Hours after the Stingers won the 39th annual Beer Sheva ASA Tournament, another basketball championship was won in Israel. Only this one had seemed to attract slightly more national attention.
Thanks to an 80-78 win over Jerusalem, Maccabi Tel Aviv is again the champion of Israeli pro basketball. The Israeli Premier League is widely considered one of the best pro leagues in Europe, and the popularity among Israelis is very high.
The best-of-one final was played before a sellout crowd of more than 12,000 at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena, complete with an NBA-like presentation (flashy starting lineups, cheerleaders, halftime shows, etc…)
The top four teams make the playoffs in the 12-team league, with a one-night Final Four (NCAA style), and the championship game, two nights later.
The competitive balance however is questionable in Israel with wealthy Tel Aviv (the New York Yankees of Israeli Basketball) having won (bought) 14 straight league championships and 37 of the past 38. Talk about a dynasty… Makes Baseball’s American League East seem like the home of parity.
Tel Aviv has been most successful at bringing over American talent, current Toronto Raptor Anthony Parker, who spent three seasons in Israel, just one example.
Teams are made up of a mix of American, Israeli, and European talent, with a CFL-like minimum for domestic players. League rules require that at least two Israelis be on the court at all times for each team. In other words, you can’t just load up on local bench warmers, a rule I found pretty interesting.
As for the game itself, Tel Aviv only led once- for the final two seconds. Jerusalem came as close as it has in years for the Israeli title, but once again it could only come up second best against Tel Aviv. Jerusalem also lost in last year’s final.
The two cities are about a 45-minute car ride away, and its hard to deny a basketball rivalry.
I had the chance to watch the game from the Old City in Jerusalem, where large screen TVs were showing the game on the streets and on bar terraces. Reminded me a little bit of the scene in Little Italy during last Summer’s World Cup.