Every year it seems that a number of Israeli basketball players leave the Holy Land for greener pastures abroad and a chance to show what they can do on the international stage and this season is no different. Three Israelis, Yovel Zoosman, Tamir Blatt and Max Heidegger made the move to Germany with both Zoosman and Blatt heading to ALBA Berlin and Heidegger to Oldenburg.
As the trio gets ready to open up domestic play this weekend, The Sports Rabbi spoke to Heidegger who is loaned out to Oldenburg by his parent club Maccabi Tel Aviv about his spectacular season last year with Bnei Herzliya, his time at the NBA Summer League, his basketball upbringing along with his high expectations for the campaign ahead.
“I’ve really enjoyed being in Germany so far and everything is very prompt and on time from a professional standpoint,” the naturalized Israeli began. “I haven’t been able to get out much yet due to arriving here late from the NBA Summer League and because of COVID-19 restrictions. The club was just also in Slovenia for training camp where we played some of the local clubs.”
“So far I have had a really big role in the preseason and I want to continue to gain experience. I am playing both on and off of the ball and I want to continue to prove myself, work on becoming more of a point guard and develop as a true one which is much different playing that in Europe than in the US. Expectations are to be a top four team every year and I hope we can compete for a championship, which is a tough task. There are a lot of good teams in the German League but we have a chance if we come together the right way. To be on a winning team and contribute, learn more and learn a different style of basketball here in Germany.”
After attending UC Santa Barbara, Heidegger signed a 3-year deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv just ahead of the 2020/21 season. After playing in a number of games for the yellow-and-blue, it was decided that he would go loan to Bnei Herzliya in order to gain playing time and more experience as a professional. Following some deliberations, the California native felt that another year to hone his skills was in order to continue to his growth but this time it would be abroad and not in Israel.
“My agent and I spoke to Maccabi Tel Aviv and we felt collaboratively that it would be best to go back on loan for another season after being with Bnei Herzliya last year. Some teams in Israel and in other countries reached out concerning my availability. But when I spoke to Oldenburg coach Mldaen Drijencic and sports director Srdjan Klaric their envisioned role was important to me. They were working very hard to get me to come there when I was looking.”
“I enjoyed my time in Herzliya and there is a close connection between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Herzliya but I wanted a new experience and play in two competitions. I also wanted to go abroad, gain experience in a different league and do the things I did in Israel somewhere else and prove that to myself. It seemed that all parties were happy and this way I would come back to Israel and be a better player.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv made sure to keep close tabs on Heidegger’s progress with Bnei Herzliya and they must have been thrilled with his performance and development as he averaged 17 points a game while shooting a phenomenal 41.8% from 3-point range hitting 74/177 attempts.
“At Maccabi I met with head of scouting Avi Even and Yair Shevach and we spoke a lot about my progress throughout the season. We also talked about the move to Germany and the Summer League and while it wasn’t a direct analysis we also spoke about the future. Going back to Maccabi Tel Aviv next year would be great but I can’t tell the future and how it will work out. Both parties would like that to be the case, but I can’t say exactly what the future will hold. But both of us want that for the third year of my contract.”
Heidegger grew up in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley and his father Klaus was a former professional skier originally from Austria. He grew up in a small town and played soccer as well, but went on to ski at the highest of levels.
“Back in the 1980’s my mother Jami who was from New York loved to travel a lot and she happened to be the Pilates teacher for the Austrian ski team. My dad thought she was insane when she came in to class with all of those crazy neon colors and leg warmers that were predominant during that time since things in Austria were a bit more conservative.”
Klaus and Jami would get married and lived in Austria for some time but then moved back to New York and eventually to California. “They instilled a good work ethic in me,” Heidegger said. “As well as how to be a good person. They raised me the right way and I am super grateful to them. They were both very successful and I didn’t grow up as one in need but they always wanted me to know that I had to work hard and forge my own path.”
The 6’3 guard realized right off the bat in high school that he could go on to play college ball, however he fractured his back in his sophomore year and wasn’t sure where his career would go from there and if the injury would hinder him. Thankfully it didn’t and Heidegger was able to play Division I basketball.
“I ended up at UC Santa Barbara which was close to home. I wasn’t ready my freshman year as to how to balance my education, basketball and work on my game all at the same time. After my sophomore year I saw that I could do this at a professional level. The last two years I had some injuries but overall it was the best four years of my life. I was able to find myself during a time where one is trying to figure out who you are.”
