Menco looks ahead to State Cup challenge while reflecting back on his basketball journey

Feb 12, 2022 | Holyland Hoops

Hapoel Holon and Bnei Herzliya tip-off on Sunday night (18:45) in the first Israel State Cup semifinal with the winner of the game moving onto the title game where they will play Monday night’s Tel Aviv Derby match victor between Maccabi and Hapoel. Both games will no doubt be barnburners with all four teams vying for the prestigious trophy that will be handed out on Thursday.

Rafi Menco – Photo Credit: BCL

One of the Israeli players who will be at the forefront of the competition is Holon’s Rafi Menco. The forward joined the team at the start of the season following a year abroad where he featured for Chalon in France. Prior to that, Menco had played for a number of teams in the Holy Land including Hapoel Eilat, Hapoel Jerusalem, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Gilboa Galil.
Just ahead of Sunday’s do or die one game semifinal, Menco spoke to The Sports Rabbi about a myriad of topics from the NBA, his season abroad in France, influential coaches in his career, what didn’t work with Maurizio Buscaglia and what the Cup means to him.

Rafi Menco – Photo Credit: BCL

“The State Cup is a special completion and different than any other title. It’s a great spot to be in and we are playing a very good team that is in 2nd place in the league, so we have to be very focused to get to the final.” 
Menco is one of the key players for Holon this season and has an important part to play with the club in its rotation, “I am happy that I have an important standing and responsibility with the team. Every game I do the most that I can to help the team win and it’s still far away to begin thinking about winning the Cup. We have to still play a very tough team and we are just focusing on just that right now in order to get to the Cup final.”
The club has gone through a number of changes this season with a number of players coming in and others leaving plus there was a coaching change as well.
“We have a squad now that is much more balanced than that of the start of the year. We are also a very deep team with a lot of talent and you can see that it’s not just our play on offense but as to how we play team defense where we hold teams to low scoring games. That is what will help us reach our goals this season.”
“Against Herzliya, defense will be the key without a doubt and they have some great offensive tools. That will be the story of the game. If we can stop them we will be in good shape to win. I am sure the staff will do a great job with the game plan and we will do what they ask of us.”

Rafi Menco – Photo Credit: Champions League

Herzliya is one of the few teams which plays with five foreigners along with a number of high quality Israelis under the club’s first year head coach Oren Aharoni. However, Menco feels that the amount of imports Herzliya has is not the reason as to their success, “I have to really say something good about Oren Aharoni in his first season at this level. They really found the right imports and Israelis and they have been able to play well together as a team. We will have to stop them and play our game and if we do that we will be in good shape.” 
“I don’t know if the amount of imports really does influence their club. We have seen that some teams just have had 5 imports in order to say that they have 5. We have brought in as did they some quality imports. Some teams have 4 foreigners and they are great while others have 6, 7 or 8 just because and they aren’t that skilled.” 
Other than Menco, the Israeli contingent on Holon is very thin with only Guy Pnini, Frederic Bourdillon, Niv Misgav who is now injured and Eidan Alber who will be moving to Hapoel Beer Sheva. “Niv is really missing and I don’t have to tell you how influential he has been for us. I don’t want to go into the Alber issue as that is something between the player and management and I don’t think that I am the address for this question as the staff is the one to deal with that. We are here to win the available titles.” 

Maurizio Buscaglia – Photo Credit: Champions League

Italian bench boss Maurizio Buscaglia began the season in charge but after a slump during the course of December and January that was marked by a home Champions League game one Play In loss to Besiktas, the coach was dismissed and Guy Goodes, the Israel National Team coach was appointed in his place. Menco tried to put his finger on the reason why things didn’t work out with Buscaglia.
“That is a hard question. We started the season well with Buscaglia and at some point some people lost their understanding as to what to do and we had a run of poor results. The responsibility was also on us the players and now we are in a new situation with Guy Goodes who I am happy is here and he is helping us out.” 
“I was very happy when Guy was named as the new coach and it’s always great to have a coach that speaks your language. Guy is an excellent coach and has done that with the Israel National Team and at his other stops.” 

