Sunday, June 14, 2009

Where They Are Today - Ted Owens

"Meet your new coach, coach Evans", that's how Maccabi Tel Aviv managers presented the American gentleman who came as replacement for Zvika Sherf in the summer of 1989. "Coach Evans?" Asked Kevin Magee, "Don't know him". That was odd…the veteran coach who joined the Yellows was one of the most appreciated basketball experts in the USA – five years after he ended 19 years as Kansas university coach and was replaces by no other then Larry Brown. So how could it be? Maybe because Evans is really Coach Owens, Ted Owens.

"During my first month in Israel I insisted on fixing the mistake every time" say Owens in a conversation from his office in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Maccabi's management presented me as Ted Evans, and from that point and on, everybody called me that. 'Owens, my name is Owensw, I kept saying, but it didn't help. After one month I gave up. There was no point in insisting anymore".

Owens stoped insisting, and it seems that was the philosophy that portrayed his short tenure in Israel. After a mediocre half season, the well heralded coach was forced to say goodbye to Yad Elyahoo, after a devastating defeat to Limouge 75:100 in France. He was replaced by Sherf – the same local tough coach, who stopped the easy-going atmosphere within the team. Although the separation was painful, Owens is still a pleasant man and remembers his time in Israel in a very positive way, because of the country itself, because of its people, because of Mony Fanan, and yeah…because of the team.

"My family looks back with fond memories of a year in Israel", says Owens, who now works as a business counsel in Capital First group in Oklahoma. "We had great friends who taught us about the local culture. We learned much about devotion to family and observance of religious holidays. We learned about the history of a great nation. Since then, our experiences have encouraged me to study the history of your country. I wish that I had known more before I came, so that I could have appreciated your heritage more.

"I even learned about politics in Israel – Likud, the Labor party. Today I feel it helped me understand better the things that happen in Israel. We had no problem in getting acclimated. I look backwards and really enjoy the memories. We really had fun. The only thing I had to get used to was the security. We had to stay within the hotel's area while traveling for away games and we had police escort everywhere we go".

Owens speaks highly of Israel, but he admits things haven't looked the same at the start. "One day I got a phone call from Jack Ramsey (Legendary coach of the Portland Trail Blazers), and he told me about a job opening in Israel. Bob Hill (former Seattle Supersonics coach), who served as my assistant coach in Kansas, said I should check out that option. I thought to myself it might be interesting and went to Israel with an invitation from the team.

"The problems started already in the Los Angeles airport, when I was prevented from getting on the plain. El-Al's security people hold me for three hours and approved my flight only after they contacted Maccabi's management. Even though, my landing in Israel was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I remember the Israeli passengers clapping hands and starting to sing 'Heveno shalom aleychem'. I got really emotional".

After facing so many difficulties getting to Israel, you can imagine that Owens was concerned with the security problem. "During the work interview, I asked about the security situation and Maccabi's people started laughing. 'You come from Los Angeles and you ask about the security around here?'. They were right", claims Owens, "During all my time in Israel, we had a nice house in Ramat Hasharon and we never locked our door. We felt as we were in the safest place on earth".

In the early stages of his tenure with Maccabi, Owens also felt confident regarding his status and his ability to lead the team to new heights in the European stage with a quality roster that had Magee, Ken Barlow, LaVon Mercer, Doron Jamchi and others. "I wasn't afraid of the expectations" the coach recalls, "I came from a program with great tradition. The first coach of Kansas was Jim Naismith, who invented basketball. From the moment I was signed, I was sure I can lead the team to achievements".

After he secured himself a new challenging coaching job, Owens started working full steam. Unfortunately for him, most of his Israeli players were traveling with the National team in the US and the preparations hit a slow start. The American gentleman didn't get a chance to get acquainted with his team from top to bottom. "We did a good job during the pre-season camps, but when the National team players joined us, we had only few days left before the first game against Limoges at home. We didn’t have a chance to work the team as a whole".

How disappointing Indeed. The "Yellows" lost in front of their home crowd 78:88 at the beginning of the European season in the champions' cup. "This was my worst moment in Israel", claims Owens, "If you want to get to the final-four, it's highly important to start the season in a good way. The defeat was a blow to the team's confidence. We felt as if we are not as good as we thought. We knew we had to start to regroup as a team in a hurry. I didn't have enough time to do it".

