Few people believed that Maccabi Tel Aviv was going to defeat CSKA Moscow on Thursday night at Yad Eliyahu. Coming into the game without Nate Wolters, Omri Casspi and John DiBartolomeo, center Tarik Black joined them just two hours before tipoff. However, the most important people that believed that they could win were the ones on the hardwood, the players that remained and the coaching staff, they believed.
CSKA features arguably of the most talented guards in Europe, Mike James along with a number of other top level players including Kyle Hines and Janis Strelnieks, but this is not the same CSKA team that went on to win the Euroleague title last year. Nando de Colo, Sergio Rodriguez, Cory Higgins and Othello Hunter were all off loaded and replaced.
To Maccabi and coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s credit they went on to sign Hunter who played one of his best games in perhaps his Euroleague career and notched 20 points, the most he has ever scored in continental clash. But Hunter’s not just here to score or play defense. He’s here to teach; to teach the team how to lead, to teach the team how to be humble, to teach the team how to be professionals, to teach the team how to win and to teach the team how to be a team. That’s why the Ohio State product is wearing Yellow & Blue. One of those players who is certainly taking those lessons to heart is Scottie Wilbekin.
Wilbekin looked like the Wilbekin that we have seen all season long and even better. Scoring, dishing, rebounding and leading the way for the Yellow & Blue even without the two point guards who are on the shelf.
It was not the Wilbekin that we saw last year, the one who I recall was being told off by a fan that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a member of Maccabi Tel Aviv at Beit Maccabi in Rishon Le’Zion after being eliminated from the State Cup. Wilbekin certainly knows now what being a part of Maccabi means; it means laying it all out of the line and playing selflessly in order to find a way to win in the most difficult of circumstances. If you put in that effort, no matter win or lose, you will be feted as a hero by the fans.
Wilbekin has experienced that all year just as Hunter has as well. In fact, all of the players on the team have been been treated as heroes. From the first man to the last they are all part of this Maccabi team, one molded by Ioannis Sfairopoulos.
Following the game the coach spoke about how he was happy to have found Wilbekin at Maccabi last year when he took over for Neven Spahija. Wilbekin didn’t thrive under Spahija and was far from the player who has starred under David Blatt at Darussafaka but he began slowly but surely to regain that form and now we are witnessing his greatness on the court. An even better version of the one who won the EuroCup.
James declared in an interview ahead of the game that he was the best guard in Europe today. After the win, Sfairopoulos was asked if he had the best guard in Europe and he wouldn’t take the bait as he just reiterated that Wilbekin is not only a big part of the team but he’s the leader.
Wilbekin as well didn’t want to declare that he was better or was now the best, he just wanted to remain with his both feet on the ground and complimented Shane Larkin, the Anadolu EFES guard who has been tearing up the league. Now that’s a team. Whose leader takes the high road. He’s not going to put a player down or say that he’s better than him. Wilbekin took a step back, humbled and understood what his role is on the team, a role that needs him to lead on the floor but a role that also needs him to lead off of it and reflect the values of the squad. All for one and one for all.
Hunter who was facing his former team for the first time never once showed any type of emotion going into the contest that he wanted some sort of revenge, or wanted to win because he wanted to beat the team that didn’t bring him back after a title. The big man also didn’t take that road after the game as well. He just wanted to win.
Surely, there was some special feelings in defeating his ex-club, but as a consummate professional there was no way he was ever going to display that in public. Perhaps privately amongst his teammates he may have spoken about what the game really meant to him but never once, whether it was after the Holon victory earlier in the week or at the pregame scrum the day prior to the contest did he speak about having any emotions or feelings about playing CSKA. He answered those questions with the two letter word of “No”.
The 2019/20 version of Maccabi is different than the clubs we have seen roll through Yad Eliyahu over the last number of years and that credit must go to Coach Sfairopoulos for being able to create a culture that can not be matched. He’s been able to add the ingredients to the team he inherited last year and turn them into a winner, but not just any type of winner. One that will always give every ounce for the team, for the collective. With a 9-4 record it looks like the skies the limit for this team no matter what challenges may lie ahead.