I’ll always remember the fall of 2011 when the NBA was having a work stoppage and a number of players decided to go abroad to ply their trade. One of those players was Serge Ibaka who at the time had just completed his second year with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The native of Congo just coming into his own before bursting onto the stage as a bonafide star and decided to head back to Spain, a country where he had played just a few seasons earlier when he featured as a youngster for Manresa. This time however, Ibaka inked a short term 2-month deal with Euroleague powerhouse Real Madrid.
Having obtained Spanish citizenship and having just played with the Spain National Team which won the 2011 Eurobasket, teammate Rudy Fernandez convinced the big man to sign with Real and feature under the tutelage of first year head coach Pablo Laso.
Fortunately, Ibaka made a visit to Tel Aviv during his 6-game stretch in the Euroleague and gave the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans the opportunity to see him grace he Yad Eliyahu court in a game that went the way of the Yellow & Blue 88-82.
I was at the game that night and was super excited to have the chance to see Ibaka who had just spent the prior two seasons with the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. With Real, Ibaka who ended the game with 9 points and 8 rebounds, teamed up with the aforementioned Fernandez, Nikola Mirotic, Felipe Reyes, Sergio Llull and Jaycee Carroll to name a few. While on the other side of the court, David Blatt’s Maccabi had their own NBA player in Jordan Farmar who starred with 27 points in the victory.
Fast forward to 2023 and once again Serge Ibaka will be playing at Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday night (21:05 Israel time) with Pablo Laso on the sidelines, however, this time around it will be for Bayern Munich and the home game will unfortunately be played behind closed doors in Belgrade, Serbia due to the war against Hamas.
Ibaka returns to the Euroleague after a 14-year NBA career that saw him capture the 2019 NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors and finish with terrific averages of 12 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in over 900 contests. Add to that 152 NBA playoff games and the now 34-year old brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to a Bayern team that is still trying to find its way with a 2-4 record.
Just as Ibaka developed into a stellar player who was named to the All Defensive First Team three times and was the NBA block leader twice, Pablo Laso also built up his resume with Real having won 2 Euroleague titles along with having the opportunity to coach Luka Doncic before the superstar headed to the Dallas Mavericks.
Maccabi enters the game with an impressive 3-2 record considering the difficult situation the club has been in since the Hamas attacks and massacre of October 7th which Jake Cohen outlined in an interview earlier in the week. While Head Coach Oded Katash has tried his best to keep his charges focused on the task at hand, there have been plenty of ups and downs over the past few weeks.
The players have been no doubt thinking about the 240 hostages being held by Hamas and the pain that the nation is going through, “It’s terrible what happened and they are in our thoughts and prayers that they return to home to their families safely. It’s hard to talk and think about basketball with things going on but it’s a difficult situation,” Maccabi captain John Dibartolomeo said.
Israeli forward Roman Sorkin echoed the guard’s thoughts, “The hostages are in our hearts and in our minds and we are praying for their release so they can return home. I believe that this is on the mind of every single Israeli and every Jewish person in the world and I hope every person in the world as well. We are excited to get back to playing and we want continue what we did last week with the win, but our heart is with the country as we try to focus on basketball.”
Now having to play their first “home away from home” game at the legendary Pionir Arena where Maccabi had won their first ever European Championship back in 1977, all bets are off especially without the over 10K rabid fans rooting their heroes on.
In Jake Cohen’s eyes, the heroes now are the fans. Many have had to trade in their Yellow & Blue jerseys for an IDF uniform and are protecting our homeland of Israel from the evil enemies that are on our borders in the south and in the north.
“It really brings everything into perspective when you see the fans who we see in the arena now in uniform who are protecting our country and our families. It goes beyond words and I’m not articulate enough to explain what it means for them to put their lives on the line to defend me, my family and my children, it means everything to me.”
“I can’t imagine the sacrifice that they are making for all of us, for us to give back a little bit with the game of basketball is something that is super special. It seems kind of silly that playing basketball can have such an impact compared to the people who put their lives on the line, but it does and I don’t take that lightly. It’s a privilege to represent things that those people care about and we want to make them proud when we win games and it’s astonishing really. I want to continue to represent to the best of my abilities that as much as I can going forward.”
The fans will no doubt be missed and the players are fully aware that the advantage of playing at Yad Eliyahu will not be there for what may be the first of a number of clashes slated for this month.
“The home game will be a bit different,” Maccabi Captain John Dibartolomeo said. “Our fans are what makes us so successful at home and they have made Menora into one of the toughest places to play in Europe. Not only their support but their energy and enthusiasm has carried us many times before so we are obviously going to miss them but hopefully we’ll come out ready to play and make them proud.”
Roman Sorkin also made the point of how critical the fans at home are and they will not be here for the foreseeable future, “It’s hard for teams to beat us at home with the fans so it will be tough here without them but we need to win without our supporters here.”
“Of course we miss our home, but especially our fans,” Head Coach Oded Katash said. “There is no substitute for the atmosphere that they can create. Our minds are always with them. We are trying to make our time off of the court feel like home but it’s still not there, it’s on its way but nothing can replace being at home.”
The bench boss knows that Bayern will be a tough opponent and that Maccabi will need to play their style of game to take the win, “Bayern is a challenge in a number of facets. They have an experienced new coach in Pablo Laso who can bring the things he did with Real Madrid. The have dominant guards with good hands and while they haven’t yet shown what they can really do we will have to play very well on defense. We need to control the pace, run, rebound and limit our turnovers.”
The bottom line is what matters most when the players step onto the court is finding a wat to win and give something back to the fans whether they are at home, guarding the country’s borders or in Gaza battling the enemy.
“We can have every excuse in the world,” Sorkin explained. “But we have to get back to focusing on the task at hand for 40 minutes and play tough defense against a very talented offensive team. Winning is one of the important things.”