Israel celebrates Maccabi Tel Aviv's unlikely European basketball title
Maccabi of Tel Aviv captain Maccabi Guy Pnini holds the trophy and celebrates with teammates after winning the Euroleague Final Four final against Real Madrid in Milan, Italy, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (AP / Luca Bruno)
Aron Heller, The Associated Press
Published Monday, May 19, 2014 7:53AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, May 19, 2014 11:33AM EDT
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Maccabi Tel Aviv's European basketball victory set off a national outpouring of joy in Israel on Monday that went far beyond the boundaries of sports.
Even though the team is dominated by foreign-born players, the victory fostered a rare sense of national pride in a country often riven by internal divisions and international criticism, and provided an opportunity to flaunt a sense of normalcy to the world.
Maccabi's dream season culminated Sunday with an overtime victory over Real Madrid in the Euroleague basketball final in Milan.
Thousands of fans clad in Maccabi yellow filled Tel Aviv's Rabin Square overnight Monday, with many jumping into its landmark fountain. Celebrations erupted in other cities as well, with TV and radio stations airing special broadcasts.
In Milan, the nearly 10,000 fans that made the trip partied all night, hoisting a huge flag of Israel in a public square and hollering the national anthem.
According to initial ratings figures, about a third of the country watched Sunday's game live on TV, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Both men called head coach David Blatt after the game to offer congratulations.
"You were an example of determination. The whole team fought like lions and won," Peres told Blatt. "I watched the whole game and nearly had a heart attack. You are heroes and have brought incredible pride to the state of Israel."
Peres, who said he was wearing a yellow tie, invited the team to his residence for an official reception upon their return.
"Israel is good at impossible things," he said.
A nation of 8 million, Israel still has a small-town feel to it when it comes to its international sporting successes. While jubilant celebrations from Maccabi's die-hard fan base were to be expected, the national celebration reflected the type of patriotic fervour rarely seen around other professional sports clubs.
All three of the major Israeli TV stations aired special broadcasts to cover the team's arrival at the airport. Hundreds of fans waited for the team in the terminal as officials engulfed the players and coaches as they disembarked from an El Al plane.
Following the official reception there, the team was to meet Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai before the main festivities were planned at Rabin Square. All other news was pushed aside, as the country's leaders stopped their business to rally around the team.
Upon greeting visiting Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, Netanyahu informed her that "you've come to something of a national holiday because yesterday we proudly saw the victory of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team for the European championship, so this is a time of great celebration."
Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been a source of national pride, even as its player base has become less and less Israeli.
Maccabi has seven Americans who played at U.S. colleges, and only two Israel-born players are part of the regular rotation. Their foreign players, including former Boston College guard Tyrese Rice, former UNC Greensboro point guard Ricky Hickman and former University of Virginia forward Devin Smith, were instrumental in Sunday's victory. Another trio of American basketball players with ties to Judaism play as Israelis.
The high concentration of foreigners has drawn accusations from rivals that the team is comprised of mercenaries with very little to do with the country. But Maccabi has largely remained one of the few bodies of consensus in a deeply divided society.
The team has dominated Israeli basketball for decades and has grown into a European powerhouse, winning five titles. But in recent years, its aura has begun to fade.
Last year, it lost the Israeli title for the third time in six years -- after having lost it only once in the previous 39 -- and entered the European championship as a huge underdog.
The team that won back-to-back European titles in 2004-05 featured future NBA players like Anthony Parker, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Maceo Baston. Later, homegrown talents Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel also migrated to the NBA.
In contrast, this year's team was devoid of big stars. It needed a dramatic win on the road to even make it to the Final Four and its victories over heavily favoured CSKA Moscow in the semifinals and Real Madrid in the final were sparked by the outstanding play of its bench.
Rice, the tournament's MVP, hit the game winner in the semifinals and dominated the final game, scoring 26 points, including 14 in overtime.
"No one believed in us," Maccabi captain Guy Pnini said. "It is hard to fathom and this will take a long time to sink in."