Maccabi Tel Aviv opens up the 2023/24 Euroleague season when they tipoff against Partizan Belgrade on Thursday night (9:05pm) at Yad Eliyahu as the yellow-and-blue will look to take yet another step towards European glory and advance to the Final Four slated for Berlin in May. Last season, Head coach Oded Katash’s squad fell just short after succumbing to Monaco in a tight five game series and this year there is no doubt that Maccabi will be aiming for home court advantage and a top four finish as they ended last campaign in 5th.
While the club brought back many players from last season’s successful run including Lorenzo Brown, Wade Baldwin and Bonzie Colson, there are some new faces that will be pulling on the yellow-and-blue jersey including Antonius Cleveland who ended this past year with Hapoel Eilat.
Cleveland, who attended Southeast Missouri State University and has featured with the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks as well as in the G-League and in Australia, will be making his Euroleague debut and just ahead of the season opener, the guard spoke to The Sports Rabbi about his career, his time in the NBA, how integral his mother has been and the upcoming campaign.
“I’m really excited,” Cleveland began. “I’ll get to go to different countries and play against different styles and players. I’m ready to embrace it all, compete and have fun doing it.”
Maccabi made a number of changes to the roster this season as Tamir Blatt, James Webb and Jasiel Rivero all joined the team while Braian Angola was also supposed to be a part of the squad. However, there were some issues that arose and the Colombian signed with Hapoel Tel Aviv, opening the door for Cleveland to join the yellow-and-blue.
“I woke up one morning and got a call from my agent telling me that the general manager was going to give me a call. I had a good conversation with him for about 5-10 minutes and I got the offer later that day. I heard that he [Angola] had failed his physical and I was the next person up. Coach Katash told me that I am great athlete and can help in different ways and that he’s excited to have me.”
Cleveland began last season with the Adelaide 36ers in Australia, but once the season was over, the 29-year old decided it was time to take his first steps in Europe and signed with Hapoel Eilat, but the hope was always there that he would somehow find his way to Maccabi Tel Aviv. There have been a number of players who have made that move including Elijah Bryant back a few years ago, but nonetheless it’s not something that happens every day.
“I wanted it to happen, I manifested it,” Cleveland explained. “My teammates and people told me that it probably wouldn’t because it just doesn’t. But it’s just crazy. I’m happy everything worked out. I was eating at Mike’s Place [sports restaurant in Tel Aviv] watching the playoffs and I wanted to be out there so bad. The way everything happened is just a storybook ending.”
As for fitting in, the Memphis, Tennessee native doesn’t see that as an issue whatsoever especially getting the chance to play with Brown and Baldwin, “I’m looking forward to it, those guys are really good and I feel like you can plug me in with just about anyone. I can complement those guys, just be a great defender and make their jobs easier and most importantly just win games.”
Growing up, Cleveland looked up to his mother as not only a role model, but the person who helped him become who he is today. Shonda Bowie is the prime reason that Cleveland stepped on the court for the first time and sacrificed a tremendous amount to raise her only son.
“My mom signed me up just trying to get me active and play different sports and I started playing basketball when I was 4 years old. Growing up I played football and baseball but I always played basketball as well and in high school I strictly did basketball. My mom was a single parent and played basketball as well and coached so I grew up in the gym and she was my biggest fan, biggest critic and biggest coach. She is someone special to me and I was able to talk to her about everything whether it was basketball or life.”
As for a player that Cleveland admired growing up, he latched onto one of the greatest guards to ever play the game, “While my role model in life is my mom as far as NBA or player that I looked up to growing up I would say Allen Iverson. He was one of my favorites and the reason why I read one of my first books by him. I really loved him when I was growing up.”
Cleveland attended three different high schools and was only 5”8 but when he moved to college he shot up to 6”6 which is his height today. That allowed him to really begin to hone his skills at Southeast Missouri State University where he averaged 16.6 points per game as a Senior.
“I knew that I was a really special player and I got really good in college. I knew that I could be something special and play at a high level. I took a lot of confidence from there and I’m thankful for my journey there.”
After going undrafted in 2017, Cleveland bounced around between the Portland Trailblazers Summer League team, attending the Golden State Warriors training camp, their G-League club in Santa Cruz before finally signing a two-way deal with the Mavericks. In Dallas, Cleveland would make his NBA debut and also have the opportunity to play alongside one of the all-time greats of the game in Dirk Nowitzki and late on with Luka Doncic.
