Hapoel Haifa will be playing in the Israel Basketball Winner League for the first time in two decades as the Carmel will now have tow teams competing in the top division. The captain of the Reds, Ofek Avital is very familiar with both clubs as he grew up with the Greens, Maccabi Haifa and The Sports Rabbi had the opportunity to talk to the 23-year old just as Elad Hassin’s team readies for the upcoming campaign.
Interestingly enough, Hapoel Haifa was only recently admitted into the league after a disagreement between the Winner League and the Israel Basketball Association as to how many teams would be promoted and relegated for the 2020/21 season. However, after much discussion and debate, Haifa who finished in second place in the Leumit League was finally given the green light to join the big boys.
“There’s no question that I was very relieved when things were finally settled. We understood from Hapoel Haifa that there was a lot of politics involved with the situation and everything eventually would be ironed out. Now we can really start to get ready for the season and stop dealing with all of the nonsense.”
“I didn’t feel any pressure, although that there were moments of fear when I read that ‘Hapoel Haifa wouldn’t be in the Premier League’. But I did know that Hapoel Haifa did everything by the book with the Association and the League and I knew deep down that everything would be just fine and it was just a matter of time.”
Despite all of the background noise, Avital didn’t feel that all of the boardroom action would hinder the club’s preparations for the new campaign, “I don’t think that it will have any affect on our preparations whatsoever. The players and the foreigners really didn’t know all of the details as to what was going on and we just began training at the end of August. We are in two separate groups for now split up between the Israelis and imports due to the quarantine regulations so we are really just ramping up.”
Avital grew up in the Maccabi Haifa youth department and during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons he as part of the senior team in the top league, “I began playing basketball at a very young age, 6-7 with Maccabi Haifa and I knew right away that basketball was my sport. I really fell in love with the game and was able to turn it into my profession. I’m happy that my hard work paid off. I served as captain in the Greens youth system for a number of years and I only have great things to say about my experience.”
“It was really exciting to be called up to the senior team after playing with the youth squads. I was at a point where I was debating whether to go take a more prominent role in the army or go the path of being a professional athlete. Rami Hadar who was the coach at the time, really encouraged me to come to practices, be the 10th man and be a part of the club. He pulled me into the club and that’s how I decided to go the basketball route.”
One of the players Avital was able to share the floor with at Maccabi Haifa was star guard Gregory Vargas who has been named defensive player of the season in the past, “Vargas is a very tough player and it’s a bit of a shock when you come up from the youth team and meet him for the first time. He may have been the same height but he was 20 kilos heavier than me. He was a teacher for me and he always knew how to be the consummate professional. He would always treat one with the proper courtesy and respect while looking you right in the eyes. He showed us how to work hard. He may have not been the most talented, virtuoso or athletic player but due to his hard work in basketball and with his physique he was able to accomplish what he has done the far in his career.”
With Macabi Haifa, the young guard invited his teammate at the time John DiBartolomeo to his home for Shabbat dinner. Thanks to that dinner, DiBartolomeo met Ofek’s sister Stav and they have been dating ever since. Over the past three seasons, DiBartolomeo has played with Maccabi Tel Aviv and has served as the club’s captain over the past couple of seasons.
“John’s a great guy, an American who is now getting some Israeli genes and some Israeli Chutzpah! John is really a superstar and a role model as to how to work hard and maintaining your body by living a proper lifestyle. He is really someone of the highest caliber and his results speak for themselves. The fact that he re-signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv after suffering two hard luck brutal injuries just says it all about him.”
“There’s no question that it’s going to be really exciting to face John on the court, but it’s not something that I am thinking too much about. I’m working on how to make sure that I prepare myself properly for the upcoming season and be ready for games against the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv. We have an exhibition game against them, so I’m already getting ready to go even before the actual season begins.”
During the 2016/17 season, Avital crossed sides in Haifa and moved from Maccabi to Hapoel and ever since the 2018/19 campaign he has been playing under coach Elad Hassin who continued on with the team after being promoted to the Winner League.
“There’s no question that it was tough moving teams and I received all kinds of nasty messages and curses from the Maccabi fans because I went from Green to Red. But I believe that this was best for both sides, as I needed to play to improve and Hapoel being in the Leumit provided me with that opportunity. I knew that I would need to make the jump from the lower league to the top division but I needed to get minutes, playing time and confidence so I could begin my professional career properly. Hapoel really wanted me and made an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
“Elad has been a terrific coach and from a professional point of view he’s one of the best that I have been with in my career. He’s also a great guy and knows how to keep things calm and balanced which gives everyone confidence. I believe that everyone who has played with me will only have good things to say about him. He was able to take the team all the way to the Premier League within a year and a half after not having coached in a couple of seasons. I think he has built an excellent team for the Winner League, so let’s see what will be this year.”
This past season 2019/20 Avital scored 6.2 points, added 2.5 assists and grabbed 1.6 rebounds in 20 minutes over game in the Leumit League while serving as the team’s captain.
“It was very exciting to be promoted although we didn’t make it up via the playoff because we were a quality team and I believe that we would have gone into the postseason just the way we should have. However, it’s exciting nonetheless as we began the season with only one win and four losses, but we ended up winning 16 of our last 19 games. So those who criticized us for not deserving to be promoted, just look at the facts; we proved that we were the best team on they court in the Leumit.”
One Avital’s favorite players to collaborate with on the court is with veteran guard Jason Siggers which he has been doing since the start of the 2019 season, “He’s a professional both on and off of the court and he’s juts such a great guy to play with. I have been able to learn a tremendous amount from him while he also knows how to take criticism. Jason is just amazing to play with.”
In addition to Siggers, a player that Avital will play with this upcoming campaign is Amit Simhon who he also shared the court with when the two played for Maccabi Haifa, “I hope that all of the Israeli players who signed with the club will be successful. Simhon is someone who I have maintained a relationship with over the past few years even once we both left the Greens so this is like we are closing the circle. Amit saw me as a child with Maccabi so it’s really neat that I am now captain of Hapoel and here we are together once again.”
There may me a number of question marks surrounding the club as it returns to the Winner League, but that doesn’t worry Avital, “You’ll see a quality team and we have a terrific professional staff. Beyond that I think that the spirit of Hapoel Haifa is what will be able to take us far this season and I’m sure you’ll see a bunch of guys who will battle for the club just like we did last year.”
After playing in the lower leagues for twenty years, Hapoel Haifa will return to the big stage and Avital understands the importance of the club’s promotion to the fans and the entire city, “There’s no question that the Red side of the city is super excited and I do feel that it is a big responsibility for me as the captain and as an important part of the team. The responsibility is on me and the rest of the players. I feel that we should never blame the coach or management and I believe that it’s all on the players because at the end of the day we are the ones on the court playing the game. I think we have a good squad and I hope and know that we will have a good season.”
As for dreams, Avital is not looking too far ahead into the future, “If you would have asked me this question last season I would have said that I wanted to play with Hapoel Haifa in the Premier League and now this year we are realizing that dream. So my next ambition is to be able to play in Europe with Hapoel Hapoel. Have a good season, make it into the playoffs and represent Hapoel Haifa in Europe as well.”