Hapoel Jerusalem ready for Benfica in their second Basketball Champions League game on Wednesday (22:00 Israel time) when they head to Portugal to take on one of the surprising basketball stories from over the last few years. Benfica may be a well known football club playing consistently in top level European competitions with a rich history that includes a pair of European Cups back in 1961 and 1962 but their basketball team has only recently made a splash in continental action entering their second campaign in the BCL.
One of the players who has ushered in this new era for Benfica’s hoopsters is Ivan Almeida who joined the club in the middle of the 2021-22 season and helped the club win back to back league titles. The Cape Verde swingman played for Nahariya back in Israel’s COVID-19 League during the spring of 2020 when Almeida featured under Danny Franco and flourished in the northern Israeli city.
Just ahead of Jerusalem’s clash at Benfica, Almeida took time out of his schedule to talk to The Sports Rabbi about his time in the Holy Land, playing in the World Cup this past summer and how love has been treating him in Lisbon.
“I’m close to home here in Lisbon and there are a lot of Cape Verdeans in this area plus my son and parents can come here easily so it’s been great. I love it and I can combine it with my music as well so being in this area, in addition to the beautiful beaches, gives me lots of options as Lisbon has so much terrific access.”
Although Almeida didn’t have a chance to really get out and about in israel during the COVID-19 League back in 2020, Nahariya left a very positive impression on him as he aisles hopes that love will trump all in the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
“I loved being in Nahariya. It was during Covid but Nahariya was great with good food and beaches where I lived. I had some great teammates and a great coach, they received me really well. I was really not shocked, as to what I found and it was very pleasant to know that culture and living there for me was a positive time. I wish I could have stayed, but I only have good things to say about it.”
“I always pray for love, war is not a solution. Love and compassion, love and peace is above everything. I don’t believe that in the 21st century either side should be doing these types of things and we need to teach common ground. I’m an activist against racism in Lisbon and if we love each other we would have plenty of room for each other.”
Danny Franco, who now mans the sidelines for Hapoel Tel Aviv coached Almeida during the time he was in Israel and that experience left a very good impression on the now 34-year old, “He’s a great coach and has an open vision of the game. He bet on using my skills and set plays for me and had me make decisions. The guys embraced it. It’s not surprising that he is doing well at Hapoel Tel Aviv as he knows offense and defense and he can exploit the player’s skills well. The players love him and he was always open with the feedback he received and made sure that there was good chemistry within the team.”
As Almeida is in the midst of his third season with Benifca, Lisbon has become a very comfortable home away from home for him, “Before I arrived at Benfica, I had some difficulties after two surgeries and it didn’t go well when I was back in Poland. I had a two year contract and only played one year and they didn’t want me back. I was in Lisbon with my wife, right before we had our little girl and I knew that I had to get back into shape, so I was glad to sign here. The club has a great medical staff and they made sure they did the right things. They also wanted to change the direction of the team and the style. When I signed in February 2021 we became champs that spring and then they offered me a two-year deal and I’m happy to be here from the beginning with a terrific coach.”
Benfica just like many other European clubs has a variety of sports underneath its vast umbrella. In some cases the football and basketball teams are separated and do not have much to do with one another, but in the Portuguese club’s case, the two are as tight as ever.
“I didn’t realize how big Benfica was. Everyone knows Benfica but you don’t realize how big it is until you’re inside of it. The power, finances and facilities are amazing with plenty of gyms, a clinic and hospital are also right next to the stadium. We do physicals where the soccer players do them and they really keep check up on you to see if you are comfortable or need anything. They care about you personally and they always want to help.”
One of the all-time great footballers in Rui Costa is the President of the entire Benfica sports club and he frequently visits the basketball club which is a real boost for the players Almeida explained, “Rui Costa comes to our games and talks to us in the locker-room. He’s really chill, down to earth, gives us encouragement and makes sure we are on the right track. He reminds us what club we are a part of. Whenever he has time he shows up here and the vice president of the club comes back at least a few times a week.”
Benfica are in their second season in the Champions League and they want to continue the momentum that began last season that saw them go 4-2 in the first group stage, “I want to go far and further than last season, we have some unfinished business. We missed out of the second group stage when we came up just short to Manresa. But we don’t know our ceiling as we play in the Portuguese League which doesn’t have the strength as many of the other European leagues have. But we have a core group of guys and we only switched two players from last season. We all fight for each other and we all want everybody to do well. When a guy is down we try to pick him up and go forward.”
Almeida, who hails from Cape Verde had the opportunity to represent his country in this past summer’s World Cup and was based in Japan where his nation played in a group with Venezuela, Georgia and powerhouse Slovenia with NBA superstar Luka Doncic which was an unforgettable experience.
“It was wild, I don’t think in my wildest dreams we would get to see Cape Verde in the World Cup. To play with the top players and share the court at an equal level with them was amazing. To represent our country that had no business being there is something that we will carry with us for our entire lives. I was proud to represent our country.”
“Luka’s a great player and the team is built around him. I tried my best to slow him down and it was a treat play against him, but it also made me grow as a player. It was amazing, sharing the court with a player, an NBA star of Luka’s stature. Playing against Slovenia was the top moment we had there. Luka, Dragic, Prepelic, we had seen them on TV and they had an amazing campaign in Europe, beating high level teams and countries. To feel what they do up close was just the pinnacle of a basketball game.”
Benfica opened the BCL season with with a dominant 94-72 win over PAOK in a game that saw Almeida score 28 points to lead the attack but is aware that his team will need to be focussed and up to the challenge in order to shut down not only Hapoel Jerusalem but one of his former teammates in Zach Hankins.
“We have to play our defense and be focused in the game. We have to make our runs and make good decisions in the half court. They have an amazing team and I’ll play against my former Nymburk teammate Zach Hankins who is a great center on a great team. We have to protect the paint and take care of their shooters from the outside.”