What could have you done to change it?
"The truth is I didn't know enough about the team when I arrived, and I had to get to know the players and organize the team under pressure. I was unaware to our weaknesses and strength. Looking back, I think I should have stay with the style of play and drills that were before me and settle for small changes until we had more time for a serious makeover. When you change too much, players don't know the new system and don't feel comfortable in it".

One thing that didn't make Owens work any easier was the management and chairman Shimon Mizrahi's tendency to get involved with his work as a coach, in practices and even during games. "We all shared the same objectives, but we didn't always agree on the best way to achieve it".

Although Owens truly appreciate the management efforts – first and foremost the old-time manager Moni Fanan – when it comes to dealing with logistics and leadership, he does criticize its involvement in the coaching. After all, tt was him that was hired to be responsible for this part of the team's activity and more than once felt his authority was diminished.

"When I got to Israel, I found out the team used to have a work out before the tactic practice. This is something that I felt was wrong and I wanted to change it. You can't expect the players to concentrate on the coach briefings after the conditioning coach worn them out physically. I demanded it would be changed, so the workout will take place at the end of practice, but management opposed it, and I had to compromise. I my opinion, if there's a conditioning coach, he should work under the head coach supervision and not take orders from someone else".

Owens also recalls he didn't feel very comfortable managing games on the sidelines under the inspecting eyes of the chairman that still uses to sit on a chair next to the team's bench. Sometimes he even used to give advices and orders about the game itself: "I think the management don't need to sit on the bench during games and not visit the locker room before games or during halftime break. It hurts the coach's authority. I don't think they meant it, but it does have some influence".

Owens' troubles didn't end here. The biggest problem he needed to deal with was probably Barlow's injury that prevented him from presenting his well known abilities from earlier years. Owens admits he wanted to replace him, but didn't get the support he needed from the management and settled for the forward and his bad shape. "It was a big problem and we had to replace him with another foreign player. I would have brought a Point guard instead of him, but I just kept on hoping Kenny can recover, because he was a terrific player before his injury", say the former coach, and recalls he also wanted Nadav Henefeld on the team. "He was a great talent and I asked that they'll try to bring him, but unfortunately for me, he was already committed to UConn".

Since the Limoges' loss, Maccabi got beaten several times by Barcelona, Yugoplastika Split and other teams and the crowd patience started to fade. All of a sudden you could here fans chanting from the stance, demanding for Owens' head. He could feel the pressure mounting. "You surprise me….I was sure they were all cheering for me", Owens jokes about it today, "I did appreciate the fans loyalty for the team. In English the word 'fan' comes from the word 'fanatic'. It wasn't easy to run the team when the public is against you, but this is the coach's job".

The late appointment to the job, the problematic preparations for the season and the lack of practices at the beginning of the season, low productivity of the foreign players, the pressure of the fans and natural adaptation difficulties – all those look similar to the situation of another foreign coach of Maccabi – the current one, Neven Spahija. Although it is hard to compare both cases, 15 years apart, Owens does advise the Croatian coach to stay loyal to his own way, never mind what everyone else say.

"He has a lot of good conditions around him: great tradition, loyal fans and he need to find a way to communicate with the management and hope they'll be patient with him. But first of all a coach needs to act by his own philosophy. There is no other way. He needs to go with what he knows and believe in. And the fans going against him, there is a saying: 'If the postman won't kick the barking dogs, the mail will never reach its destiny'. He needs to ignore all of this, he have to shake it of him. Otherwise, he will never achieve his goals".

Owens is wiser in retrospect, but after that shameful defeat in Limoges, he found himself fired from the team. "It was a shame they didn't gave me more time to do what I think was needed for the team. There were a lot of problems, but no excuses. The expectations were high and I thought we should be better. I wanted to bring the European cup to Tel Aviv, but I needed more time.

Though his Israeli experience had a bitter end, overall his memories of as well as his family's remained sweet. "I remember my kids wanted to go back to the US so bad, but when we did came back, they wanted to return to Israel", says Owens, that remained updated with everything that happens in Israel and Maccabi. "I'm sure that with Fanan, the team is in good hands. I enjoyed reading about the latest titles in the Euroleague. I guess it was terrific. I also met Anthony Parker when he got to Oklahoma City with the Toronto Raptors to play the Hornets. He is a solid NBA player (by the way, his teammate Joey Graham, was working with Owens).

