I wanted to wish you the best of success at Panathinaikos and I’m thrilled for you to have this prestigious opportunity which is well deserved. I am sure that you will do a great job and will also enjoy yourself being surrounded by former teammates and friends at the club. I, as a Jew and as an Israeli since making Aliyah in 2004, am very proud of the chance that you once again have in the Euroleague.
I specify the words Jew and Israeli because of what you meant to me back in the 1990’s. Although we only met for the first time at an Israel National Team practice way back in 2006 or so in Ramat Gan I had been following your basketball career from afar in New York. From your time at Hapoel Galil Elyon and then starring with Maccabi Tel Aviv, I kept tabs on how you continued to tear up Israel and Europe.
We are the same age, I was born on April 28 1974, you roughly 6 months later but you were able to live my dream, playing professional basketball while I was working as an accountant and chief financial officer in Manhattan. As a New York Knicks season ticket holder and attending hundreds of fantastic games during the 1990’s at Madison Square Garden I didn’t know what was going to hit me back in 1998.
I was lounging around the house one evening listening to Sports Radio 66 WFAN when a sports flash came on at the top of the hour.
“The New York Knicks have an agreement in place with Israeli superstar guard Oded Katash for the upcoming season.” My jaw hit the floor and I had to make sure I had heard the update announcer right. Of course, this was in the days before the internet would be posting the up to date latest sports news, but if it was, that would have been blaring all over the likes of ESPN and Knicks fan sites.
It was a dream come true for me. I absolutely couldn’t believe that a Jewish and Israeli star would soon be on the court at MSG for me to see with my eyes wide open in person. I was in shock and awe of what was going to be waiting for me at the start of the 1998-99 season.
Except, that never happened. My dream was dashed when the labor despite between the clubs and the players forced the lockout and a season that only began in February of 1999. You decided to head back to Maccabi Tel Aviv where you won a State Cup with decisive free throws for title and then went on to Panathinaikos where you helped win the 1999-2000 Euroleague championship with 17 points ironically against your former club.
Watching whatever highlights that I could find in New York or read in the Yediot Achronot newspaper that I could find at the newsstand. Seeing the photos of you with the Euroleague trophy and being celebrated as a hero upon your return to Israel was surreal and special all at the same time for all of us, Jews and Israelis alike around the world.
Unfortunately, your playing career was cut short due to a devastating knee injury as we weeped in despair as to what could have been on the court for another decade. What could have, should have and would have would remain a mystery. I am sure you think about that as well. We are only humans.
Your coaching career began as I moved to the Holy Land and I was able to watch you progress and cover your development up close instead of from 6,000 miles away. First with Hapoel Galil Elyon and then at Maccabi Tel Aviv where you got your first taste of standing on the sidelines of a Euroleague contest. However, that didn’t last long as you were replaced on the bench by Tzvika Sherf at the start of the new year of 2008.
From there it was back to Hapoel Gilboa Galil where you won your first and only Israeli league championship against none other than Maccabi Tel Aviv with an NBA caliber backcourt of Jeremy Pargo and Gal Mekel along with the likes of Brain Randle and Dion Dowell. You then went to the capital city for a season with Randle and Dowell and from their travelled down south to Hapoel Eilat. It was then back up to Hapoel Tel Aviv and back south once again Eilat with a short stop taking the Israel Under-20’s to a Silver medal at the European Championships.
You began coaching the Senior Israel National Team in 2017 as you began a revolution by bringing in the next generation of players, some of which were with you at the Under-20 level. I was at your first game at the helm in Crete to witness this change first hand while then covering you day in and day out as head coach of Hapoel Jerusalem for a second time.
Back in the capital city, you were able to bring a culture change along with you as not only did the team continue to mature and be a model franchise but you also continued to evolve and develop into a top tier coach. Winning two Israel State Cups and taking the team to multiple Israeli League Final Fours while having a super season in 2019-20 in which it looked like you could have won a Treble just to have COVID-19 spoil the party left many unanswered questions once again in your career, this time as a coach and not as a player.
Many are questioning why you would leave right now in the middle of they season to take over a subpar Panathinaikos that finds itself near the bottom of the standings. I am not one of those. With the chance to take the Greens back to the top of Europe, anyone in your shoes would be crazy not to take that challenge on.
Sure, it won’t be easy and there will be a lot of ups and downs, but you have proven to be able to build a team from the bottom up as a players coach, one that is considered to be the bets in the business with his squad in playing upbeat positive basketball.
You will, once again be a light onto the nation of Israel by attempting to take a once proud franchise back to the promised land which hasn’t seen the Euroleague title since 2011 and the Final Four since 2012. That’s a long time. But the keys are now in your hands as we will watch from Israel as you roll up your sleeves and get down to business.
The Sports Rabbi – Josh Halickman