Isaac Rosefelt Unplugged: From Jerusalem to Eilat & everywhere in between

Isaac “Ike” Rosefelt returns to Jerusalem with Hapoel Eilat on Sunday. Rosefelt has been an integral part of the southern port city’s squad this season now being coached by veteran Sharon Drucker. The Ikester opened up on a myriad of subjects from the league championship last season, the Russian Rule, Final 4 versus a series, what he misses most about Jerusalem, what he wants upon his return to the Arena and what did the Reds take offense to? Sit back and enjoy this one on one conversation about the love of basketball.

About a month ago, The Sports Rabbi was roaming around the Eilat Boardwalk and bumped into Isaac Rosefelt who was doing the exact same thing, just roaming around. So when two great minds think alike we sat down and talked roundball after his side picked up a W just the night before, “After a big win I stayed at home last night just watching TV and I stayed up a little too late so I wound up sleeping the day away and woke up around 2 o’clock thinking I should probably get some food. I wandered into Aroma and what do you know, I run into the one and only Sports Rabbi.”

After winning the Championship last year with Jerusalem you headed down to Eilat. How’s it going so far? “It feels good, I’d say more than good because, you know, especially lately with these games we’ve been winning and I have actually been playing major minutes. I feel a part of it more so than I have in a while. It was amazing to win a championship last year in Jerusalem, but I’m an athlete, I’m a sports guy. I want to play. So just being able to contribute more so on this team and fighting through some ups and downs, but bringing my experience from what I learned last year with those guys to this team has been fun. I’m enjoying it and hoping we can continue to win some more games. February 4th is the date I’m looking forward to bringing that to Jerusalem.”

How does it feel to be a veteran Israeli presence? There’s a lot of new players on Eilat including Demetrius Treadwell and Jordan Loyd. “You know, it’s funny how quickly things can change. I look at it and, in one year I go from kind of this guy in the background, you got the veterans in Jerusalem alone, and the guys that know the Israeli league better than I do, to now being with a Afik Nissim and my myself, being the two older guys. It’s different but it’s a learning experience for me as well and it’s also a challenge that I welcome with open arms. I do something everyday in practice, before we stretch, before we do anything. We do 5 on 0 and go through all of our plays, and the first time I get the ball on the first play I make sure I dunk it every time, and I yell to the guys “I’m not old!”. Happens every day, so I remind people that.”

What’s it like living in Eilat? It must be totally different than Jerusalem, “I love it here just because it’s a low key place and a very calm setting. I really appreciated Jerusalem when I was there, but now this match’s my personality. I don’t go out at all, I’m a homebody. I like to sit down and relax and after a game I can just go down to the beach and relax and have a nice dinner, or come here for a lunch and it’s kind of a resort like atmosphere. There’s not as much pressure as in Jerusalem, but at the end of the day we’re expecting to win and be in the Final 4. They have this tradition where so many times over the last number of years they’ve been one of the top teams so you kind of get a mixture of both. You get a very competitive team but a more relaxing atmosphere outside of that, so it’s very nice.”

Sharon Drucker is now your head coach and he’s had a plethora of experience all over Israel and through Europe. He won the ULEB cup with Jerusalem back in 2004 as well. What does he bring to the table? “He brings his experience, number one, like you just said. Sharon is an amazing coach, an amazing guy and what I’ve noticed and love the most about him is his connection with each individual player. First thing he did was he met with each guy and talked to us about what he wants from us and where he sees us fitting in to his puzzle and gave us roles from the beginning which is great. He also gives you a lot of confidence and if you make a mistake you stay in the game. He trusts his guys, he puts you on the court and he understands that basketball is a game of mistakes. That’s one of his big quotes, that you’re going to have mistakes you’re going to have errors and you have to stay positive throughout the game. Don’t panic ever, if you stay the course and eventually if you stick to the game plan that he put together you’re going to come out with a chance to win the game. As long as there’s two minutes left and you’re in the game you have a chance to win, that’s all you want to ask for on the road or at home.”

Rosefelt continued, “In the Israeli league which I’ve known for the last 9 years that I’ve been here, you’re not going to blow out many teams, the league is very close. It doesn’t matter if you’re Maccabi, doesn’t matter anything if you’re Jerusalem, games are going to be very close. So put yourself in a position to win and have the mental fortitude to execute in the last two minutes and you’ll come out with a better record.”