- Still, do you regret anything about Israel?
"There are things that are beyond my control, and now I might think about things that I would have done differently, but my biggest regret was saying 'no' to Minnesota Timberwolves, who were interested in me as assistant coach. I got the offer during Maccabi's preseason camp in Italy, short time after I signed my contract. It could have been a great opportunity for me to start a longtime NBA career".

Another thing Owens regret is his lack of knowledge of Hebrew language. "It really bothered me I couldn't pronounce Khen Lipin's name correctly. My throat got dried trying to call him 'Chen…Chen…', and he was our first point guard. Since then I learned a lot about Hebrew names, especially those from the bible. Issac, and Mordechai, which is the original name of Moti Daniel, and of course Da'vid. Even today I call a friend of my Da'vid instead of David", says coach Evans…sorry, I meant Owens.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In the Name of the Father, and the Sons of Israel

It was one of those terrible evenings for Baltimore Colts players. Not only had they got their butts whacked in a pre-season game in Detroit, but they had also had to confront their angry team owner, Robert Irsay in the locker-room, who berated them, and threatened, as usual, to fire them all.

With their heads down, they got on the team’s bus on their way to the airport, where they were surprised to meet the son of their terrifying boss. Perplexed and embarrassed, the kid wanted to apologize for his father’s behavior.

Even then, at the age of 16, Jim Irsay felt a need to try and make amends for his father’s wrongdoings – towards his players and coaches, his business partners, even his family.

Since, he discovered, he couldn’t prevent his dominant father from making mistakes and hurting people, all he could do was try and fix the damage, or at least ask for forgiveness.

That is something Bob Irsay never knew how to do – not when he took the Colts from the city of Baltimore and transferred them to Indianapolis, and not when he got into a dispute with his parents and chose to deny them and his Jewish heritage.

Today, 10 years after his father’s death, 48-year-old Jim Irsay heads the Indianapolis Colts, one of the most successful teams in the National Football League.

The team is valued at $911 million, according to the latest Forbes survey, and even won last season’s championship. That’s something father Bob never managed to achieve.

Indeed, we might not be doing him justice when we present you with his life story – his childhood in a Christian home in Chicago, the revelation of his Jewish origin which had been hidden from him by his dad, his affinity to the spiritual, to sports, music, and art.

“Spirituality is a very important part of my life. Faith is a personal thing, but I do think any individual has a relationship with God. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. I believe in compassion towards all humans”, Irsay said in a special interview for Ynet.

“I was raised as a Catholic, but Judaism is a significant part of who I am, as well as other philosophies and ideas. I do think God exists, and it doesn’t matter what name you call him or what we think about him. I don’t think we are human entities having a spiritual experience but rather, spiritual entities having a human experience”, Irsay said.

Irsay talks openly about his Jewish roots for the first time in this interview.
“There is no doubt that my Jewish heritage did have an influence on me. As a kid I didn’t have the chance to experience the ceremonial side of it, but I was certainly intrigued with the Jewish tradition and its values and it had a significant role in my spiritual growth.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to know that side of the family, but I learned a lot from my father’s lawyer Michael Chernoff who was an observant Jew and a close friend of the family.

“I also have a lot of Jewish friends, including Herb and Mel Simon (Pacers owners) and their son David, who is about my age. They are all very respectful people in Indianapolis”.

Unlike the Simons, Irsay got aquatinted with his Jewish background at a late age. “I found out about my Jewish roots only when I was 14. I never met my grandparents and my dad never talked about them. There was fallout in their relationship and it was cut off when my dad was 30.

“My mom was Catholic from Polish origin and I was raised as a Catholic. The first time I discovered my Jewish connection was in high school, when somebody told me that he knows some family relatives who live in Skokie, a place with a big Jewish community. I asked my mom and she told me this information is true.

“Since then, I discovered a lot about my heritage and learned about it. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to meet my grandfather and grandmother who passed away. But after I became older I managed to make up for the fracturing with the help of my aunt and my father’s brother who is still alive.

