Yesterday, Jews around the world marked the end of the Ten Days of Repentance with Yom Kippur – one of the most spiritual periods in the year, at the end of which God judges whether we are deemed worthy of being inscribed in the Book of Life. And while the pre-season for Israeli basketball has now ended (although the Winner Cup final is still to be played in a few weeks), the real test for how Oded Katash’s squad will be judged this season begins tonight with the EuroLeague season opener against Žalgiris at Yad Eliyahu.
Maccabi comes into the game on the back of back of back-to-back pre-season Winner Cup victories over Hapoel Gilboa Galil and Hapoel Holon, and have had the last week to prepare for tonight’s game. Their opponents also come into the game with good momentum from their three Lithuanian League pre-season games, winning them by an average of 33 points. But of course, tonight will be on a much different level for both teams.
When speaking to the media yesterday, Katash noted that he was excited for the opener tomorrow: “There will be excitement here. I hope that we start off on the right foot, as is needed. We can’t say that we are 100% ready at this stage of the season. We will improve and get better, already tomorrow a competitor that is not simple awaits. They have some interesting signings.”
Of course, one of Žalgiris’s new signings is former Maccabi guard, Keenan Evans, who gave the Sports Rabbi an exclusive interview earlier in the week. Evans also spoke with Žalgiris On Air last week, and on his experience with Maccabi, he made specific mention of his experience playing in Tel Aviv with Scottie Wilbekin: “It’s always fun when you know he [Wilbekin] is the target for the defense, so everybody turns a blind eye to me and I can sneak and get a move and go get a quick bucket or something.”
While Maccabi fans may find that at times this season they will be asking themselves where Wilbekin is at crucial moments, perhaps it’s Evans who will miss him even more. Although Evans has a bigger role with his new team, Žalgiris also finds itself as one of the teams most-likely to finish down the bottom of the EuroLeague table with the bookies, and so this is going to be a huge challenge for the playmaker.
Of course, Katash’s side also has a number of interesting signings that will suit up for the first time in yellow and blue in the EuroLeague tonight, and they are understandably excited to play for a club with such a rich history and vocal fan base. “This is one of the clubs I’ve been wanting to play for for the past two years, I’d say,” noted guard Wade Baldwin IV at Maccabi’s season opening presser on Monday. “The Cup games have been really good, it’s tested our character, and we have an important final game to finish it off, and we’ll see what happens this Thursday against Žalgiris.”
Speaking to the media yesterday, Darrun Hilliard made special mention of the Yad Eliyahu crowd: “I’m glad that this first game is home in front of these beautiful fans, and I’m excited.”
The fans here in Tel Aviv share the same sentiment, as they’ve waited more than five months from the defeat to Real Madrid in last season’s disappointing quarter final showing. Of course, there is plenty of time until a final judgment on Maccabi will be brought down by the fans this season, but a good win tonight against a less-fancied opponent is the only thing that the fans will accept.