Why do you think the league is so close? “At the end of the day I would say that I give credit to the Domestic players, the Israeli players. You’ve noticed the league getting close, especially since the Russian rule was enacted it’s been a lot closer, and I think that you have great Israeli players that are kind of the core of every team. That could play in Europe, that could play in other places. These guys are performing and improving every year and that’s, in turn, raising the level of every team in the league.”

The foreigners? “In terms of the Americans, you might have teams with bigger budgets but at the end of the day, we’re all here to play basketball and you’re not going to have a guy, outside of this year where Glen Rice Jr. right now is going crazy, you don’t have guys scoring 20 points a game too often. It’s just a very balanced league, and I guess I can’t give you a real answer of why it’s balanced like that every single year except that domestic players are setting the tone for the teams and its great. Like last year, as you said, we were down 0-2 and everyone thought we were going to destroy Nahariya and these guys came out and they fought hard every single game and we wound up coming out on top but that was a tough series. I just think this is one of those leagues that nobody is afraid of anybody, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. If you’re the last place team playing first place team you’re set up and believe you can win that game. There have been years where people are like, “oh my goodness we play Jerusalem” or “we play Maccabi, we’re going to lose” right away, and that mentality has changed and it’s great.”

“I don’t want to be in a league where some team runs away with it every year. Even looking at the Cup, the Final 4 and everything, and that whole situation is close every year. Think about this, everyone looks at Israel and says “oh my gosh Maccabi” but when was the last time they won a championship? It’s great for the league that everyone has a chance to win and it makes it exciting. From personal experience it’s something I’ll never forget from last year, that I’ll carry with me. Even though I didn’t play as many minutes as you could say I would have liked, I was as much a part of that team as anybody else was and one day when I have kids I’ll tell them that story. I don’t know if you’ve heard that quote from [Brian] Scalabrine about the minutes he played. You might look at me now and say I didn’t play that much, I didn’t play in the final. In 5 years from now I’ll say I played 10 minutes, 10 years from now I was the MVP. And I hit the game winning shot, it was a 3, an and one 3!”

Do you like the Russian rule? “I do. I’ve played in both situations where there’s been a Russian rule and there hasn’t been. But I think it’s very important especially for the development of Israeli individuals and Israeli basketball in general. If you take away the Russian rule and you want to have one Israeli, by sheer number, Israelis are going to play less. How do you improve if you’re not playing? You can practice all you want but you need to apply that to game situations. In terms of that, I think you have to have it. People might complain and all saying the league is not as good. I don’t agree with that. There are plenty of Israeli players that are very talented and deserve to play and could play in Europe but choose to stay here. So I really believe that you need to keep the Russian rule going. I’ve got some other thoughts on some ideas in terms of how many foreigners these teams should have and things like that but I’m not the one in charge of all that. Just in terms of Israeli basketball I think it’s best for the country if you have the Russian rule. Otherwise, I look at Germany and they play can play five Americans there, five foreigners there. They don’t really care. I mean you’re in Israel, so you need to have domestic players playing. It’s not like college 2.0. I just think if you don’t have the Russian rule you lose the identity of the Israeli league. The next group of players is coming. You got the guys kind of on their way out. You look at Yotam Halperin, Lior Eliyahu, the older group of guys that are passing the torch now. This is the next group and these guys need to play. There’s too many good players to have just one be on the court from each team. So I think the Russian rule is very important and you have to continue the development of these guys. I think they’ll keep it. I think there’s always that talk right now. It’s always going to work itself out.”

Let’s go back to Jerusalem and getting knocked out of the EuroCup semifinals. You guys were floating at 13-13 in league play and all of a sudden you go on this massive run. What happened? “We fought hard in Europe and to get to the Final 4 was an amazing accomplishment. It took a lot out of our players I think, and it took some time. I think we came back and played Rishon [right away]. That was a very tough loss, we gathered together in the locker room afterwards and had a team meeting for over an hour and everyone got to speak their mind and say what they felt was going on, and we kind of came together at that point. We went on this run, even then we went on a run but it wasn’t all roses and flowers. We had some tough times and to then go down 0-2 against Nahariya, that was another gut check. People forget that during the season, during that run we were making, the coach was rumored to sign with Milan. It was in the news so the rumors were swirling and you always have people chirping from the sides and trying to bring us down, but we came together as a team and the coach stuck with us. Once we were down 0-2 it was like you know what guys, do you want to go home and end the season tomorrow, go and take this loss. Or do you want to keep practicing and win the whole thing, and that’s what we did. But it was a gut check for us and, the Euro Cup thing was tough because we really wanted to win that but the Final 4 is not too bad.”

