“Trying to win the championship is my sole focus and all that other stuff is secondary. My goal is to win one more championship for the club.”
That is how Jake Cohen, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s acting captain answered my question at the Israel Basketball League Press Conference ahead of Tuesday’s final against Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion when Cohen may lead Maccabi Tel Aviv out of the tunnel and onto the floor for the last time wearing the Yellow & Blue.
Rumors have been swirling that he will depart the club and perhaps head to Italy or Spain following his second term with the team. Should that happen it will be a true loss of a once in a lifetime asset that will be sorely missed. The club would lose a loyal player, one who is loved by all those who have been touched by him, both on and off of the court. A player who always gives 110% every time he is called into battle and one who has filled every role imaginable with the club with true professionalism and care. Cohen has always given the press time, win or lose and always finds a way to answer questions posed to him considerately, intelligently and respectfully.
Cohen began his time in Israel at Maccabi in 2013/14 but was loaned out to Rishon Le’Zion before the club captured the Euroleague title. From there he signed with Hapoel Jerusalem but never actually played for the club and headed to Greece. After a spell with Aris BC he landed at Maccabi Ashdod and then returned to the Yellow & Blue at the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign under Neven Spahija and has now played with Ioannis Sfairopoulos for the past two campaigns.
This season, Cohen’s most successful with Maccabi at the age of 29, has seen him score 10.8 points, grab 4.8 rebounds to go along with 2.1 assists in close to 22 points per game. He’s also been a regular for the first time in his Euroleague career playing over 13 minutes a game and averaging 5.4 points per contest.
Just before tipoff, The Sports Rabbi looked back with Cohen at his career as the forward spoke about a myriad of topics, from childhood, family, college and of course Israeli basketball.
“My dad was a college basketball and baseball player at a local Division 3 school. Growing up it was sports all the time. In the fall it was football, in the winter it was basketball and in the spring it was baseball and in the summer it was one of the three. My major league teams were the Phillies, 76ers, Eagles and Flyers,” began Cohen.
As a basketball player, I wondered who Cohen must have liked on the Sixers. To my surprise, there were none, “I couldn’t relate to Allen Iverson as a player as he is so opposite to me.” stated the 6”11 forward. “I loved Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki those were the guys I wanted to be like. I liked that Garnett did it all. Just because he was a guy that could do it all and he didn’t just post up. He could handle the ball and as a great passer and he could score from anywhere on the court.”
“Dirk was great because he was so slow and I could relate to that,” chuckled Cohen. “No one could stop him anyway that’s what I loved about him. Tim Duncan was the epitome of playing basketball in the post and he could do it all, right hand or left hand, jump shot and I wanted to play just like him in the post.”
Cohen’s brother Josh was also an athlete in the family, “I have an older brother who played football in college at Dartmouth. He was a good basketball player too. Now what I know now about the Israeli League and the second division, he could have played low DI level and get a passport to play here. But he was a better football player. But now it’s his career and he works with CBS producing games in the truck. He does the fancy replays, zoom in, shade and use the arrows.”
Growing up the Holy Land really wasn’t on Cohen’s radar, “I had zero connection to Israel and I had a Bar Mitzvah when I was 13 but I really didn’t like it. It had nothing to do with Hebrew, I would have to go to Hebrew school Tuesday afternoons and I would have to miss practice. It was like why am I sacrificing myself for this thing that I don’t really care about because I couldn’t see the grand scheme of things. Looking back I’m not a religious guy but I’m so glad I did it because it gave me an experience and I was able to see what I did and didn’t like about Judaism.”
After high school, Cohen was originally not heavily recruited but that all changed as he said and ended up a Davidson University, “Davidson came on kind of late during the recruitment. I wasn’t getting big offers in the summer before my senior year when I went to the Reebok All American camp which was with 150 players. Meyers Leonard and Brandon Knight were there and I wasn’t a top 150 player, it was only because the tourney was in Philly and the point guard of my AAU team was going, Malik Waynns who played in Israel. He was a really good player, it was sort of a favor to the AAU coach that I got in and I did really well.”
“I started getting big time offers, but I knew Davidson was right for me when I took my visit. It was the ultimate gut thing and I knew, everything just clicked. I loved how Coach Bob McKillop was to me. He said that I had a lot of talent and if I came that he was going to kick my ass and I’d do so much better. It’s not going to be fun at times because he’s going to be hard on me but when you’re 18 and you’re getting recruited and you think that you’re the best cause all the college coaches want you and there saying you’re great and you’ll do great things, it was refreshing to hear someone who was totally upfront and I loved that right away. I think he has a huge responsibility as to why I am successful as a player. He’s the epitome of a good leader.”
