Thanks to my new gig with PeacePlayers International, I’ve recently connected with Aaron Kaplowitz, a Jersey native and Boston University grad currently in Israel, where he covers EuroLeague basketball for the Jerusalem Post. In case you didn’t know, Maccabi Tel Aviv is THE team in Israel, as well as one of the better pro overseas squads in the world and has become a recent pipeline–both ways–for players coming to and from the NBA. Not to step on my man Matt Caputo’s toes, but Aaron has exclusive coverage of a recent playoff game between Maccabi and Real Madrid, another EuroLeague power, in addition to his take on the overseas game and updates on former domestic college stars, NBA journeymen and up-and-coming foreign prospects. With no further adieu…

by Aaron Kaplowitz

During the idle hours of a pedestrian Thursday afternoon in America, more than 6,000 miles away, the best professional basketball club you’ve never heard of was playing a must-win game in front of a dynamic home crowd. Perennial European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, led by a handful of former NCAA stars and NBA vagabonds, rocked Real Madrid 94-75 at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena in a Top 16 EuroLeague showdown.

Will Bynum, the catalyst for Georgia Tech’s 2004 Final Four run, led Maccabi with a season-high 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting. He got help from big man and former University of Maryland standout Terence Morris, who scrapped together 16 points and 15 rebounds.

Are these names ringing a bell? Sure, both Bynum and Morris flirted with The League, logging 15 and 139 career games, respectively, but as stars in college, they had never expected to be playing in countries where soccer ranks slightly above God, and basketball ranks well below tight black jeans. For men.

“This is one of the best experiences I’ve had since college, ’cause I never really had a chance to play much in The League,” said Morris. “I’m not looking to get back [to the NBA]. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m just trying to be in the best situation that I can be happy in.”

As the second-best league in the world, the EuroLeague is a haven for late first-round and second-round draft picks. It’s a place where coddled egos wilt away and the embers of an NBA dream still glow, only more faintly with each passing year.

For players incapable of taking it to the next level, Maccabi is as good of a place as any to make a living. The team’s starting five features exactly one indigenous Israeli, 24-year-old Yotam Halperin, a 2006 second-round pick by the Supersonics. The rest of the starters are Morris; former Indiana Pacers first-round pick Vonteego Cummings; former USC star David Bluthenthal, who also has Israeli citizenship; and Esteban Batista, an afterthought for the Atlanta Hawks the past two seasons. Throw in Bynum’s raw athleticism off the bench, and it’s no wonder Maccabi is expected by many to reach the EuroLeague Final Four in Athens, especially following the 19-point drubbing of Real. Of course, the team wouldn’t be where it is today without former lottery pick Marcus Fizer, whose season likely ended two weeks ago when he tore his meniscus.

“We all get along very well,” said Cummings, who at 32, dispelled any notions of an NBA comeback. “I think the ultimate goal is just to win. If we win, everything else will take care of itself.”

From the opening tip, Real Madrid was in Real Trouble, as the soccer hooligan-like home crowd of 11,700 strong began jumping and chanting in unison, scattering confetti in the air. Both teams fed off the energy, playing at a frenetic pace, with Maccabi employing a full-court press, and Real releasing its point guard down the court on Maccabi shots, leading to repeated fast-break opportunities.

“[Nokia Arena] reminds me of The Pit,” said Real Madrid’s Charles Smith, referring to the University of New Mexico’s infamous home court, where he made a name for himself. “This crowd is amazing.”

Through the first six minutes, the teams were locked at 15-15. With 3:44 to play in the quarter, Maccabi center Nikola Vujcic checked into the game to the delight of the crowd, which welcomed him with a song, for, after all, everything and everyone at a European sporting match gets a song. At 6-feet, 11-inches, Vujcic is the best passing big man in the world, but a torn calf muscle has limited his action this season and led fans to conclude that his best days are behind him.

On Vujcic’s first offensive touch, he appeared rusty and oblivious, like a lumbering big man on the playground blacktop who thinks his height entitles him to talent.

It didn’t take long, however, for Vujcic to recover. On the following possession, he caught the ball on the left block, backed his man down and did what he does best: saw the court. While his defender was caught in a defensive trance, Vujcic whipped a perfectly delivered backdoor bullet to Bynum, who laid in two easy points to put Maccabi up by two.

With just over a minute to play in the quarter, Vujcic, wearing a blue brace on his right leg, backed into the lane, drop-stepped to the right, maintaining his pivot, drop-stepped to the left, maintaining his pivot, spun back to his right ahead of an impatient defender, hooking in an open two.

After the first quarter, Maccabi held a fragile lead, 25-24.