I remember the first two games against Nahariya, first one in Jerusalem which was like kind of a shocker and then in Nahariya you guys did not play well. I was sitting there after the game in the press conference room with the coach and you could hear the fans screaming outside. What went on between the time you left the court and got on the bus? “We got in the locker room, and I remember this like it was yesterday. We’re in there and I’ll tell you I knew we were going to win the series in the locker room after we lost the second game because everyone’s mindset in the locker room was “this isn’t over, we’re going to win the series”. Everyone was talking about it and it just started with winning at home, winning that game. So we just talked about it in the locker room for a few minutes that this isn’t over we’re going to come back home and we’re going to beat them there and the crazy thing is we were talking about this in the locker room and all of the fans were outside waiting for us to go out and that had never happened to us all season. Fans were screaming at each individual player to get on the bus but we didn’t take that in a negative way. We took it as, obviously these people came out here to support us, they want us to show that passion that they have so we get back the next day we have practice or a meeting or whatever we had, two days later we had practice. There they told us it’s a one game series, we win that game in Jerusalem the pressure is on them. Cause if they don’t close us out in their gym there is no way they’re beating us in Jerusalem again in the fifth game. So we got that game at home and then we had our best defensive possession of the season at the end of the next game in Nahariya to give us the win. Then we come back home and the rest is history. They didn’t have a chance that last game, I think once it was tied 2-2 the wind was out of their sails as well. But that was an amazing display of team cohesiveness and everyone coming together and being ready to fight for one cause, and people not wanting to go home.”

Basketball is a crazy game. The series was thrilling and it was a classic. If you were any sort of basketball fan watching that series you were taken on a roller coaster ride. “I can find a comparison. I was a part of a team that had the same kind of situation, we wound up losing in the fifth game but a lot of people don’t remember this; My first year in Israel I played for Herzliya, Bnei Hasharon at that time and we were the 8 seed in the playoffs and we go into the first game at Maccabi. Back then, Maccabi was losing maybe 2 or 3 games all season, people think they were going to smoke us. We beat them in Yad Eliyahu. We really choked though when we were up by double digits at halftime of the last game and wound up losing at the end but it was another situation where people were rooting for us that, even Maccabi fans were so disappointed in their team at that point that they didn’t show this desire. But yeah this was another 5 game first round series, so I’ve been a part of two pretty fun ones.”

What do you think would have happened if you played a series in the semifinals and finals? “I would like that. I think a series would be great. The problem is you’ve gotta either shorten up the time between the games or shorten up the season somehow because you don’t want to have players here until the end of June. I think it would be great. But I guess it goes two ways the idea is if you have a Final 4 then it gives anyone a chance and it’s saying maybe when you have teams like Maccabi and Jerusalem who have a bigger and deeper rosters it would be hard for teams to beat them in a series, but at the end of the day you see that, that series with Nahariya was very close. I would love to see a series just because for one it’s more fun for the fans to watch and we as players love playing games. If you ask any player they’d play two games a week rather than one. But it changes every year with the ruling, do you know this year’s ruling?

I believe it’s the Final 4 again. “The one thing I’m against is I didn’t like the one home, one away point differential thing. Didn’t like that one. You win your last game but somehow you lose the championship. Yeah I think a series would be great. I hope they do it, I really do. These teams are so balanced now that it’s not just one of those things like it was 6 or 7 years ago where Maccabi or Jerusalem or whoever are losing a few games a year. It will all balance out this year as well.”

You talked about the series, you’re in the Final against Maccabi Haifa and you basically close down John DeBartolomeo who is the league MVP. Was there some kind of talk beforehand like we want to make sure he was going to get some personal attention? “I’m gonna give you the behind the scenes info now. Our locker room was the closest knit group of guys I’ve ever been a part of. That was the first team I’d been on where nobody got into a fight and there were no negative feelings towards anyone else in the locker room. That’s honestly a big part of why we won. Even when Rich Howell came in we welcomed him, even when Alessandro Gentile came in, same situation. That didn’t work out but he was one of us. Anyone that came in we all stayed close together and that’s how we won the championship.”