Cohen recalled some fun moments as he arrived at school, “When I got on campus I roomed with another player named JP Kuhlman who I had never met before. JP is Catholic from Jacksonville and Coach is Catholic. JP and I had a lot of success our first year and were both named rookie of the year in our conference. Coach started calling us the Pope and the Rabbi, because we were roommates and we were very close and we stood really close and he thought it was the funniest joke in the world.”
Jewish life on campus also played part in molding Bryn Mawr native, Pennsylvania native, “There were a decent amount of Jewish students on campus despite being a southern school. Davidson isn’t a big school with about 1800 Students but I went to Passover dinner that the Jewish kids hosted and there were 50-60 kids there and I was amazed. By no means was I the only Jewish guy on campus so it was cool.”
At Davidson, Cohen was a star winning the Southern Conference Player of the Year in back to back seasons in 2012 and 2013 and became the second player to do so in the 2000s after a guard by the name of Steph Curry to turn the trick. With averages of 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds it’s no wonder that Cohen won the prestigious award not once but twice and in both of those seasons the school also went to the NCAA Tournament.
After his freshman year, the Israel Basketball Association came calling and wanted Cohen to feature on the Under-20 team, “At the time I had no idea as to how valuable that passport was and I wasn’t even thinking about being a pro at that point, all I was concerned about was to win college games and to get my degree. It wasn’t until my junior year when I had success against guys that were projected to be bonafide NBA players like Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson that I thought that maybe I could make some money doing this. The IBBA asked if I wanted to play for the national team and I just thought it was cool to go to Europe for free to play ball. It was a great experience and that was my first time going to Israel when I was 19.”
Interestingly enough the first player that Cohen met when he joined the team was Nimrod Tishman who will be playing opposite him for Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion in the final. “I have no family here or family friends and when I got here I was totally solo. I was fortunate enough that I had great teammates. I was staying at Wingate in Netanya where we ate and practiced. For the weekend Tish said come with me and stay with my family in Tel Aviv and for each successive weekend I did that with a different teammate.”
“In my first game under Coach Yakov Geno against Sweden he said I just want you to rebound and defend. I said sure coach I’m just happy to be here, whatever you want I’ll do. I think I scored 15 points in my first game which was a loss against a good Swedisg team. The next game was against Georgia and I had 33 or so points. I wanted to ask him after the game if he wanted me to still focus on rebounding and defending. I think I ended up leading the tournament in scoring after the coach just wanted me to focus on rebounding and defending.”
After college, Cohen had to figure out where his basketball career was going to lead him, “I had no expectations of getting drafted after my senior season but the agent I had said you had a great college career and you have a bunch of NBA teams that want you to come work out for them. Just play your butt off and nothing bad can happen and that’s what I did. I had ten or eleven NBA workouts which was really cool and they were some of the hardest workouts that I ever had. It’s usually a bunch of one on ones, two on twos and three on threes with shooting and conditioning drills thrown in to see how serious you are as a player. That’s usually to weed out the guys that don’t care or aren’t in shape. I worked out for Phoenix and they said that they really liked me and they had a late second round pick and they said it was between me and some other guy and they took the other guy. The other guy was Alex Oriaakhi, I wasn’t going to forget that guy. He’s played for a lot of teams overseas but now I don’t know where he is.” (He last played in 2019 for Vitoria in Portugal)
Maccabi of course came calling next for Cohen, “I had heard of Maccabi and knew about their reputation of being the powerhouse of the country. At Portsmouth a scout from Maccabi met with me and said they were really interested in me and that they would be speaking to my agent. Before I played NBA Summer League with the Suns, they made me a great offer and it was easy. Two years guaranteed with an option for a third and fourth year.”
“I joined Maccabi for the 2013/14 season when there were guys like Joe Ingles, David Blu, Ricky Hickman, Shawn James and Sofo. The first month was tough. I was jet lagged and was thrown into the fire. Maccabi wanted me to come early to do some individual workouts I guess because I was young and they wanted to get me over to Israel as soon as they could. The first two weeks I was just working out with Ben Altit and coach David Blatt. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. They were good workouts. None of the Americans were there yet to show me around but once they got there they understood the struggle of being alone and said come out to eat with us and this is where you get your groceries and this is where you get your gas. I then had people to do stuff with and I loved it. But the first couple of weeks was like man this sucks, I don’t have any friends and I’m by myself, I don’t know the city. They had their families and jobs and obligations but the Americans know how hard it is to come to a new city especially right out of college. They were great.”
