After finishing a lengthy season and perhaps his best as a professional basketball player, Iftach Ziv spoke to The Sports Rabbi about a myriad of topics from his campaign with Hapoel Gilboa Galil, Deni Avdija’s NBA future, the time he played against Kobe Bryant and much more. The guard helped lead the Galilee team under the direction of Lior Lubin to the Israeli League Final Four for the first time since 2011 but fell to Maccabi Tel Aviv who scored a last second 3-pointer. Ziv scored 23 points on the grand stage and earned the post coronavirus Most Valuable Player award while scoring 13.6 points and dishing out 4.7 assists. The quarterfinal series versus Hapoel Holon Ziv raised his game and scored 16.7 points while adding 6 assists for an efficiency rating of 20.7.
Following the campaign which lasted close to a full 12 months, Ziv was finally able to sit back and relax, “I took a week vacation for myself in order to clear my head a bit after a very busy period and now it’s back to work for the upcoming season.”
After having been eliminated on Wilbekin’s clutch triple for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Ziv has finally let the disappointment go, “It sat on my head for a few good days. But it was a big shot and that’s the beauty of the game, sometimes it was fall in for us and sometimes against us.”
Winning the post-coronavirus MVP award wasn’t something that Ziv had expected, “I had no clue that I was going to receive the award. I was very moved because I know how hard I worked and invested in myself to improve during the break due to the virus. This is just a credit to all of that work paying off and it leaves me with the desire for more as there is plenty more to improve on in order to continue to advance.”
“I put together a proper program with the help of my coaches that allowed me to know exactly what I needed to do each and every day and I also knew what I needed to improve upon before the return of the league. I simply kept to what I set out to do and I can now say that it worked out to perfection.”
Gilboa Galil had a terrific season both before and after the break. Although there were changes in the squad, Coach Lior Lubin was able to get the best out of his players, “We did something really terrific and we accomplished something which the club hadn’t been able to do for a very long time. Personally I was able to take a step up in my game which is something that I wanted to do and I knew that from the outset when I arrived at Gan Ner, that this was a place that I could really flourish. I’m very happy that this was the case both for me and the club and we even feel that we could have done more. We all deserve a lot of credit as to what we were able to do this season.”
“I really enjoyed playing under Coach Lior Lubin and his style but what I appreciated most was what type of person he is. I believe that everyone on the team will say the same and feel the same way. Lior is able to convey to all of us that he has confidence in each and every one of his players. He allowed us to play and he also taught us how to play basketball which is a huge plus. We had a good relationship and I will never forget that. He gave me everything that he could, he gave me the club and he directed me which I believe that his intentions were for aways for the good.”
Gilboa Galil is a unique club in Israel as there are many players from their youth department that feature for the club. Ziv, didn’t come through their academy but had a birds-eye view at to how that worked in the teams favor, “I think that this is amazing. Gilboa you could say is a bit out of the way and it’s not in the usual bubble, but basketball is so powerful in the community and it’s really everything for the area. Those who are around it day in and day out feel it. When you see so many youth academy products as part of the senior club, it’s really something to be very proud of. It means that the system is really working well as you are giving the kids the understanding that they can really make it.”
Yotam Hanochi at 19 years of age is one of the club’s co-captains and in the summer of 2019 helped lead the Israel Under-20 team to the European Championship held in Tel Aviv. While Ziv himself is only 25 years old, he was in the position of a leader for a very young group of players.
“We were a very young team and you could say that I was the veteran. Everyone is learning about themselves, about basketball and are still at the infancy of their careers. I would always give tips and advice from my experience, help them and guide them. Yotam is a very talented player and he has the potential to be a very important figure in Israeli basketball.”
After the break, Ziv had a number of new teammates with one of them being fellow guard Joe Thomasson, “You can see from the results that we were able to play well together and Joe’s very talented. He’s an excellent player that knows the game and understands how to adjust in order to deal with the situation at hand. I don’t believe that we are both players who love to handle the ball but rather team players each knowing when to give that extra and when to hand the ball off to the other. I believed in him and he believed in me. The combination really worked out well.”