How about Gregory Vargas being named Defensive Player of the Year for Maccabi Haifa? “When they announced the Defensive Player of the Year and it wasn’t TK (Tarence Kinsey), we all took offense to that. We saw the work he did every single day and how he was fighting through injuries and the tenacity he played with every possession and how he would take it upon himself to say “I’m guarding this guy, I’m guarding this guy.” So to not win that, number one, and for it to go to Vargas on Haifa. And then you have MVP, which I respect John, a fellow division three guy like myself, but —”

He’s a great guy but we were all shocked. “Yeah but MVP? Obviously beating Holon in that first round and him having the series he did was incredible. Not saying it wasn’t deserved, but it definitely put a chip on all of our shoulders. And TK, it’s kind of a two-for-one with him. Not only does he get to see the best defender in the league and then you get the MVP? So all of sudden we attack their best defender in the league and JD (Jerome Dyson) goes off that game and all three of those guys went off, Jerome, Curtis (Jerrrells), and TK. And then you have TK locking him up to making maybe one field goal that game. It was incredible. And I know he did an interview afterwards just saying that he took it personally. But at the end of the day, were a team, you know, I was making these t-shirts for the minister of defense. This is TK, and I’ve got a bunch of those at my house still. But yeah, he’s an amazing player and it was great to see the way that things ended for us and for us to take that championship. That’s the inside information. We all took offense to it, we all took a little piece of that with us, and we were very happy with the way it ended.”

Dov Halickman Photography

How exciting was it to be on the floor? First championship you ever won on any level? “The first one, anything ever. And I remember watching over the years in Israel the champions winning whether it’s the Cup or whatever it would be and wondering if I’ll ever get the chance to do that. And people would always say “well you didn’t play” but it doesn’t matter. I was on that team, I practiced with them every single day. We fought together through the hard times and we stuck together through all that stuff, so we win together. And the first thing I did, honestly, everyone ran out on the court and I’m giving Coach the biggest hug I can like this one’s for you, my guy, because he winded up leaving after that and moved on to do things better for him in his life. But I’ll never forget it. I’ve got some of great pictures and some great videos on my phone. I even have a video of Simone (Coach Pianigiani) getting a little upset when people started pouring water on his suit. Oh, he was so mad.”

Was that an Armani Milano suit? “He was too mad for it to be a little cheap suit when you pick up a casserole. He was not pleased. I mean we shot so much champagne in that locker room that we had to start using bottles of water.”

Dov Halickman Photography

World was against you, you were the bad guys, “Hey sometimes the villain has to win. In all these movies the good guy always comes out on top. Sometimes the villain has to show up and steal the show.”

Let’s go back to now. What’s the best part of living in Eilat? “The view. I mean we bumped into each other today and we kind of saw the sun setting in the background and that’s the best. Basketball is fun. It’s a game I play but there can be some stressful times too. We had a tough start to our season this year but I can always count on one thing. After practice I can go to the beach and sit down and watch the sunset and just tune out for a little bit.”

What do you miss about Jerusalem? “Oh man. I’ll tell you the number one thing I miss are the fans. You’re talking to a guy that played at Holon which had some crazy and passionate fans. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to recreate that in Jerusalem but there’s more of them, and they bring passion to not only a Eurocup Final Four game but also to a game against Nes Ziona. The fans are always there and I really miss that because in Eilat you don’t have as much as it’s such a small town. Yeah, Jerusalem fans were great and they pushed me and held me up during the hard times where I’d be down about not playing and I look up and “Rosefelt, we love you!” or seeing kids wearing my jersey and things like that. So, I really miss that. And I’m really looking forward to reuniting with them on February 4th when we play. I just want to see all those people again and say thank you to them.”

Will they give you a nice bouquet of flowers? “I hope so. Maybe I’ll get some of the other stuff. Here’s what I really want. I know that these players got some more stuff after winning the championship that I didn’t get because I didn’t come back. So I want some t-shirts, I want that cartoon picture, I want some of that. I love flowers but at the same time give me something that lasts longer than a week.”

You played English teacher a while back at one of the local schools in Eilat, “It’s a good way to work on my Hebrew to go to a classroom with kids and teach them English a little bit. Every team has their community stuff that people do and I made sure that they know here that I’m willing to do anything and everything when it comes to that kind of stuff. I did that with Jerusalem. With the EuroCup I was the One Team guy. In Holon, I was always involved and it’s great. I’ve been playing for ten years now overseas and I’m very blessed to be healthy and to be able to continue to do what I love to do. So one way I can show appreciation to that is to give back to these kids. To us, a lot of these kids wish they were in the NBA. These kids see us shaking their hands and they’ll remember that forever. So, you take five minutes out of your day and do that with these guys and it fills my heart and makes them smile from ear to ear.”

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