I was like, even though I feel a little helpless, this is a good deed and I hope that every single day we get to do stuff like this.”

While the season’s opening games were delayed due to the war, they were finally held on November 20, 35 days after the scheduled start. Deluty and Ramat Hasharon started their season well with a 65-61 victory over Maccabi Haifa in their opening game. It was also an opportunity for the team to acknowledge Deluty’s efforts to support the war effort.

“On the day on which the war started, Leila sent a message to her friends in the USA that she needs help,” Ramat Hasharon’s professional manager, Eli Rabi, said in a ceremony prior to the tip-off. “She collected over $10,000 and with this money she went and bought tactical helmets and tactical vests. She said to me, ‘Eli, lend me the club’s car, I need to deliver packages.’ So Leila, we are proud of you.”

On top of the challenges of playing during a war – including playing with shorter rosters due to the absence of foreign players – an additional challenge for Deluty is that until foreign players rejoin the league (which is due to happen at the end of January), everything around her is being run in her non-native Hebrew.

“I’m personally studying my plays every night because I have some trouble remembering all of them, especially because it’s all in Hebrew now,” Deluty said after the Round 1 victory. “That’s the hardest part for me – it’s completely in Hebrew now because the foreigners aren’t here and I can’t understand. I’m doing fine and the team obviously helps out if I need, but it’s an extra level of basketball now for me. So I’ll review plays, spend some quality time with my teammates, talk game plan, just prepare, because we’re going to be fine – we always are.”

Going into 2024, Deluty and Ramat Hasharon sits in 5th place in the Israeli League standings with four wins and two losses. They have also booked a ticket to the State Cup Semi-Finals, which are scheduled to take place in March, after defeating reigning State Cup champions Maccabi Bnot Ashdod 65-49 in the Quarter-Finals.

Xavier Manfred and Yovel Zoosman – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

December: The trauma from October 7 and the hope for 2024

As we say goodbye to 2023, we continue to live through the trauma of the war as a country. Our teams are continuing to play in Europe and have restarted playing in Israel. In Europe, there’s a lot to look forward to for basketball fans. Maccabi is tied for fourth place in the standings with Panathinaikos, AS Monaco and Fenerbahçe (the latter two teams whom Maccabi will be facing in this week’s double-week) at 10-7 after the first round of games, despite playing only one game at Yad Eliyahu. Hapoel Tel Aviv sits in second place in their EuroCup group at 10-2 after only playing one game at The Drive In. Hapoel Jerusalem earned a ticket straight to the Round of 16 of the FIBA Basketball Champions League after finishing the group stage 5-1. Hapoel Holon finished second in their group with a 3-3 ledger and will face Filou Oostende in a best of three Play-in series to join Hapoel Jerusalem in the BCL Round of 16.

At home, the season has only just begun. While there are many challenges, including players leaving their teams or even refusing to join their teams for games in Israel, overall the teams are showing resilience and providing some joy for fans who are in the midst of a war. The beginning of every game is marked with an acknowledgement of the war, those who have lost their lives and those who are still kept as hostages in Gaza, more than 80 days after they were taken.

At Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first home game for the local season last week against Hapoel Haifa – which Hapoel Haifa won 104-96 – The Gate, Maccabi’s fanatical fans, put out a moving display in the corridors of Yad Eliyahu and a huge banner inside the stadium in memory of Captain (res.) Rotem Levy, deputy commander of the Combat Engineering Corps’ Yahalom unit, who was killed in action in northern Gaza on December 18, age 24 years. Levy was an active member of The Gate, whose responsibilities included preparing decorations in the stadium prior to home games and would spend hours into the night dedicated to this task.

At Hapoel Tel Aviv’s home game against Hapoel Jerusalem last week – a hard-fought 109-100 victory which was more impressive as they were without many of their foreign players – started with a ceremony to pay respects to the Kutz family –Aviv, Livnat, Rotem, Yonatan and Yiftach – who were murdered by Hamas terrorists in their home in Kfar Aza on October 7. Yonatan and Yiftach were members of the club’s youth teams and were avid Hapoel fans. The ceremony, during which Yonatan and Yiftach’s aunt, Sharon Kutz, gave a moving speech and the team’s chairperson Rami Cohen and president Avi Zidenburg presented the family with a jersey with the Kutz name on the back, was very moving and brought many to tears prior to the tip-off.

With all this, the tams continue to play and the fans continue to get to experience some sort of normalcy during these times. In the penultimate game of 2023, third-placed Kiriyat Ata defeated the league leaders and in-form Hapoel Tel Aviv 91-87 in a thriller at The Drive In, giving the Reds their first loss of the season in Israeli action. Hopefully this is a sign of how even the competition is this season, despite everything. Let’s hope that the excitement continues in 2024, but most importantly, let’s hope for an end to the war and that we can live in peace in Israel.

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