Oded Katash reflects on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s challenging season

Jun 19, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

Maccabi Tel Aviv ended a turbulent season in the best possible way as the wrapped up their 57th championship after defeating Hapoel Tel Aviv 2-1 in what will go down as back-to-back titles for the yellow-and-blue over their city rivals. In what was a heated series both on and off of the court that unfortunately saw a tremendous amount of fan violence in the shadow of the war against Hamas, Maccabi Head Coach Oded Katash was able to steer his ship to the promised land.

As the season came to an end and Maccabi hoisted the championship plate in front of their home crowd, Katash spent some time following the game to take a look back at the entire campaign and the challenges that he will need to deal with in the upcoming days, weeks and months.

Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

The country’s winningest franchise began the 2023/24 campaign way back in August when the majority of the prior year’s roster of players returned to the country to start training camp with an air of optimism that this would be a historic and unforgettable year. 

With a returning core of star veterans including Wade Baldwin and Lorenzo Brown as well as budding forwards Bonzie Colson and Roman Sorkin to go along with newcomers Jasiel Rivero and Tamir Blatt, Maccabi was set to be the talk of the town and challenge for the Euroleague crown.
Maccabi looked superb in their opening Euroleague game against Partizan Belgrade at Yad Eliyahu on Thursday October 5th as hopes were very high that the club would once again reach the top of the continental basketball world.

Maccabi Tel Aviv – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

However, that was before October 7th occurred and Hamas’s attack on the Jewish State that set off a chain of effects that has turned the reality that was upside down. The yellow-and-blue had to pivot quickly as the import players and their families were flown out of the country to safety and after a very short break, Belgrade became the club’s new temporary home.

“It was a difficult year, regardless of basketball,” Katash began. “We are citizens of the country and it has been quite an experience as to what we are going through. This season felt like three or four years and in addition to what happened with my good friend and coach Lior Lubin who passed away, it was intense and very complex. Every day there was something that happened and perhaps my character is sometimes a disadvantage in these situations, but maybe it was an advantage.”

“However, if we didn’t have continuity in the roster from last year, we wouldn’t have been able to survive this entire situation. We had a tough schedule but we were able to do it with the character of the players and building upon what we had started last season.”

Oded Katash – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

The thought was that Maccabi would fall apart from there without their home crowd to cheer them on and a successful Euroleague campaign was at that point far, far away. But that was not the case as the players and staff pulled it together and ended up in 7th place with an incredible 20-14 record which earned them a place in the Play In. After easily disposing of Baskonia, Panathinaikos was up next for Maccabi as they took the eventual Euroleague champs to five games before falling in Athens.
Locally, the yellow-and-blue won game after game in the domestic league throughout the winter months but ended up falling in the State Cup final to Hapoel Jerusalem in a game that took place just days after their continental campaign came to an end.

“When you win a title it’s always great but this season was extra special after we had experienced. After we ended Europe we were really done and we had so many injuries and situations that we paid a price for, whether it was the war or personal issues of the players as well. After we lost the cup the players really didn’t want to finish this season that way, everything went against us but we also have to look at things in proportion as there are still hostages in Gaza.” 

Oded Katash – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

Katash’s charges pulled it all together in their league quarterfinal series against Nes Ziona which resulted in a sweep that was followed up by another walkover versus Jerusalem who were without an injured Levi Randolph, now rumored to be coming to Maccabi before playing in the best-of-3 championship finals.
Hapoel Tel Aviv looked to avenge last year’s final series loss but once again, the reds came up short and Maccabi captured yet another championship.
While the yellow-and-blue can bask in championship glory, the celebrations will be short lived as they will need to start rebuilding their roster for the 24/25 season that is right around the corner and there will be plenty of changes coming their way from imports to Israelis.

Wade Baldwin, Bonzie Colson and Lorenzo Brown – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

Baldwin and Brown swiftly declared that they will be leaving the team due to the war, so fast did their announcements come as they were still on the floor celebrating as they made their intentions known. Josh Nebo’s contract is up and he will be departing while Bonzie Colson is still undecided as to where he will suit up next season. Baldwin, Brown and Colson all have contracts for the 24/25 campaign with Maccabi but the club will not stand in their way should they want to leave.

Katash of course would love for them to all stay but the reality is that they will be heading to other teams, “It’s sad to lose them and break up the team and it’s really sad actually. But what has occurred here this season in the country, it’s part of the price that we have to play. What happened on October 7th is the biggest incident that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime and we have to take things into proportion.”
Jasiel Rivero should be back while the same may be true of Antonius Cleveland as James Webb will be looking for a new home next season.

Tamir Blatt and Rafi Menco – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

As for the Israeli contingent, Rafi Menco is a free agent but should return, Josh Dibartoloemo and Jake Cohen who are under contract should be back playing at Yad Eliyahu next season while Tamir Blatt who is opting out of his current contract will most likely re-sign with the team at a higher rate.  
The one big question make is the league and finals MVP in one Roman Sorkin. The big man is rumored to be heading to North America to tryout for NBA teams after a stellar season, but there is also talk that Maccabi will make him an offer that he can’t refuse and he will stay yellow-and-blue for the foreseeable future.  

“Roman won every award this season,” Katash said. “I have the privilege of coaching him. He can really do it all and has a huge upside and is one of the most talented players. He’s a great person as well and I’m very proud as to how he came into the playoffs. He was playing well in the Euroleague but then got hurt and it just took time to get him back up to speed. He needs to be a Maccabi Tel Aviv player for the rest of his career.” 

Roman Sorkin – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

There are plenty of names that have been linked to Maccabi and while the Euroleague home games will most probably be played once again in Belgrade, the club still remains a very attractive option for some players explained the bench boss.

“Next season won’t be easy and it was a challenge this year just in terms of scheduling. But Maccabi is a big club and has a system in place and while it won’t be easy to keep players and sign players, we are there. We want to build an attractive squad even if we have to build a new team. The owners are doing their utmost to sign quality players and well known players. But what the Israelis were able to contribute was priceless and the team has to begin with this base when building a new team.” 

“We know we will lose some players but there are plenty of players who see Maccabi as an opportunity where players succeeded. Maccabi is a good place to play and a place where players can advance their careers. We will deal with putting together a squad of players who know what it’s like to live in Tel Aviv and who have played in Israel along with others to make sure that this will be a competitive team.”

Levi Randolph – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

With that, it seems that the yellow-and-blue are doing exactly that, finding players who want to come play for Maccabi that have experienced Israel and those include Hapoel Jerusalem captain Levi Randolph, Hapoel Holon big man Justin Smith along with Hapoel Tell Aviv’s center Jaylen Hoard to name a few.

The upcoming campaign will be complex and challenging without a doubt but the most important thing is to be able to adapt and adjust as they did this season on the fly and because of that Maccabi was able to reach some very lofty goals.

“There are a lot of question marks. In this chaotic reality, it is impossible to know what the day will bring. Things change all the time, we have to adjust ourselves – because we are heading into a difficult year.”

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