“I also made contact with his daughter, my cousin, Lori Irsay, who became a close friend of the family and visits the Colts games often.

“You can say I represent the American melting pot, but I’m certainly proud of my family’s heritage. I imagine it was very hard for my grandfather and grandmother to leave Hungary and come to Ellis Island with nothing on them, and still to start it all over again and make a life for themselves in a new country.”

During his investigation, Irsay encountered a surprising detail about his family name. Several years after his father’s parents arrived at Ellis Island, they changed their last name to Irsay in an attempt to adapt to their new surroundings.

Their original name, how surprising, was Israel. “I was born as Jim Irsay, but through my investigations I found out that it’s true. I have no documentation to prove it, but from what I’ve found out, I have a reason to believe that when my grandparents came to Ellis Island their family name was Israel”.

- So it would be only natural for you to come and visit the Holy Land.
“I never been in Israel, unfortunately. I know that Bob Kraft goes there often and so do Herb and Mel (Simon). Since I had little children and being with the team, I don’t have enough time to go abroad. I was with the team in Tokyo and visited Paris and London in the past, but that’s about all.

“My mom was in Israel when she was younger, and I’ve also been told that there is tree with my father’s name – like a part of a donation or something”.

Even though it seems like a private matter, Jim was not the only one making investigations about his family. In 1986, a story about his father was published in Sports Illustrated.

The slick businessman from Chicago became a persona non grata in Baltimore, after one cold night in March 1984, when he hired 12 trucks and transferred the local Colts up north to Indianapolis.

This shocking move left the local fans heart broken and traumatized. They are not willing to forgive that move to this day – 10 years after his death.

The SI’s story revealed that Irsay’s negative behavior – being bluntly insensitive, cheap and untrue – not only affected his relationship with Baltimore’s society, the fans, the players, and coaches of his team, but also with his own family.

The story pointed out that Bob Irsay had disowned his parents and their Jewish heritage, and even used an anti-Semitic slur on occasion.

“The article published in Sports Illustrated was very hard for him,” Irsay recalls. “He was fighting his demons. He also had a tough time dealing with the media and he didn’t know what it was like to be in the public eye.

“Yeah, you can cheat, but then somebody will check it and will find it is wrong,” Irsay said. One of the facts exposed in the article was Irsay’s Jewish origin, which he denied publicly.

“My father had troubles with his father and he wanted to stay away from all that he represented, including Judaism.

“The fracture was so deep that I think if my grandfather had been Catholic my father would probably have converted to Judaism”.

Even though he does not condone his father’s behavior, today, as a grown man with a family of his own, Irsay (a father of three girls – Carly, Casey, and Calen) is doing the best he can to understand his dad, who suffered great tragedies in his private life.

Besides the conflict with his father, he had to deal with taking care of his retarded son (Thomas, Jim’s brother, who died at young age), and the tragic death of his daughter Roberta, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 14.

“From the side, I watched him dealing with his traumatic personality in his awkward way. He experienced a lot of tragedies in his life. It was all very painful for him. And on the top of it all, the alcohol, it influenced his judgment”. said Irsay.

“He was a troubled man who suffered from an alcohol problem. He tried to forget this part of his life, which was very painful for him. He was hurt”.

- Weren’t you mad at him?
“As a child, I could feel his pain and saw him do things he shouldn’t do and say stuff he shouldn’t say. I was his son and it wasn’t easy. I tried my best not to judge him. Alcohol is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer.

“He did the best he could for his family. There were times when I was mad about him, but I knew he felt he wasn’t treated fairly by his parents. When you grow up and have children of your own, you get a different perspective about life and family”.

Naturally, Irsay also got a new perspective about running a professional football team, since he inherited the Colts after his father death in 1997 (not before a legal struggle with Bob second wife).

During the 10 years he has served as the team owner, the Colts became highly successful - in complete contrast to his father’s mediocre team - and even won the Superbowl last January.

Much of the credit for the last decade’s success has to be given to Peyton Manning, the great quarterback who was picked first in the 1998 draft and changed the face of the team.

But one can assume that if it wasn’t for Irsay’s efforts, the superstar would already have been leaving Indianapolis like many others have over the years, when Bob was the one in charge.

