Family above all: Despite series defeat, Maccabi can hold their heads high

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague season may have come to an end after falling to Panatinaikos 3-2 in their quarterfinal series coming up short in game five, but there are so many reasons that the yellow-and-blue can hold their heads high in the air. After what has been a season of trials and tribulations that no one could have imagined after the club won their opening continental clash at home over Partizan Belgrade back on October 5, 2023 there is no question that Maccabi can look at themselves in the mirror and say they gave it their absolute all.

The last thing that anyone at Yad Eliyahu back on Thursday night October 5th thought about was that Belgrade would end up being the club’s home court for the remainder of the season in Euroleague play and that the entire country was going to be hit hard by the shocking Hamas attack that took place on the Black Sabbath and Simchat Torah on October 7th.

Lorenzo Brown – Photo Credit: Giannis Dimitropoulos / Tourette Photography

But that is exactly what occurred sending the entire club scrambling to find the quickest and most reasonable solutions that it could to keep the squad together and safe while playing out a season that ended up proving so many high points that no one could have even dreamed of.

Going 20-14 in the regular season without the benefit of 11,000 strong in Tel Aviv for 16 of the games left Maccabi in 7th place overall and a date with Baskonia in the Play In matchup that saw the yellow-and-blue win in a walkover and advance to the quarterfinals for the second season in a row.

Last year, Head Coach Oded Katash’s team tipped off against Monaco in a series that they didn’t have home court advance and this campaign it was 2nd place Panathinaikos who were going to be the foe.

Wade Baldwin – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

While the home court situation would be a key component to the series, the moment that the five game set turned upside down was when Maccabi’s star guard and alpha dog Wade Baldwin came up lame and injured his hamstring in the fourth quarter of game one. While the yellow-and-blue were able to win that game as well as game 3 in Belgrade at Pionir Arena in front of over 1,000 rabid fans that made their way to Serbia for the two “home” games, without Baldwin it was going to be a major uphill battle and Katash knew full well that this would be the case.

If there was one thing that Katash could have changed in this series was the injury situation that befell Baldwin, “One thing that comes to my mind is pray to God that Wade Baldwin wouldn’t be injured. I am really proud of the players, don’t get me wrong and even though we missed Wade throughout the series from game one, we fought hard and due to lack of energy we missed some points at the end of the games.”

“We missed maybe one of our biggest leaders and best players even though we had a chance and I am really proud of that. That was the moment that changed the series, but still we proved we are a really good basketball team and we have character even though we aren’t playing in front of our home crowd, games in Tel Aviv we can have the same atmosphere like here in Athens. I am really proud of the guys but if I need to think of something that made a difference that was the moment.”

Lorenzo Brown – Photo credit: Djordje Kostic

Maccabi fought and battled throughout a slugfest of a series that saw Ataman as well as Panathinaikos owner Dimitrios Giannakopoulos rip the referees and Euroleague after game one to try and pull out every stop that they could in order to give them any type of advantage possible.

At the end of the day, despite the lopsided foul calls, missing Baldwin and perhaps not having games 3 and 4 in Tel Aviv determined this series. But it should be noted that to date no game five has ever been won by the road team in twenty straight series which held up once again in Athens.

“Coming into this game we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” a distraught Katash commented. “But there were some things behind basketball and I wish this series would have been decided by the players and basketball. We never talked about referees throughout the series even though our opponents did. Maybe we should. There is no way in game five, very physical game from both sides and I take out the last four shots of Lorenzo Brown, it was 35-6 in free throws. Maybe it’s a coincidence but that’s a crazy number and it makes me feel a little bit embarrassed and sorry for the players. They really deserved it. We as a club the whole series, players, coaches we had more respect to basketball and to the Euroleague than some of the people who were on the court tonight.”

Jake Cohen – Andreas Papakonstantinou / Tourette Photography

The Maccabi players gave it their absolute all but just came up short.

“We had just one last hurdle,” an utterly disappointed Jake Cohen said as tears welled in his eyes in the lockerroom. “We couldn’t get over it. They made big shots and I think were just a little tired of running uphill. Just a lot to overcome and we weren’t able to do it but still, I’m really proud of the guys in here, really proud of the coaching staff for what we were able to achieve. I think it’s a really, really huge thing what we did this year no matter how tonight went. To even be here is a huge step and all the players in the room and all the coaches in the next room deserve a heart full congratulations cause I can’t imagine any other team in the world to go through what we did and still do what we did.”

Big man Josh Nebo reflected on the season that was, “Obviously we achieved some great things this season despite the difficulties that we had but so at the same time it’s disappointing that we couldn’t get the job done. We were in the same position last year, everybody wanted to get over the hump and its very disappointing that we couldn’t get over the hump as a team. Everybody is proud of each other for the way we showed character this year.”

James Webb – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“It’s tough,” James Webb said. “Not the ending that we wanted, to work so hard with all the odds against us, not making excuses but you know, it’s tough. For sure we would have liked to have done more, but this season is a success at some point. It is a success because we stayed together through all the adversity that we had, great group of guys. We just figured out a way to get it done, tonight we just couldn’t get it done.”

But none of this should take away from the fact that the Maccabi players, staff and management did everything in their power to have the most successful season as possible and they did which they should be very proud of as they also gave the country something outside of the war, a distraction from reality.

Maccabi will now return home and have to turn their sights on the Israel State Cup and the domestic league championship. It’s unclear whether Baldwin will be back in action or not after he gave his hamstring a go in game four and reinjured it, but there is still plenty to play for this season. Katash will need to get his team back to reality very quickly but knowing the mental resolve of this team due to all of the hurdles they had to deal with this year, there is no reason to think that they can’t finish at the top of the mountain back in the Holy Land.

Oded Katash – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“I want to say that I am really proud of the players, for me, this group of guys are really champions,” Katash said. “Even though we didn’t qualify for the Final 4 they are real champions. The spirit of the players. Nobody really gave us a chance after October 7th and people maybe some people forget that we played one home court game. To achieve what we did is something special. It’s really hard to talk after game five and it was my dream and the players wanted it as much as our coaching staff wanted, but we are going to keep our heads up and we are really proud of the season we had this year.”

The squad knows the challenges ahead that they will have both on and off of the court and one factor that will play very strongly in the favor is the fact that they have been together for the most part as a team and family for two years. Add in the fact that they have been so close together this season due to the war, that will be a lynchpin in their success going forward.
Cohen who was almost in tears, summed that aspect up almost perfectly, “I’m only sad because you don’t get a chance to be on not only good teams, but you don’t get a chance to be around great people every year. I’ve been playing a long time now and it’s a treat, something special – to be around good people, to be around good coaches and I’m only sad because that part of our season is over, that’s the only reason I’m not happy and I’m sad.”

Jake Cohen and Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“I think everybody enjoys each other,” Webb concurred. “It’s not like a team, it’s a family. We all came together with one goal in mind and unfortunately we weren’t able to complete that goal, but at the same time we still got to finish the Israeli League season and stuff like that, were still a family.”

Family above all and what Maccabi of 2023/2024 has proven to be is just that, family.

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