Mitnick: Israeli Underdogs’ Journey To The Cup Finals

This past week, the majority of the leagues in Europe took a break from their season as teams competed in the Final Four of each country’s respected State Cups. Similar to the leagues in soccer, State Cups are a one-and-done tournament that consists of every team in the first and second division of each country, with two rounds being played out every six weeks or so. While the State Cup may not hold the same respect and demeanor as a league championship, the Cup is given a great deal of media attention, and success in the Cup brings a great deal of respect to a team and its players.

In my first season in a scouting, second assistant role, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a Maccabi Rishon Lezion team that made it all the way to the finals of the Israel Cup. Despite not being the highest profile team or having the biggest budget, and despite missing one of our stars, Brandon Bowman, for two rounds of the Cup, we were able to make a surprise run to the Finals. Without Bowman, we managed to knock off Hapoel Jerusalem, perennially one of the top three teams in Israel, and end the Cinderella story of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, a second division team who had knocked off Galil, the second place Israeli team, and who had managed to make the Final Four of the Cup last season.

While Bowman had returned for the Final Four of the Cup, we knew going into last week that it would be a very difficult challenge to win two straight games in the famous Nokia Area in Tel-Aviv. Top teams in Europe and in the NBA are used to playing two, three or even sometimes four games in a week, but with a smaller budget and much less experience, two games in a week against some of the top competition in Israel is no easy task. For a typical game I have an entire week to watch a lot of film, make scouting reports, analyze statistics and create video for film sessions. Without as much time to prepare, you are forced to think on the fly more than usual. This week was a real eye opener to the type of grind a top European or NBA team staff goes through on a weekly basis, and has left me waiting for exciting challenges like this again in the future.

We managed to knock off Habikaa in the Final Four 78-71, despite blowing a 16-point fourth quarter lead. Frank Robinson led a valiant comeback effort for Habikaa with 16 points, but in the end, Rishon’s quartet of Americans, Derwin Kitchen, Joe Crawford, Adrian Uter and Bowman were able to band together and close out the win as they combined for 65 of the team’s 78 points. The stage was set for a match up against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the Cup Finals.

While this wasn’t my first time preparing to play against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, playing against them at Nokia in the State Cup finals is something special for anyone who knows anything about Israeli basketball. As a teenager visiting Israel, I was introduced to European basketball by the 2004 Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel-Aviv team that featured Anthony Parker and Sarunas Jasikevicius in a year when American guard, Derrick Sharp, hit an incredible last second shot to beat an Arvydas Sabonas led Zalgiris squad to make it to the Final Four. Now, in 2012, I found myself shaking hands with Sharp before the game, as he is the second assistant to David Blatt, wishing him luck.

Going into the game, few people gave us a chance to take down Maccabi, as they have roughly 20x our budget, and a roster filled with stars and former champions. There are several players on Maccabi Tel-Aviv who, individually, make more than our entire team combined. To put things in perspective, Tel-Aviv has an entire scouting department and a second assistant coach in Sharp who is a legend in the Israeli league and one of Europe’s all time greats as a three-point shooter. Aside from one of Israel’s top coaches, Effi Birenboim, and an up-and-coming assistant coach in Matan Harush, Rishon has me, a 23 year old recent college graduate taking his first step from being a writer to working with a coaching staff.

Unfortunately, despite Rishon fighting hard until the last minute, Tel-Aviv won the game 82-69 behind a valiant 23-point effort by Keith Langford. Maccabi jumped out to an early lead, and despite constantly chipping away, we were never able to take control of the game. While Langford may be an incredible one on one player, the team make-up of Maccabi consists of hard working players whose expertise is capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. What makes Maccabi difficult to prepare for, is that even if you can come up with a successful plan that works against them, if you make even the slightest mistake in the game, a silly turnover or a defensive lapse, they will make you pay.

Rishon fought hard until the end, cutting Maccabi’s lead from 18 to 8 in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get over the mountain. Joe Crawford led the way with 20 points, and Derwin Kitchen (18 points, 9 rebounds) and Brandon Bowman (15 points 11 rebounds) did their part, as the team lost in only its second-ever appearance in the Israel Cup Finals, and its first in 20 years. Despite being disrespected by the Israeli Basketball Federation, who were shown carving Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s name into the trophy while we were only down 8 with four minutes left to go in the game, our team showed great spirit fighting hard until the last minute.

Going into the locker room, I was expecting that we would have to pick up the players’ spirits to get them up for the rest of our season. Getting to the Finals of the Cup and losing is a tough feeling to stomach.  However, our players showed a great deal of mental toughness, already talking about how much they could learn from this game and use it to propel us to a successful end of the season. Reaching this type of success in the Cup can sometimes cause a team to become a little too satisfied, but our guys remain hungry and determined to stick together and fight for the rest of the season.

Overall, this year’s Cup was an incredible experience for me in my first year. Getting a taste of working under championship pressure, and witnessing the professional and calm manner that my coaches displayed throughout the run to the Cup Finals, has provided me a great example with how to lead a team and how to prepare for big games. The most important lesson I learned is that in professional sports, it is essential to move on quickly. Instead of taking a night to sulk over the loss, I started working on the video for our Sunday match up with Ashkelon, as we only had two days to prepare for our third game in less than a week. Just another reminder that regardless of whatever highs or lows you face, you need to keep preparing yourself for the next challenge.



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