Ziv was part of the Maccabi Haifa youth department growing up and was the Youth League Player of the Season in 2013. From there he moved to Haifa’s senior team for the 2014/15 season and the start of the following campaign. In 2015, Ziv took part in The Green’s annual pilgrimage to the United States for preseason games against NBA teams including Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.
“My big brother used to play basketball and as a little brother I just wanted to do exactly what he was doing so I took part in an afterschool program. He stopped playing when he was about 14-15 years old but I continued on and to this day I always tell him that I’m playing basketball thanks to him.”
“Maccabi Haifa provided me with so much. The youth system helped me advance and lead as a player. While I didn’t get the chance to do so with the senior team, I was still an integral part of the club and they counted on me as a player.”
One of Ziv’s favorite players is Russell Westbrook who currently plays for the Houston Rockets. “Everyone knows what he means to the game of basketball around the world. I wouldn’t compare myself to him, but I believe his style of play, with all of his energy, fast pace, athletic and physical is something that I can really appreciate and are my advantages as a player. To be able to do absolutely everything on the court, if its to dish out assists, score points, steal the ball or finish a play with a coast to coast dunk, this is something that really speaks to me and inspires me. But each to his own as I want to be the best player that I can be.”
While Ziv may have not had they chance to play against Westbrook, he did have the opportunity to do so with the legendary Kobe Bryant who passed away in January in a tragic helicopter accident. “Wow. I can’t describe the experience in words that all of a sudden you are going toe to toe with one of the greatest all time players on the court. I was only 19 years old at the time and there I was guarding him. I even have a picture proving that I was defending him. I remember when I found out that he had died, I remember where I was and what I was doing and you look at life and understand that you have to put sports into proportion that health is above it all. For the following week, I would go to practices and the incident just sat on my head, it was unpleasant. When I think about it today it pains me and I am sure it’s not just me but for everyone who loves the game of basketball.”
One of the players Ziv was able to share the floor with at Maccabi Haifa was John Dibartolomeo who is currently the captain for Maccabi Tel Aviv, “He really advanced nicely and has become the captain of Maccabi. He’s a great player and I have to tip my hat to him and one can appreciate the journey he took. I am sure many youngsters and players look up to him and are inspired.”
Ziv moved to the Leumit League and played with Ironi Kiryat Ata as well as with Hapoel Kiryat Tivon and Elitzur Ramle in order to sharpen his play. “I was able to play many minutes and I loved it. That’s the goal, it’s to play as much as possible and that’s what I always looked at in order to advance in my career; where can I play, where can I dominate and where will I get the opportunity to do so. There’s no substitute for playing time in my eyes.”
In 2015/16, Ziv played with Bnei Herzliya and featured for the club in a quarterfinal series against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Over the course of the regular season the guard averaged 5.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists in over 18 minutes per game. He also switched his jersey number from 9 to 99, “I had always worn number 9 but when I moved to Herzliya Moran Roth had that number already. Sop they told me that I could choose any number so I decided to wear 99, 9 twice.”
“I had a great experience and this was the first place where I was able to play serious minutes after having been given the keys to be a dominant player. I had waited for the opportunity, I believed in myself and I knew that I could play. I knew that I had to go to the right place at the right time and this was the case as I really began to advance in my career.”
The following season Ziv headed to the port city of Ashdod where he played under former star guard Meir Tapiro and clocked in almost 8 points, 3.5 boards, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals in 25 minutes per contest. While with Maccabi Ashdod, Ziv played with former Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Jake Cohen who just signed in Spain with ACB first division squad Obradoiro. In addition to Cohen, Ziv saw other Israeli players including Tomer Ginat, Rafi Menco and Itay Segev head to France to continue their careers in Europe.