A minute into the second quarter, Bynum dove face-first for a loose ball in the Real backcourt, batting it in the air to kick off a fast break that epitomizes the difference between the NBA and Europe. Vujcic snagged the ball at half-court, led Maccabi on a three-on-one break, before pulling out a playground move by appearing to fling the ball AT the defender, but flicking it to himself instead.

Whistle.

Double dribble.

Let’s be honest. In the NBA, a player would not lay his body out for a ball that has no chance of going out of bounds, otherwise Steve Wojciechowski would be making millions, not assisting Coach K at Duke. A center would rarely lead a fastbreak, and would certainly not pull out any fancy pickup moves. And above all, no NBA ref in his right mind would have called the double dribble.

Vujcic, undeterred, was not done. With Maccabi clinging to a seven-point lead, he caught the ball above the foul line, and, like a painter whose canvas is the passing lanes, he snuck a perfect bounce pass by three defenders to a cutting Omri Casspi for a high-flying, two-handed baseline slam to give Tel Aviv a 35-26 lead. Maccabi used the momentum to finish off a 21-7 run that proved to be enough.

“I really enjoy passing the ball,” said Vujcic after the game. “[Toni] Kukoc said once, ‘A basket makes one guy happy, a pass makes two guys happy.’”

Like the dual benefits of a beautiful assist, when the Indian Pacers signed Sarunas Jasikevicius in 2005, the Maccabi Tel Aviv-NBA relationship became reciprocal. The following year, with Anthony Parker and Maceo Baston following suit, Maccabi established itself as a legit stepping stone to the NBA. This gives players like Morris (29 years old) and Bynum (25) the exposure to get back to The League, especially with preseason exhibitions against NBA squads becoming a standard ritual. But playing for a good team also detracts from filling the stat sheets.

“A lot of [the Americans in Europe] still have a chip on their shoulders, they still have a lot to prove,” said Derrick Sharp, who has seen his share of Americans come and go during his 13 years with Maccabi. “For some teams, they’re playing a lot of minutes, they’re looking to average 25 points. It’s probably just about them improving. If they’re on a great team like ours, or some of the elite teams in Europe, then they gotta be more of a piece to the puzzle.

“I think they have to be careful to make the decision of what team to go to, because if not, they could find themselves frustrated with not playing enough, not getting enough shots, not scoring enough points,”said Sharp, a legend in Israel who doesn’t mind that nobody’s heard of him in America. “A lot of players get caught up in that. They try to
still make it back to The League and try to use Maccabi to do it.”

Bynum fits the bill. A player with incredible talent who’s electrifying at best and erratic at worst, the former Chicago playground legend is the type of player who excels in the open court and falters in a structured system. When asked before the game about his biggest struggles playing in Europe, Bynum thinks he’s not getting the opportunity to showcase his skills.

“I think I need more minutes to dominate Europe,” said Bynum. “I just need the ball. I need 30 or more minutes [a game].”

Bynum itches for his next opportunity to get back to the NBA. He’s hoping that a strong NBA summer league showing coupled with his off-season training with former NBA player and head coach John Lucas, will allow NBA teams to realize his potential.

But the NBA seems to be taking notice of Israel’s home-grown talent. After all, with Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker reshaping the league, an unpronounceable European no-name is a much sexier option that an NBA has-been. When Orlando drafted Lior Eliyahu with the 44th pick of the 2006 Draft, immediately trading his rights to Houston, he became the first Israeli drafted since the Clippers selected UConn’s Doron Sheffer in 1996. Seattle took Halperin nine picks later, and suddenly two Maccabi teammates were vying for the honor of becoming the first Israeli to play in the NBA.

“Listen, it’s obvious that everybody’s biggest dream is to get to the NBA,” said Halperin. “But for now things are good with Maccabi and I only think about Maccabi.

While Eliyahu hasn’t improved much over the past two seasons, Halperin has become a reliable European point guard who can slow the tempo and punish a sagging defender from the outside. Omri Casspi, however, may leapfrog both players by getting to the NBA first.

Casspi, has earned valuable minutes this season by bringing high energy on both ends of the floor. He has explosive hops, a quick first step and an aggressive knack for getting to the basket. His shooting form resembles Shawn Marion’s, leaving much to be desired with his outside game, but, like Marion, he has the confidence to knock down the three. At 19 years old, his upside is much brighter than his fellow countrymen. He’d make for a strong second-round pick in the 2008 Draft, which he plans on entering.

“It’s a dream, it’s something that I’ve worked all these years for, but for now I’m only concentrating on Maccabi,” said Casspi. “I need to improve my shooting, my defense, my rebounding. I’m still young, I’m only 19.”

For the meantime, it’s best that Casspi and his teammates focus on next week’s home game against Greek power Olympiacos, a team that features Americans Lynn Greer, Qyntel Woods, Marc Jackson and Roderick “Moo-Moo” Blackney.

And you thought it was NBA or bust…