The top realm of Israeli basketball needs to work together towards stamping out fan violence and other unsociable behavior

Jun 20, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

The 2023/24 Winner League concluded on Monday with Maccabi Tel Aviv defeating Hapoel Tel Aviv 82-74 to capture their second consecutive championship against their cross-town rivals. While the playoff series and the finals should be a celebration of all that Israeli basketball has to offer, they were marred by two issues. First, the scheduling of the series, in which the naturally less-appealing quarterfinal series were best of five games (all of which ended in sweeps), while the semifinal series and the final series were best of three games (of the three series, only Maccabi was able to sweep their semifinal opponents Hapoel Jerusalem). More problematic, however, was the violence and vulgar behavior of the fans, which saw people arrested, flares ignited and other items thrown at the other teams’ personnel and fans.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

These are not new problems – both were addressed at the press conference held by Winner League Management and Toto-Winner (the Winner League’s principal sponsor) prior to last season’s deciding game three of the championship series by Shlomi Peri, the now former CEO of the Winner League Management, Meir Bardugo, CEO of Toto-Winner and Ari Steinberg, Chairman of the Winner League Management.

Given the events of October 7 when Hamas brutally murdered 1,200 people and took another 251 hostage, I think we need to take a step back before being overly critical of those in charge for things not being perfect this season. The League managed to fit in all the games during the regular season, which took a lot of careful scheduling gymnastics given four teams were playing in European competitions as well, so I can understand the League simply going with the status quo when it came to the playoffs.

As to the behavior of the fans, both the League and others with the power to make a change – the Israel Basketball Association, the clubs and the governmental authorities (including both the police and the legislators) need to do something to take control of a situation which seems to get worse every year.

Six fans were arrested outside Kiryat Ata’s Remez Arena before game two of the semifinal series between Ata and Hapoel, after the fans were found by police to be armed with weapons such as baseball bats, iron bars and spikes. Game two of the seminal final series between Maccabi and Jerusalem in the nation’s capital began with the home fans throwing objects at the visitors’ bench – which they continued to do throughout the game.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Despite games in the final series being delayed due to allegedly extensive security checks, fans still managed to bring in and light flares in the stands of close arenas – and as we saw in Monday’s decider, the Hapoel fans were happy to throw the burning flares at the Maccabi fans in the downstairs area while sporting a sign on which it was written, “The police, you sons of whores.” It’s widely acknowledged that the police have been overaggressive in their treatment of all Hapoel fans when the perpetrators are a minority of fans, however this does not justify the Hapoel fans putting the lives of others at risk. Then, of course, there is the incessant singing of “Holocaust” songs (which include lyrics such as, “Put Maccabi into the chambers, fill them with gas.”)

The fans on the opposite side of the court are not innocent either. Maccabi fans were throwing objects at the Hapoel bench and staff during game three – even including basketballs and t-shirts which were thrown from the court to the stands during a timeout in the third quarter. There were also a number of chants and songs with vulgar language, including calling referee Sefi Shemesh a “Son of a whore” and Hapoel “Sons of whores”. With all the complaints and concerns about the flares throughout the series from the Hapoel fans, it was the Maccabi fans who had the “last say”, lighting flares in celebration as the clock counted down to the final buzzer.

Why do we still have to put up with these incidents at basketball games? Why can Tel Aviv not be the setting of a healthy cross-town rivalry without lives being threatened?

Both Steinberg and the new CEO of the Winner League, David Bassan, spoke with the media on Wednesday after the end of the season.

David Bassan – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“We must not be blinded by the fact that there was no harm to anyone and think that the final result somehow undermines the real risk to human life,” Bassan said in an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom’s Tomer Givati. “I think that everyone who was there understands that and from here we have the opportunity to make a change and we will take advantage of it.

“I’m convinced that the situation can be changed and it’s the duty of everyone to take every necessary action to change the reality,” Bassan continued. “We need the cooperation of the teams, the Ministry of Sport, the League, the Basketball Association and the police. Without these bodies acting together it won’t work. The teams have bear a large portion of the responsibility, they have a lot of power to eradicate the violence. These bodies are able to work together, the final was played after Sports Minister Miki Zohar and Ari Steinberg intervened and led to understandings between the police and the teams so that the match could take place.”

“I, along with all other relevant parties – because in all of this there are a few relevant parties – will sit and find a solution because if we don’t, there is no basketball,” Steinberg said on 102FM on Wednesday. “What was with the throwing of flares is, in my opinion, a mass casualty incident.

“We will sit and we will act,” Steinberg continued. “A game like this, if there are flares, simply end the game and the team which throws the flares will automatically forfeit the game. If the culprits are caught or not is a police matter, I of course need all the participants, but from my perspective if fans of a team are lighting and throwing flares, the team will automatically forfeit the game.”

Ari Steinberg – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

While the change needs to come from the top, ultimately the fans will need to behave. One has to wonder why fans feel the need to behave like this, especially after everything that happened in our country on October 7 and since.

“In one month, these people will go to reserve duty and fight together shoulder to shoulder,” Bassan said of the Hapoel and Maccabi fans. “I cannot understand how we as a country are able to reach such levels of hatred in this current reality.”

One has to wonder whether those in charge will be able to stop fan violence and change the culture in Israeli sports for the better. I don’t think anyone wants to see us reach a point at which derbies need to be played behind closed doors, although some may argue that we have already reached that point and we shouldn’t need to wait until there is a fatal incident before taking such a radical step.

For me personally, the question that I, along with many other basketball fans with young children, ask is, when will I be able to take my young children to a derby game without worrying for their safety?

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“In light of the events of the last two years I don’t only understand, but I can also justify their concerns,” Bassan responded to Givati’s question in this regard. “A parent who sends his child to such an event is irresponsible. I don’t know a sane person who would agree to send his child to such an event, we’ve lost all proportion. I believed that the war would lead to a change and that we would learn to take things in proportion. It’s ok and legitimate to have rivalries in sport and also a sporting hatred, but I truly believed that with everything related to hatred we would see a change.”

It is clear that those in charge need to act and I’m quietly optimistic about the direction in which Bassan and Steinberg want to take the League. There’s a lot of hard work, but especially with everything that is happening in this country, I hope that the responsible bodies can work together to get things in order so that the focus for the 2024-25 season and beyond will be on the court where it belongs and we can at least feel safe in the stands.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

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