Guy Goodes – Photo Credit: Champions League

Menco joined a team with one of the all time great Israeli players in Guy Pnini who has won at every level and in fact, Pnini is also his role model, “It’s amazing to play with him. As a player who still hasn’t won a title of significance, it’s great to be able to play with him and we work hard together. I am so happy to play with him not just as a player but as a person. He is a winner how knows how to be in the right place at the right time.” 
Another key player on Holon is NBA veteran Chris Johnson who brings a vast amount of experience and know-how to the table. “He is a winner at the highest of levels and he is so competitive and never gives up on any play. I am learning so much from Chris and he helps us out so much as a team and sets the tone for us game single game.” 
While the State Cup is one of Holon’s goals this season, the same can be said about the Basketball Champions League where the club was able to come back from a 0-1 deficit in their Play In series against Besiktas to win 2-1 and punch their ticket to the Round of 16 Group Stage.
“We still need to reach our goals. We wanted to be in the Top 16 and we lost our first game to Dijon. But we won at home and we will have to see how much we can win at home and advance to the Top 8. This week we have a very important week and now we are focusing just on that.”

Rafi Menco – Photo Credit: BCL

Menco returned to Israel as a much more mature player following a year abroad in France with Elan Chalon. That season saw the Jerusalem native experience a number of things which were new for him and that were able to help him continue to improve and grow as a player.
“The season in France really helped me out and the situation to live by myself outside of Israel with just my girlfriend during the Corona time when I didn’t see anyone and no one was able to visit us was truly an experience in itself. Playing in France was great and exposed me to a totally different level of basketball where one is playing against bigger players and ones that are very talented which helped me mature even more.
As for one playing outside of Israel again, Menco feels that right now he has the best of both worlds right where he is, “I don’t know if I really experienced playing outside of Israel last season because of the situation the world was in. But I am at a club right now that is like playing abroad and it’s a professional club and I feel grateful to be here. I am not looking too far ahead and I want to win a title which is something I hope that I can do with Holon.” 
As a player, Menco has developed as one that is truly two way that can bring it both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball,  “I want to bring the maximum that I can to every practice and to every game in order to help the team both on defense and offense. I want to bring what I can every game because as we have seen defense wins games.” 

Over the course of his career, Menco said that there have been two coaches that were extremely influential in his development as a top level player throughout the years.

Oded Katash – Photo Credit Dov Halickman

“There are two coaches that really influenced me along the way. The first is Ariel Beit Halachmi when he was coaching me as a youth as he really helped me make the transition between a younger player to the professional level. The other is Oded Katash who coached me at Hapoel Eilat as well as with the Israel National Team. He really helped me think about things outside of the box and in a very different way than a typical coach would.”
As for the Israel National Team, Menco who is now 27 years old is looking to make an impact on that level as the blue-and-white head into a summer where they will feature in the Eurobasket as well as attempting to qualify for the World Cup.

“I want to be a part of the Israel National Team and play at the European Championship so much. It’s like dream to put on the nation’s uniform and represent the country. I want to do what I can to make everyone in Israel proud.”

Deni Avdija – Photo Credit: Washington Wizards

One of Menco’s National Team teammates is Deni Avdija who is currently the only player in the NBA, “As a child that was my first dream, to play in the NBA. But as I got older the style of game was less than what I aspired to be a part of and I really connected to the European type of game. As for Deni, he is not only in the NBA because of his physical presence but also because he is so mentally strong.”

Right now, Menco is part of a golden generation of Israeli players as the country is developing a quality amount of players that can feature at the highest of levels both in Israel and abroad.
“There is a generation of quality players right now and we are heading on the right track. There is still a lot to work to do on the culture of the game and how to develop players and give them the right backing and support. If we can invest in our youth we will get even stronger as a country in the basketball world.

Rafi Menco – Photo Credit: BCL

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