Tal Dunne is the definition of Nes Ziona basketball. If there is one Israeli who is identifiable with his club both on and off of the court, it has to be Tal Dunne. Just ahead of the Europe Cup qualification tournament where Nes Ziona will face Parnu Sadam on Wednesday at 20:00 Israel time, Dunne who just returned to action after his hand injury spoke to The Sports Rabbi at the Lev HaMoshava Arena.
“First of all it’s super exciting to begin a new season, to get to know the new players as well as the new coaching staff,” Dunne began. “I really, really missed playing basketball especially over the summer when I was out for a while. I’m looking forward to getting started and I am dying to step onto the court and to put on my game uniform, to feel the excitement and atmosphere at the Lev HaMoshava. I’m super excited.”
This season, Nes Ziona will also have a grand new logo but Dunne had a better idea as to what it should have looked like, “I thought for sure that they would put my picture on it, but I guess I was out for a bit,” Dunne laughed. “All kidding aside it looks great and our media team have just done an incredible job. I’m really happy as to how it looks.”
Nes Ziona’s media team happens to be one of the best in the business and is one that is respected across the industry, “There are so many people here who love this team and want to give of themselves. Some are in the you see and others are in the background. We have so many volunteers from the Nes Ziona community that love the team and love the city who want to giveback and they do a fantastic job. I can’t even describe how much we appreciate them and how happy we are that they are with us. Some grew up in our youth department and are fans of the club, it’s great that they are a part of us.”
Dunne will play under the team’s new head coach Lior Lubin for the first time in his career, “Right now we are learning one another, what he can expect from me and to understand the style of play that is expected. He is very firm with what he wants to see from us and I am very content about that. His rules, style of play and tactics that we will be a part of the team for the season is what he is trying to get across to us now along with helping us jell as a unit. I like him a lot as a person as from what I have seen so far and our relationship is excellent which I hope will bear fruit for the entire team this coming season.”
Despite winning the FIBA Europe Cup last season, Dunne and Nes Ziona will still need to play in the qualification round even though they were not only the champions of the competition but were also considered for the Champions League tournament but would have needed to play at another venue.
“It’s very disappointing to have to qualify. I thought we deserved much more. I know as a club we are still developing but we also want to continue to advance and we have expectations to always keeping moving up to the next level and then the next level. Then all of a sudden we have to take a step back. We know that there is an issue with the arena and that it is not up to Champions League standards but I also wouldn’t want to host our games in Rishon Le’Zion or Tel Aviv. But I believe that with our team we will be able to get through the qualifiers. I’m very hungry and I will make sure that everyone here understands the importance of participating in the Europe Cup. These qualifiers are going to be super important for us.”
As for goals during the upcoming campaign, Dunne spoke about his own personal ones along with the club’s, “I want to continue to enjoy basketball and enjoy the experience because I don’t have that many years left. I worked very hard to get to where I am today and I want to enjoy, win, compete and connect our players to this community and to the city. As for the team I want us to succeed and win as many games as we can, period. That is the only goal as a team.”
Dunne was born in Wales and moved to Israel at a very young age. While his father lives outside of Israel he has a very strong relationship with his entire family, “Most of my family is still there and my father now lives in Ireland and England so I have made many trips to visit them.”
As for his introduction to the game of basketball, that came at a very early age, “I signed up for an afterschool program just like every other child who wanted to see what they would be good in and I can’t believe that I am still playing basketball 30 years later.”
Dunne played in the Nes Ziona youth system and then moved over to the Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion youth department, but his true home will always be that of the former, “Nes Ziona is my home forever and ever. I made a pit stop in Rishon and I have the utmost respect for the people I worked with over there including Ziz Erez and Sharon Karsch who gave me the fundamentals of the game, but Nes Ziona will always be my one true home. It is where I grew up, where I lived and I always wanted to return home.”
Coach Nadav Zilberstein has also been instrumental in his career having coached Dunne for a decade, “He’s a terrific coach and a tactician at the highest of levels. He works hard, diligent and understands the game of basketball at such an elite level, plus he is a great person.”
During the 2013/14 season, which was Nes Ziona’s first in the top league Dunne was able to play with a top talent in Tyler Honeycutt whose life was tragically cut short in 2018. “Wow, what a story. I was in shock. I was able to talk to his mother a couple of times and it’s really heartbreaking. He was a good guy, someone who always smiled and was happy who had amazing talent that you don’t see every day. It’s just really unfortunate.”
In 2019/20 Nes Ziona finally advanced to the semifinals of the Israel State Cup but not only did the club fall to Nahariya, Dunne was also ejected after an altercation with Dominic Waters and Jerel McNeal. According to Dunne, this was a very brutal defeat, “We had an expectation that we could really do it and win the title. We had a good enough team to make it to the final and fight for the Cup for the first time but it didn’t happen. We are still undergoing a process here and we are always striving to be at the top. Of course it hurt to lose because we truly believed that we could do something amazing for the club, the city and the fans. I took this loss very, very hard.”
During the Europe Cup Final Four, Dunne played with a broken left hand and during the semifinal against Parma needed to have his head bandaged and wrapped up and looked like a warrior on the floor doing what he could to help his team win.
“Most players are unable to give the ultimate commitment and sacrifice but I have tons of ability to do that. I am very, very committed to Nes Ziona that serves as my home well beyond my livelihood. There was no question in my mind that if I was able to contribute in any which way, even if it wasn’t to score or hand out assists or to take a rebound I would. That was the idea. I knew that many children were looking at me and I understood that I could inspire them, those who play basketball and those who support the club. I wanted them to understand that despite physical challenges that at the end of the day strength and belief can win it all.”