“Dirk is someone that people don’t really know how funny he is and it was just cool being around him, seeing how he carries himself, he’s a legend. Luka is a friend of mine and is funny as well. He loves basketball and he’s very talented and just fun to be around.”
For the next few years, Cleveland would also feature for the Atlanta Hawks as well as a pair of G-League teams, ultimately the experience was one that he will cherish.
“It’s very special and kind of surreal and I enjoyed my time in Dallas and Atlanta. I’m thankful. I met some great people and I made it to the NBA. Not too many people can say that, so I’m thankful. In the G-League I was able to take how to be a professional. Everyone is going for the same thing and you have to be resilient, persistent and just enjoy. At the end of the day it’s basketball, just take everything with a grain of salt and enjoy it.”
In Australia, Cleveland starred for both the Illwarra Hawks and the 36ers and spent time with Juston Simon who also made the move to Israel and signed with Bnei Herzliya, “I didn’t talk to Justin until last season when he came back to Australia. I talked to him and got a little closer but I haven’t talked to him since he signed with Herzliya, but I look forward to seeing him, he’s a cool guy.”
One person that was very influential during his time in Australia was Brian Goorjian who coached Cleveland with the Hawks as the guard took his game up a couple of notches.
“Brian was very interesting to me. We bumped heads a little bit but he’s great and was great to me and for my career and I’m thankful to have played for him. I still talk to him and follow him, he’s probably one of the greatest coaches that I ever played for and my respect for him is through the roof. He’s a close friend of mine now.”
“When I signed with Eilat he told me to have fun and he told me that the style of play would be a little different but to just be myself and try to dominate. When I signed with Maccabi he was telling me how happy he was for me and he’s confident that I will do good and to keep in touch. He was happy for me.”
In 2022 he was named as an NBL First Team All-Star in 2022 and won back-to-back Best Defensive Player awards which is something that he is very much looking forward to showing the Maccabi faithful after the 36ers released him from his contract to join the yellow-and-blue.
“I’m thankful for that [the 36ers releasing him from his contract] and I think that defense is my strong suit and I’m going to try to win that award in the Israeli league and Euroleague, it’s what I do. That is my skill set that I bring. I just want to keep racking up defensive player of the year honors if I can.”
Although Cleveland only played 11 games in Eilat, he was on a mission to help the Red Sea side stay up in the top league and not fall down a division as they were extremely close to being relegated, “I enjoyed it a lot, because you never know the impact that you can have on a team and situation until you actually do it. So I enjoyed that. It was probably one of my top moments in my career so far just trying to turn that thing around. Going 6-5 there in 11 games and it was fun to play with those guys and achieve our goal. We wanted to win some games and we did that and I’m thankful.”
The experience in Eilat of course is much different than the one in Tel Aviv from the size of the city and the opportunities that the “big city” allow for a foreigner, especially an American, “Living in Eilat was different than Tel Aviv as there wasn’t as much traffic, it was very hot, but I loved and enjoyed my time there because it was kind of small and I’m kind of a home body and I don’t like the big life in the city. But I love Tel Aviv, there’s a lot to do, more traffic and more food places. Australia was special because it reminded me of home everyone spoke English and it was just like America and I loved Adelaide and Illwara.”
Cleveland began making his mark right away with Eilat and that earned him a place in the Israel All-Star Game Slam Dunk contest which he won and is looking forward to providing the Maccabi fans the same chills and thrills.
For many players who move to Europe, the NBA is still a goal and a dream wanting to get back to the grandest stage in the world. However, for Cleveland who tied the knot this summer playing is his goal whether it’s back in the United States or abroad for the time being.
“It’s not one of my goals [to get back to the NBA] but I would like to play, emphasis on ‘play’. I don’t know if I would just like to be there and sit on the bench and not playing as much. But I would love to play again in the NBA. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my goals but I want to keep getting better and whatever happens, happens.”
Playing in the Euroleague, the second best league in the world is no small feat and Cleveland is well aware of that as his goal is identical to Maccabi’s which is to once again reach the top of the mountain and win their first continental title in a decade.
“The Euroleague is so prestigious. I think that I will be able to adjust quick because at the end of the day, basketball is basketball. Probably there are better players with better IQ, but I’m excited for the challenge. I want to win.”