Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon is hoisted onto the shoulders of players and fans following the team’s overpowering victory in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to win the Euroleague championship. (Photo: AP) The NBA playoffs may have been on the minds of most American basketball fans last week, but where were many of the league’s top executives? In Israel for the Euroleague ‘Final Four’ championships.

According to an NBA spokesman, general managers John Paxson of the Chicago Bulls, Billy King of the Philadelphia 76ers, Rick Sund of the Seattle SuperSonics, and Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics were among those from the NBA in attendance over the weekend to see the hosts Maccabi Tel Aviv overwhelm Skipper Bologna 118- 74 to take the Euroleague Championship.

Playing before a sold-out crowd of over 10,000 at Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, the Israeli team set a host of records on their way to their fourth European Championships, including the most lopsided win in Final Four

The 118 points also marked the most ever scored by one team in Final Four. Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow in one semifinal on Thursday night, with Skipper Bologna defeating Italian countrymen Montepaschi Siena to reach the finals.

To the sounds of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” Captain Gur Shelef and Maccabi veteran Derrick Sharp lifted the Euroleague trophy after the game while thousands dressed in yellow roared. Flamboyant Maccabi coach Pini Gershon – the first Israeli coach to take two European titles – screamed “This is great!”

Maccabi also boasts center Nikola Vujcic, U.S. forward David Bluthenthal, formerly of Southern California, former Bradley University star Anthony Parker, and guards Yotam Halperin, Tal Burstein and Sarunas Jasikevicius, who were all being closely watched by the NBA execs.

In an astounding statistic, some 41 percent of Israeli households watched the game on TV – 698,000 households in total. Meanwhile, some 100,000 Maccabi Tel Aviv fans celebrated the team’s victory all night Saturday in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, according to Israel’s Army Radio.

The most successful professional team in Israel’s history and a pillar of the sport in Europe, Maccabi Tel Aviv was chosen to host this year’s Final Four over a year ago and built its team this year for one purpose – to win the Euroleague title on its home court.

But the Final Four tournament almost didn’t take place in Israel. While Maccabi Tel Aviv was advancing through the stages of the Euroleague, the plan almost became unraveled after Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, which was followed by threats of retaliation made by the terrorist organization.
The Euroleague Board held an extraordinary meeting on March 30 that considered relocating the Final Four from Tel Aviv. After assurances from the Israeli government and its security forces, the Euroleague decided to keep the championship in Tel Aviv.

“The world’s democratic countries need to continue their daily lives and routines, and the message that went out today from the Euroleague is a victory for the world’s democracies over the forces of darkness,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israeli media at the time of the decision.

Last month, Maccabi nearly missed out on the party, but a miracle three-pointer from Derrick Sharp at the buzzer of the deciding Top 16 match sent Maccabi’s game with Zalgiris Kaunas into overtime, where the Israeli champs outlasted the Lithuanians to secure the fourth spot to the event.

Although Maccabi is a name used by sports teams all Israel, when it comes to basketball, both at home and abroad, Maccabi is synonymous with the team from Tel Aviv and the success it has brought Israel on the European stage. Israel’s basketball roots are Maccabi’s, and both predate the founding of Israel as an independent country in 1948. Basketball came to Israel when it was still part of the British empire in the 1930s, and the first organized club was Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The first appearance of the Israeli national team in an official international tournament was at the European Championships in Moscow in 1953. Israel surprised everyone by finishing fifth. One year later in 1954, the Israeli League was born. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the first five titles. In 1969, a young attorney by the name of Shimon Mizrahi took over as chairman of Maccabi. Ever since, Maccabi has been the eternal champ of Israel, with 33 championship titles.

Maccabi was the first Israeli team to participate in European competitions, starting in 1957-58 season, but failed to go past the second round for seven seasons. In 1967-68, Maccabi broke through to participate in Europe for the first time, and in its very first season, made it all the way to the Saporta Cup finals, but couldn’t defeat the Italians of Ignis Varese. It took nine years before Maccabi got its revenge. In 1976-77, Maccabi qualified to the Euroleague semifinals, and once there shocked everyone in Europe. Maccabi stormed past two of the dominant teams of that era, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid, to qualify for the finals. Once again, the other finalist was Varese, but this time Maccabi had the upper hand, and won by a point, 78-77.

That season Maccabi unveiled to European basketball such legendary players as Mickey Berkowitz, his backcourt partner Motti Aroesti, Tal Brody, Lou Silver, Jim Boatwright and Aulcie Perry. In the decades to follow the list of stars would include Earl Williams, Doron Jamchy, Motti Daniel, Kevin McGee, Lavon Mercer, Ken Barlow, Oded Kattash, Nadav Henefeld, Arriel McDonald and Nate Huffman. All along, except in 1993-94, Maccabi represented Israel in the Euroleague, adding another title in 1981, an intercontinental cup the same year, the Suproleague title in 2000-01, in addition to six more appearances in the finals and two more in the Final Four.

And Maccabi’s reputation extends far beyond European shores. Probably no other team in Europe boasts as many wins over NBA teams. The first was against the Washington Bullets just months after they won the 1978 NBA championship. The Suns, the Nets and a team of various NBA stars, including Dr. J., also have lost in Tel Aviv. In the late 1980s, Maccabi was also one point short of shocking the 76ers, one of the strongest teams of that era, in a friendly game that was played in Philadelphia.

The American players on Maccabi Tel Aviv were among the most celebratory following Saturday night’s victory, including Anthony Parker, Derrick Sharp and David Bluthenthal.

Parker and his wife arrived at Maccabi in 2000, just before the current wave of violence against Israel broke out.

“Our first year here was kind of like shell shock. Wow! We were dealing with things that were 20, 30, 45 minutes from our home,” Parker told the PJ Star in Peoria, Illinois. “But, Israelis we met said it’s nothing to worry about. Israelis who see this and hear about this regularly develop a thick skin. And we’ve gotten like that, as well.”

Parker said he feels safer in Tel Aviv than he would in any bigger city in the United States – mainly because of a lack of crime. “In a big U.S. city, I would never let my wife walk around with the dog at midnight like I do here,” Parker said. “There’s no real crime. No murders, no rape, no drive-by shootings. It’s really only an occasional bombing. That’s the trade-off. Here you could be one of the unlucky five or six killed in an attack, while in the States you can’t walk the streets at night.”

But on Saturday night, Parker, nor his teammates were thinking about any such dangers, they were too busy celebrating. Sharp, taking a break from the mayhem summed up the night for an Israel television reporter. “This was the fun game. The hard part was to get here. This is the icing on the cake.”