Of course, it’s not easy to play at Maccabi Tel Aviv and there is a ton of pressure to win and win now. “It’s amazing how quick the pendulum swings and it can turn on you so quick. You lose one or two games and you know, it’s cut him, he’s done which is amazing to me. You see it all the time. A good player, who you know is a good player goes to a team and it doesn’t work. He goes to another team and he’s great and you’re like what happened. Clearly it’s not the player he doesn’t just turn up one day and is bad at basketball, that’s not how it works. For some reason it’s maybe the difference of the European mentality. There’s no patience for that. You’re losing games, sorry, you’re done. We got to find someone else. Maybe it comes from the soccer world, but you don’t see it with NBA teams. It was so foreign to me and you see a guy like Tyrese Rice who was struggling to make a shot and had a few games with a lot of turnovers and all of a sudden it’s like Tyrese is going to get cut, which point guard should Maccabi bring in. I’m like this guy is so good, these guys never had a bad day at work before or a bad week a work before? Heck they’ve never had a bad month at work before? It was amazing.”
Cohen was loaned out to Rishon Le’Zion and he missed out on the Euroleague championship but, in some ways it was a blessing in disguise, “Rishon was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I regret it because Maccabi Tel Aviv went on to win the Euroleague and it would have been cool to be a part of that even if I was watching from the sidelines which was what my role as a rookie player. It was perfect for me as a player and it was what I needed. I think I showed that I could play in the league, help and be a good player. That’s why I got the opportunity I had in my second year, it’s because I went to Rishon and did some good things.”
Despite playing serious minutes in his second year with Maccabi, the Yellow & Blue fell in the playoffs to Hapoel Eilat, “My second year at Maccabi, I played a lot and I thought that I contributed a lot. It was unfortunate that we lost in the Israeli playoffs and I think that was a big reason why I was let go but I get that. I was playing a lot and we didn’t succeed.”
Following two years with Maccabi, Hapoel Jerusalem was up next for Cohen, or at least that is what he thought, “Jerusalem called me and said that they liked me and wanted to sign me but they already had a bunch of Israelis for that year. So they offered that they will sign me and I could go wherever I wanted this year and bring me back the following season. To incentivize you they said, we’ll give you some extra money this year to hold onto your rights. For me that’s great and then I got a EuroCup offer in Greece and it was great. I was all set and even though I didn’t play a lot because I had Okaro White was on the team who was a stud and the MVP and then played with the Miami Heat I had good numbers and I was efficient. I felt that I did enough for Jerusalem to bring me back and then they didn’t. Both Maccabi and Jerusalem had options to bring me back and they didn’t. But that’s life.”
Playing for Aris, one of Greece’s legendary teams is always a treat for any baller, “Playing in Greece was cool. The Aris fans were amazing and I learned all about the Jewish community of Salonika. There was a Maccabi club that would practice in our gym after, so I met some of the guys. They told me about the history of Jews of the city which was tragic but it was still really interesting and I was grateful to learn about it.”
After Jerusalem decided not to bring Cohen back, Ashdod was up next, “Ashdod came through with a good offer and Coach Meir Tapiro and his assistant Yonatan Alon said that they wanted me to be the main guy and that was really appealing to me because my whole career except with Rishon I was a role player and came off the bench to play 18-20 minutes. So it was really great for me to be a main guy.”
The Ashdod team Cohen played for had a ton of young players, similar to Hapoel Gilboa Galil this past season where Cohen was the leader of the team and oldest Israeli at 26 at the time. Iftach Ziv was 22, Ben Altit was 24 and Adam Ariel was 23.
Since his time with Ashdod, Cohen returned to Maccabi Tel Aviv and has played a central role on the team especially in Israeli league games. The Yellow & Blue have won two league championships in a row and would like to add a third which would be their second straight over Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion. Cohen also began to play a prominent role with the Israel National Team beginning in 2017 and has been the team’s leader both on the court with over 15 points per game and off of it as well.
Could this be Cohen’s swan song with the club? If he does leave will he go out on top? Tune in Tuesday night to find out.
This interview was conducted during the 2017 season when Cohen played for Ashdod and has was first released on July 28, 2020.