Everyone loves and underdog. That’s just the nature of the beast especially in sports. The average person wants to see the little guy, the guy that looks like he has no chance, the guy who somehow finds a way to make a difference and actually makes a difference.
That is the ultimate beauty of sports.
Fans want to see that struggling team knock off the alpha dog. Fans want to see the seldom used guy come in and be that game changer. Fans want to see the guy who everyone had written off and surprise them all and flip the deck of orderly cards over and splatter them all over the floor.
That’s exactly what Maccabi Tel Aviv fans got on Tuesday as the yellow-and-blue not only defeated one of the Euroleague’s best teams and threat to win the entire league but also did it with three unsung heroes.
Captain John Dibartolomeo, forward Jarell Martin and swingman Austin Hollins all fit that bill in Maccabi’s 90-84 win over Olympiacos.
Head coach Oded Katash and his squad are in the midst of a busy 7-10 days with one big game after the next. Partizan Belgrade on the road, Tel Aviv Derby and Olympiacos at home, back to Serbia for a date with Red Star Belgrade and then an Israeli Classico against streaking Hapoel Jerusalem at Yad Eliyahu.
There may not be a bigger test for any other coach in the regular season this year and it’s one that Katash will need to navigate with savvy and care which he has done almost to perfection with a 2-1 record in the first three games.
Of course, it’s not just Katash, it’s the entire team that is under the microscope and expected to produce because in sports your only as good as your last game.
Sports are dynamic and changes can happen in a millisecond, especially in Israel where one day the fans are jettisoning this coach and that player and the next they are praising them the highest of compliments.
However, one player is making the case to never, evert be questioned and that is one John Dibartolomeo.
John D as the fans passionately refer to him will never be the fastest player, the strongest player or the most talented player, but he will undoubtedly be the most fierce player, the most passionate player and the player that can change the momentum of a game especially at home on a dime.
Dibartolomeo leads by example on the court fighting for every ball and every possession by battling and clawing as if it’s the last play of the finals. No lead is safe for the opposition especially when the captain is on in front of the 11,000 strong supporters who lap up every single move that the Israeli-American makes.
“Energy,” Katash said of Dibartolomeo. “There are things you can’t explain and that was one of those things here in this arena. Momentum came to our side and the players showed a lot of passion and played with their heart, especially in a challenging week like this.”
Veteran Austin Hollins also spoke about just how much Dibartolomeo means to the team, “John gives us so much energy and he made some huge defensive plays with great effort. Everyone else just fell in line after that and the fans really got into it. A lot of times this year he has been that for us. That’s what we need, we need guys that are going to put it all on the line and that is what we need to win ball games.”
“He is definitely a guy we look up to,” Jarell Martin said. “He has been tremendous and he’s our team leader and captain, he leads by example on the floor and off the court.”
The 31-year old Westport, Connecticut native swings the momentum like he does time and time again. This is something that the entire roster sees and understands, but as usual the modest guard didn’t want to take the accolades and pushed the credit aside.
“I think everyone made hustle plays in the second half,” Dibartolomeo said in the lockerroom. “That is what got us back into the game. The energy from each other and the energy from the crowd really fueled our momentum and we took the lead back and closed it out.”
Of course, the University of Rochester product also pointed out a pair of players in Martin and Hollins as having been key components to record the victory in arguably both of their best games of the season where they were difference makers down the stretch.
“They were both amazing on both ends of the floor and played with a lot of energy and aggressiveness and that’s what we need from this team. There are a lot of players and everyone has to be ready for their moment and those guys stepped up big. We are not surprised but happy about it.”
Martin was thrilled to be able to contribute to the victory as the power forward has been struggling to find his spot in the rotation. Sometimes he will play only a few minutes and in some he won’t even be dressed, but that is also part of the learning process for the LSU Tigers big man who is making his first foray into European hoops after playing in the NBA, G-League and Australia.
“It feels great to go out here and have an effect on the game and help my team get a victory. Our chemistry is coming together and we have to keep rolling and getting better. I got to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.”
Katash is well aware as to how Martin can be a game changer for the team and offers a different look and aspect to the style of play that no other current player can.
“I’m really happy for Jarell. He works very hard and wants to learn and integrate into the team. It’s not easy for a player without European experience to just come and play here and I’m very happy with how he played especially in his position which can be a very big help for us.”
Hollins who is somewhat in the same boat as Martin in terms of playing time couldn’t have been happier for his teammate, “I have massive respect for him. We need guys like that. Some games they play a lot and some games they don’t. It’s our job to be ready when we come into the game and Jarell was ready, made some big plays and knocked down some big shots.”
Katash also remarked about Hollins who is with his third Euroleague team, “We know what he can give us. He has not had an easy start of the season. Players are people too and sometimes things don’t go their way and there are games he doesn’t dress. I’m really happy for him and I hope that I will get even more of a contribution from him as time goes on.”
It’s certainly not easy to sit and wait for that chance and that opportunity but when it does happen and one can make an impact, there can be no better feeling Hollins explained.
“It feels great and I can’t lie. I have been waiting for my opportunity and that is what it’s all about being a professional. You have to be ready when your moment comes. I want to win and when coach outs me in he expects me to know what’s going on and be ready to play. When I get in the game I try to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Dibartolomeo knows all too well what it’s like not having a chance to really show your wares. That is what happened when he began his professional career in Spain and saw his time start in the second division but before long was sent down to the third league prior to finding himself in Israel and becoming the 2017 League MVP with Maccabi Haifa.
“It’s very challenging but it’s part of being a professional. Everyone understands that we all have the same goal and that when the team succeeds we all succeed. We just have to keep getting better everyday, pushing each other.”
Martin who has played at the top of the basketball world in the NBA also understands what he needs to do in order to make that difference and help change a game for the good.
“It was definitely tough and challenging, but as a professional we got to be ready when our number is called and that opportunity presented itself in this game and I was ready for it.”
After losing three games in a row, it was great for Maccabi to get off of the slide, but now it’s also time to halt another streak as they are winless so far on the road and on top of that, the yellow-and-blue haven’t won in Belgrade in close to a decade.
“It was really important for us to turn the tide in the Euroleague and to protect home court against one of the strongest teams,” Dibartolomeo said. “It’s a really important game and a quick turn around. We can expect Red Star to be aggressive in a physical game in a very hostile environment. We haven’t won in Belgrade in a long time and we haven’t won on the road this year, so it’s another challenge and we need to step up.”
Katash who was a star player over twenty years ago in Europe understands that the games keep coming fast and furious as Maccabi is in a rat race and one where only the fittest will survive.
“There are ups and downs and we are not the only Euroleague team that experiences this. There is no time to think, this week feels as if we are playing one long game. Maybe after Sunday’s contest against Jerusalem we can take a breather.”