“Meir is a basketball great. As a young guard to learn under his was incredible. He had just retired so everything was still fresh and he helped me learn so much about basketball. It was a challenging season and one where I learned so much.”
One of Ziv’s teammates was Jake Cohen while at Ashdod and understands the value as to what the Davidson product has been able to give to Israeli basketball, “I don’t know if I can say we will miss him as he heads to Spain because I believe that by Jake going to play in Europe is a service for Israeli basketball. Jake, Tomer Ginat, Rafi Menco and Itay Segev are all helping basketball in this country and are also aiding the blue-and-white basketball player in general. I very much hope that I can add my name to that list soon and I am very happy for those who are departing the country to play as it will advance not only themselves but all Israeli players. This also allows for younger Israeli the chance to play in the league here as well and gives them an opportunity to play.”
As Ziv mentioned he would like to add his name to the lost of players going abroad and would like to do that this summer, “Certainly. I am working on it and I am looking for a team in Europe and I believe that I am ready. I am aiming for the Spanish league and perhaps Italy. Like I said I am really working hard to make this a reality. I will know soon and it’s no secret as all of the team’s in Israel know that is what I would like to do. Many people have said that in their eyes that I deserve it and that is what is pushing me and motivating me even more to go for it.”
Following a season with Ashdod, Ziv went up north to Nahariya for the next two years and saw his numbers improve once again averaging 10.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.7 steals in over 27 minutes of action for game in his second campaign by the Lebanese border. The Haifa native also had the chance to play side by side with former NBA star Jordan Crawford for a spell. “He was a very talented player and we only played for a month together but that time gave me a taste what an NBA level guard is like to play with. I am still in touch with hm and wide him good luck after signing for another season in Europe.”
“My time in Nahariya was interesting to say the least and not easy as we battled to stay in the league and avoid relegation. But at the end of the day we were up to the challenge and I learnt and grew a tremendous amount as a person and as a player. The pressure we were under wasn’t easy and it helped build my character and I took plenty away from my two seasons there.”
While with the Israel National Team, Ziv was able to play with Deni Avdija who will head to the NBA this coming season and is ticketed to be a lottery pick after winning the league title with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“He has tons of talent and is a great kid. What is amazing is how much I admire his modesty. He knows what he is worth and he knows how good and talented he is and his feet are on the ground. He’s a very good friend of mine and there isn’t much more I can add as everyone has said it all about him. The sky’s the limit for him and I just can’t wait to see him light up the NBA courts. I am sure he will succeed.”
Ziv’s contract win Gilboa Galil came to an end and is now a free agent. In addition to Europe, his name has also been linked to Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. As a strong defensive player, excellent athlete and quality offensive player, Ziv still hasn’t played for one of so called “big clubs”.
“It’s true that I haven’t played for a big club but I am ripe and ready and I know that I can stand toe to toe with players at that level. I also mentioned that playing time and minutes are the most important thing for me I won’t go to a place where the situation isn’t right for me. I will go to a place where I can make an impact, if it’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, Gilboa Galil or a team in Europe, I don’t know. It’s all about the situation. Once I have all of the team and offers I’ll be smarter. I am ready.”
Ziv has played for the national team on a number of occasions and understands the privilege to be a part of it, “The Israel National team is a privilege and playing for it is a huge privilege. Every child and player that plays basketball dreams of the opportunity and makes it one of their goals. No question to make an impact with the national team, to lead and give back to my country is something that I very much want to be able to do. When I am called, I’m the first player there and I will do my best with a full heart in any role that I am placed in. It’s not up to me at this point and I believe that I can contribute and I have plenty to give. If the coach wants me, he knows where he can find me.”
There is no question that Ziv wants to reach the highest of heights and has set a number of goals for himself, “There are a number of goals that I have and one is to play in Europe, to be an Israeli playing in Europe. Another is to play in the Euroeague, at least to get the opportunity. To see and prove to myself that I really deserve to be there and to enjoy. My dream is to just simply put, enjoy basketball and continue to improve from year to year.”