Heidegger then immigrated to Israel thanks to being Jewish and the Law of Return and signed his first professional contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv. “Coming into Maccabi Tel Aviv I had just been injured and I sprained my ankle in my last college game. I hadn’t played five on five and my workout time was limited due to COVID-19. It was definitely a time where I was trying to find myself when I arrived in Israel and the first two months was a huge adjustment. I wanted to figure out how I could get onto the floor, how to be a professional, how to live my life and even find out where I could shop for groceries.”
After just a handful of games with the yellow-and-blue, Heidegger headed to Bnei Herzliya to gain playing time and work on his game, “When I went on loan to Bnei Herzliya I just was beginning to find my footing. The club wasn’t doing great when I got there but I am very grateful to Herzliya and coach Sharon Drucker for giving me that chance. By mid-to late season I felt comfortable.”
Heidegger became so comfortable that his numbers started to go up, up and up all the way to the final game of the season where he dropped 43 points to end the season on an extremely high note.
“We had a number of players who were hurt for the final game of the season and some players left due to the conflict with Gaza so I was going to be playing a ton of minutes. Right before the game I told Coty Clarke that I would try to get 40 points. I came out aggressive from the get go and things started to fall. You never expect to score so many points like that in Israel or Europe where in the NBA it can happen at any time. To end the season that way on that note was great after all of the changes that went on during the year. I was happy for the team and that we were able to stay up in the top league and avoid relegation.”
The 24-year old then headed back to visit his family over the summer months and also decided to play in the NBA Summer League with the Atlanta Hawks. This was an opportunity where he could see how he stacked up against the some of the top draft picks and other pros who were showing off their wares in front of many league executives, scouts and current NBA players.
“The NBA Summer League was a really good experience. I didn’t know what to expect but when you’re there you have to fit in where you can and try to get playing time and show what you can do in the minutes that you get. I thought I played well on both ends of the floor during the minutes that I got. I think I would be back at Summer League next year as well. To see what it was like, the lifestyle and gain the experience and exposure in the US and abroad was fantastic.”
“I met a bunch of guys in passing in Las Vegas and when Hawks 2021 draft pick Sharife Cooper hit a game winner, the team’s all-star guard Trae Young who had been in attendance came into the lockerroom to talk to the guys. Hawks coach Nate McMillan was also around at practice and it was great to meet him. Just to meet those guys and see how they work was great. The rules are so different as well. I had never played in the G-League or Summer League before so this was a really good learning opportunity.
Heidegger continued explaining what makes the Summer League such a unique experience, “You never know how someone sees you and everyone is there from scouts in Europe and scouts in the United States, it’s like a showcase. Everyone is in Vegas at the hotels and at the games from the coaches to the general managers. It’s a unique experience.”
He was also content with the feedback he received from the Hawks brass while also commenting on some of the differences he was able to see between the game stateside and in Europe, “The Atlanta coaches really liked me when I came in off the bench and I changed the game energy wise. I played full court defense, hustled a lot and got a lot of good feedback. I fit in where I needed too. We had two draft picks at my position in Sharife Cooper and Skylar Mays but they were all happy.”
“There were plays and a level of athleticism that you won’t see in Europe like when Jalen Johnson dunks so it’s very different in that aspect and this was not something that you would see in Israel on a regular basis. It was also fun to play against fellow Israeli Yam Madar in our first game and it was great to say hello.”
One of Heidegger’s new teammates at Oldenburg is former Hapoel Jerusalem standout Rickey Paulding who played for the Reds way back in 2004/05 when he made his way to Israel for his first professional season. Many years later, Paulding is still lighting up the court in Germany where he has been since 2007 as Heidegger also shared something that he holds in common with the Detroit native.
“Coach Drucker who coached me at Bnei Herzliya also coached him back in Hapoel Jerusalem when I was 7 years old! He can still jump and do everything. You would never know that he was 38 due to the level that he is able to play. He means so much to the city of Oldenburg, I got messages like welcome to Pauldingburg when I had signed to give you an idea of what he means here. He’s such a good guy and so willing to help the young players. He is the legend and the face of the city and franchise for years and years. It’s not so much his way or the highway. He listens to the young guys and he is such a good veteran to have a on a team to help guys like myself.”
Heidegger knows full well the responsibility that he has along with Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt as Israelis and Jews playing abroad especially in Germany which something unique to the country and the Jewish people around the globe.
“It’s cool having Blatt and Zoos in Berlin and me being here. I am Jewish and so are they. It’s great having that in Germany with the historical context. They are the best ambassadors for Israel because I only spent one year in the country so far but all three of us are ambassadors for Jews worldwide.”