Just before Dunne hoisted the Europe Cup at Yad Eliyahu in front of thousands of Nes Ziona’s fans, the forward brought a young child up to the platform with him who had just won a battle with cancer.
“I wanted to put this moment, which was going to be for me to the side and have someone who had gone through a much more difficult battle with me together. I really thought about this beforehand because I was called a hero by many that weekend, but who am I? I did my job and not that well in reality and I wanted to have someone there with me to lift the Cup who had gone through a tough, tough battle. I went through a lot that week with the injuries but it’s not the same. I had to have someone with me for a moment that they would not forget for the rest of their lives.”
Nes Ziona received a ton of positive publicity after winning the title as the entire nation’s eyes were on the little town just outside of Tel Aviv, “I was happy that we were able to show everyone what is happening here and how easy it was for people around the country to relate. It was after a long battle with Corona, it was in Tel Aviv and over 4,000 people came to the game, it was surreal. It was amazing to see that everyone was rooting us on and wanted to see us succeed. It was similar to the Davis Cup or the Judo where the entire country is backing you. It’s an indescribable experience.”
The coach who led Nes Ziona to the title was veteran bench boss Brad Greenberg who has been around the game at every level for close to 50 years. “We had a complex relationship because he demanded a lot from me and tried to get the best out of me while also doing the same with the club. He worked super hard at a level that I had never seen before. He is an excellent coach and he deserves a massive amount of credit for our success last season as we couldn’t have done it without him. He brought us to the point where we were able to battle it out for a title.”
Following the Europe Cup win there was a lot of talk that Nes Ziona would get a brand new arena which is so desperately needed for the community, but to date the waiting game continues on Dunne said, “There is a plan, a place, we have the approvals, everyone wants it, but it just hasn’t happened. I believe that it will come to fruition over the next few years and everyone understands the necessity in order for the club and city to move to the next level. There needs to be an arena for 2,500-3,000 people and I believe that it will happen in the near future.
One could say that Dunne is Nes Ziona’s franchise player as he opens up his 11th season in a row with the club and his 12th overall. This summer, the 34 year old who stands at 1.93 meters signed a two-year contract extension,” I am thrilled to be a part of this city and club for so many years and I am also proud to be different than the typical Israeli basketball player, to play for the same club for so many years. I don’t take this relationship for granted and there was no question that I would extend my contract, for me there was no other option. It all comes down to if I want to continue to play basketball, not where. I have never considered playing for another club. I have thought about retiring at some point but to play for another team, never.”
Despite Dunne’s success with Nes Ziona, he has never had the opportunity to play for the Israel National Team, “It’s always been my dream and it looks like that is where it will remain, just as a dream. I am not disappointed in anyone in particular but just the situation itself that I never had that chance to take part in it. I am very happy that the national team is doing well and I am their number 1 fan, but it’s just tough that I never was able to reach that goal. However, I am satisfied with my path, my life and the situation that I am in and I am not crying over it.”
One of the power forward’s unique skills is the ability that he has to make the correct pass at exactly the right time. I am always looking for my teammates and I want them to continuously get better and I am ready to do so because it’s important for the team to play together as one. We want to keep taking our game to the next level and that is what pushes me to make sure I can fund them and get them into the best situation possible.”
Dunne is one who is also always looking to see the best of Israeli basketball reach the top level and discussed where he feels the young Sabras are excelling and where improvements can be made. In fact, he prefers to watch the Israeli second division over the NBA or the Euroleague, “I would be even happier to see more and more Israelis on the court, the young guys. We have a generation that is talented right now who are doing well in the junior national teams and I believe that we need to help them integrate into the top league. It’s not easy to make that jump as an 18 year old to all of sudden play in the Premier League, especially a team that has 5-6-7 foreigners or naturalized Israelis playing as well. At the end of the day the basketball played here must remain Israeli.”
“I know that it will be easier to fill the arenas if there were more Israelis who were significant on their clubs and that they would be able to identify with them as well. I would also be happy to see players stay with their teams for the long-term with 2-3 year contracts which would also make it easier for fans to identify with the players on their team. I believe that this will also raise the level of play because one can only improve on the court itself. Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later.”
Over the past few years there have been a number of Israelis who have been moving up to the top levels of basketball, whether it’s Deni Avdija who is now in the NBA or Yam Madar who was drafted by the Celtics and is with Partizan Belgrade.
“We have a good base that is working really well right now in Israel where youngsters are learning various parts of the game including tactics and there are also a number of very talented players who just need playing time. Give them the chance, let them play in “live time” and not just in practices. Within 3-4 years the Israel national team will improve even more because we have great basketball here and there are plenty of Israelis who can play in the top league. They need the chances that Yam Madar and Deni Avdija had at 18 years old as there are young Israelis who can take the opportunity with both hands. Just give them the chance.”
Will Dunne want to join the coaching ranks in order to aid that next generation of players? “Perhaps, but right now I want to continue to play.
Dunne, who would love to lift another title before the end of his career, looked back once more on one of the critical plays that helped make him a European champion, when Wane Selden hit a game winning 3-pointer in the semifinals against Parma, “First off, I trusted him. When he let the ball fly, I closed my eyes and prayed that it would go in. That is what I wanted, I didn’t think about anything else. I just said, ‘Wow, what fun’. The ball went into the basket and I am thrilled that this helped us on our way to the championship. What a moment.”