Almost a week after Israel's impressive EuroBasket campaign ended with a 1st place finish, 'Safsal' sums things up with five comments about the amazing past month, the media hype and Latvia 2009, and promises to calm down until the next summer.
Photos by: Motti Klinger
Underdogs No More
Dahlia Bushinsky, the National Team's official scout, came back from a trip to Finland to spy after Lithuania and in our first talk informed me that it can be done. But they're 6th in Europe, I stated hesitantly, which of course didn’t change her mind. Israel opened the campaign with a great 16 point home win over Lithuania, a win that still didn’t allow us to declare our modest team as a #1 spot front runner, but the following games removed all doubts. Just four years ago Israel finished the qualifying round without a win and extended its losing streak to 15 games. Following that miserable campaign Eli Rabi was named head coach, he changed the conception and put the team on the road toward improvement, but this year was the first time Israel faced expectations before the games began. Winning the last-chance tournament in 2007 and having Shay Doron in shape made for an excellent starting point, and all that was left was finding out if the players can live up to the expectations we weren't even that comfortable having. They lived up big time, and it's time to realize the transformation has been completed. No more surprises, it's time to win by right.
Best Show in Town
The defense against Lithuania, the character in Germany, the near comeback against the Ukraine, Liad and Merav's explosion in Wales, the fighting and team spirit in the win at Lithuania, the heartbreak in Kiev, and Shay's inspiring performance against Great Britain. There's a lot we can say about so many big moments the National Team provided us with over the past month, but we're trying to sum things up here, so we won't. If we must pick an MVP it is of course Shay Doron, with 20.4 points per game and so many unbelievable clutch plays on both ends of the court, but we don’t know if we need to. Israel wouldn't be in Latvia without Liron's threes, assists and crossover, or without Liad's intelligence and hustle, nor without Laine's steals, drives and winning attitude, or Merav's 'what-are-you-doing' baskets, Katia's big contributions inside or the energy off the bench. The team play, motivation and talent made it a very fun team to watch, as you could tell from the fans who packed the Zisman gym wall to wall. You didn’t need to look at the floor to tell the team came out of the locker room 40 minutes before tip off, and we weren't the only ones who got chills from that support.
The media hype surrounding the National Team after the EuroBasket clinching win over Great Britain, and after the men's loss in Great Britain, was unprecedented. Shay and Liron all over one newspaper sports page cover, Shay In Sherf Out in another, interviews with team members on the evening news on various TV channels, follow up stories in the newspapers the next day, and of course lots of coverage online. We don’t remember the last time we had to compete with other journalists for the National Team's attention, and most of those media types had just jumped on the bandwagon. We would be naïve if we didn’t mention the men's team unfortunate situation contributed to the sports editors' will to pump up the Ladies' accomplishment, and we don’t expect the hype to continue. But it sure was heartwarming to see the players and coaches get the attention the rightfully deserve, and it moved the sport one more step forward.
Step Up for Exported Stars
The only thing you could feel down about after the win over Great Britain was the fact that we won't get to see Shay Doron and Liron Cohen until next summer. Cohen signed with Kosice in Slovakia and Doron with Besiktas in Turkey, and both of them will try to help their teams succeed in the EuroLeague. Add Laine Selwyn (Dynamo Moscow) and Jennifer Fleischer (Gdynia) to the list of Israeli ambassadors in Europe, and it's natural to start worrying about what will become of our league. Countries with legitimate European level National Teams can export stars to Europe and still have enough talent to carry the local league. They say there's no vacuum in basketball, and well the only team who lost players from last season is Ramla, but we really need some players to step up this season. Players who didn’t get enough of a chance with the National Team, or didn’t take advantage of it, or weren't on the roster even though they have the talent – it's now your time to show it and make the 2009 squad. It's just a shame that so many of you gathered in so few teams.
Next Year in Latvia
Wait, sigh of relief, much better now. In our last paragraph about the National Team until next summer, we look ahead to the 2009 European Championships. The bracket draw will be held on October 15th and will of course be very significant, but Israel still needs to focus on itself. Despite this campaign's success, you don’t have to look too hard to find room for improvement. Even though Israel finished 3rd in points per game with 75.5 per night, the offensive flow wasn’t good enough, especially at home. Too many times Israel needed heroic plays from the current hot hand, and struggles on offense quickly translated into lack of defensive energy. The most burning problem heading into Latvia is the fact that other than Katia Abramzon, the posts didn't make much impact. Fleischer played under 15 minutes per night and Katia Levitsky under 10, and against Europe's top front lines, that won't be enough. Following the bracket draw we'll be able to form a better assessment as to how much noise Israel is expected to make, top 12 or quarter final hopes, but until then one thing is certain. As said many times during the campaign: Good times have arrived.
Photo: Motti Klinger