James Batemon and Kiryat Ata ready for Israeli league semifinals

As the Israel basketball playoffs head into the semifinal round, there is no surprise that Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv are all taking part. However, the fourth team in Kiryat Ata has been one of the biggest surprises this past season under the tutelage of Sharon Avrahami.

Kiryat Ata, which features the smallest budget in the league this season was the “Cinderella” of the league, beating all of the top teams while finishing the campaign in 6th place, featuring in the semifinals of the Israel State Cup while also knocking off upstart Maccabi Ramat Gan in a 3-0 sweep in the quarterfinal round.

With a mix of young Israeli players including up and coming teenager Ben Saraf who is potentially the next Sabra to head to the NBA, along with veteran imports who are hungry to succeed, Avrahami was able to mold the team in his vision while no doubt being the front runner to be named Coach of the Season.

James Batemon – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

One of the stars of the show so to speak is fearless guard James Batemon who from day one with the club was given the keys to the car to run the offense while also being an on court leader for Kiryat Ata.

The 27-year old Milwaukee, Wisconsin native has shown that he has a very bright future ahead of him thanks to his stellar play all season long by averaging 17.3 points, 3.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals in close to 32 minutes a game. Batemon was the star of the show and proved that when given the opportunity to be a leading player, he could step to the responsibility as he now has his team just two wins away from the finals.

Just as Kiryat Ata readies to face Hapoel Tel Aviv on Thursday night (9pm) at the Drive In Arena in Tel Aviv, Batemon spoke to The Sports Rabbi about the superb season, the keys to overcoming Ramat Gan and how excited he is for his teammates who have earned various honors.

James Batemon – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“It feels amazing,” Batemon began. “Like I said, it’s everything I dreamed of, to play in the playoffs, it’s the first year in my career that I’m able to. COVID-19 was around the first two years so I couldn’t, then I had a down season my third year. My fourth year I was jumping teams to get to the next level and then I finally got a team that let me be myself and let me showcase my God given talents to put up a display and it feels amazing. I’m happy.”

Kiryat Ata was in the hole for most of game three at Ramat Gan but was able to force overtime and then win the game thanks to Batemon’s huge fourth quarter performance including knocking down clutch free throws down stretch.

“Honestly, every time I go to the line I think that I’ve been doing this my whole life, so if I make or miss I know I put in the work. I’m not afraid of those big moments. Honestly, it takes me back to the time I was in the playoffs in junior college, playing against Nuni Omot (who played in this game for Ramat Gan), he went to Indian hills and I went to North Dakota. We played them in overtime and the free throws at the end I could see the basket shaking. In this game I could see the basket shaking too from the crowd jumping and rocking and it just took me back reminiscing about my college days. I made both free throws then and I made both free throws now. I’m upset with myself because I missed four in overtime, but I was tired as hell. I made the ones that count.”

James Batemon – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Batemon has played injured over the past month or so and while that definitely hurt his play a few weeks ago in the State Cup semifinal loss at Maccabi Tel Aviv, it wouldn’t play a factor now in the playoffs.

“I’m still injured. I’m playing through injury for my team because they sacrificed so much for me, that’s the least I can do. Nobody is 100 percent at this time though, but it’s playoff time so I had no choice. My faith in God, my preparation and everything, go to the training room and get treatment to get healthy, those are all of the things I did to get back onto the court and it paid off.”

There had been a debate among basketball aficionados as to who deserves to be named Coach of the Season between Avrahami or Ramat Gan’s Shmulik Brenner, but after the 3-0 series that Kiryat Ata won, the debate has ended very, very swiftly.

Sharon Avrahami – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“Yes, he’s the coach of the season,” Batemon said of Avrahami.”Hhopefully he’ll get the coach of the year award. He helped us get to this point, he had a lot of faith in me and showed a lot of responsibility in me and I can’t thank him enough for that.”

One of the surprise players for Kiryat Ata has been JJ Kaplan who played college ball at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and joined the club when they were in the second division in 2021. For the most part Kaplan came off the bench for spot minutes here or there but over the past few months, the guard has raised his level of play with huge performances when all the chips were on the table.

“I’m happy as hell for him,” Batemon commented. “I’ve been with JJ since I got here, it’s his third year and he hadn’t played much all three years until this moment and he just waited his term and kept grinding, kept working, kept a positive attitude and there were times that he wanted to quit basketball during this year and I just told him to keep pushing. He felt that, kept pushing and I just feel so happy for him. That moment means everything, he’s been able to do this, he just needed somebody to have faith in him and the opportunity and now he’s been able to showcase that. So hopefully further on in the rest of the playoff he gets more opportunities and next year he has a bright future.”

Guy Palatin – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Guy Palatin has been hands down the best defensive player in the league with 2.5 steals a game and Ben Saraf is going to have a huge future and was also recognized for his accomplishments, but without a doubt, Batemon’s name is in the Most Valuable Player award mix as well as being given a place on the League’s 1st Team All-Stars list.

“They deserved it first and foremost. Defensive player of the year – Guy was amazing, it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before the things he does on the court. Ben obviously is a great talent. I have two brothers that play high school basketball going on to 16-17 years old and Ben is playing professional at 17 and now 18, so they deserve those awards. For me, I worked hard for it all year so I’m hoping for that, if it doesn’t happen though I’m not going to be upset about it, I just know I gave my all here, did everything I could do and we’re winning, so that’s the most important. I’m trying to get a championship and go as far as I can here, so the individual rewards are not so much, but I would definitely love to have them.”

Now with the semifinals about to begin, Batemon is super excited to get another chance to shine in one of the most vibrant atmospheres that Israeli basketball can offer.

“Honestly, I’ve tried to get my mind off of it because I wanted to focus on closing out this series, but all I can think about was playing in that Drive arena with the Hapoel Tel Aviv crowd in the playoffs. It’s going to be amazing. This season has been wonderful. I’m just glad I’m able to be here to do it.”

James Batemon – Photo credit: Dov Halickman

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