Jim brought with him a totally new approach and turned the Colts into winners and at the end of the road, champions – something his father failed to achieve in his life. One reason, amongst others, was Bob's lack of experience when it came to running a football team. Jim’s path was different. His qualifications for the job go back to the numerous positions he held in the organization, so it was smoother and easier. On the other hand, Irsay also learned a lot from the mistakes his dad made.

“My father always wanted to win, but he didn’t know how to do it” Irsay explained.

“The alcohol made him do crazy things. I think he was the only one in history to fire a coach after a preseason game. I tried to restrain him sometimes, but it was hard to stop him. It’s hard to stop a man from self-destruction. My dad didn’t grow into the game as I did, he never had a chance to learn about it, as I did. So, I’m trying to implement everything I learned – the positives and the negatives.

"Sometimes the best teachers are the ones that make mistakes. I was only 36 when my father died and I became the owner of the Colts. I was the youngest owner in the NFL, but I was prepared.

"Unlike my father, I grew up into the football business. As a kid I used to visit the preseason camp in Golden, Colorado. I actually played football in college and even though I wasn’t great, I learned a lot about the game.

"After that I started working in the organization. Knowing that I’m going to be the owner at some point, I tried to learn as much as I could. I did it all – from scouting, to PR and the team management. On the other hand, you try to learn from other people’s mistakes. I did watch my father from the side. Some of the wrong things he did, I learned a lot”.

One thing Irsay learned from his dad was how not to treat his players. While Bob’s paranoiac way suggested that the players were no other than his employees, not to say slaves, Jim keeps in close contact with his stars and constantly shows his gratitude for the prosperity they brought to the team and himself.

“I’m my own man and I have my own way to run the team. I think it’s extremely important to hear what people have to say, talk to the players and be close to them”.

Being close to the players? It is unlikely a that majority of the owners will adopt this approach (certainly not after Arthur Blank from Atlanta was severely bitten by Michael Vick and his dogs miserable affair). From their experience, they have learned that an intimate relationship is not good in the football business, where players come and go. The reality of the NFL is that players settle in, make a name for themselves, become part of the community and then demand a big raise in their contract. On their agents' advice, they might then leave. There is not to much place for sentiments here.

This tough reality is even more complex in Indianapolis, where Irsay needs to invest a lot of money to keep Manning and other stars like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney, who he signed last summer on a six-year contract for $72 million, on the team. When such big chunks of the team salary budget goes on the stars, the team has to discharge others that came to the team, grew up within it, and became key players. It happens year after year, when their contract ends, most of them leave for other teams who can afford to pay them more.

“It’s really tough to say goodbye to players every year” said Irsay. “You get to know them during the years, and then you miss them. But this is what it like in the NFL and it’s getting worse with a team like the Colts. We have Peyton Manning, Marvin, Reggie and Dwight – all are future Hall Of Famers. It takes a lot of money to keep them on the team. You might find one, two or three hall of famers on a team. We have five or six of them. According to the NFL system, everything goes against you if you are a successful team – the draft, the salary cap, the schedule.

“You have to remember the Colts had the biggest payroll in the league, even though we are one of the smallest markets in the league. We also have a problem with our stadium, which is the smallest in the league, although that been taken care of with the new stadium. But, it all has a cost, and it comes with missing good players, that you can keep on paying them under these restrictions”.

- How can you keep your personal relationship with them separate from the cold football business?
"For me personally, it’s really tough. You have to see good people go. Brandon Stokley, Cato June and certainly Edgerin James. It was hard seeing him go, he was one of my favorite players ever. It tore my heart letting him go, but there was no choice. As an owner, you can’t be codependent. If you are, you are in the wrong business. No chance for you to make it".

Someone who won’t leave soon, and if it's up to Irsay will ever never leave, is Manning. At the age of 31, the quarterback holds an impressive records of six playoffs appearance with the Colts in eight seasons.

Winning the Superbowl last season officially crowned him as one of the best football players ever. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the Colts really had a tough time choosing between him and Ryan Leaf, before picking him first in the 1998 draft (Leaf was picked second by San Diego and considered one of the biggest flops in league history).

“It’s a true blessing to have him” said Irsay, “As an owner, it’s a blessing to have an asset as Peyton, not only being such a good quarterback, but because of all the things he does in the community. He is so interested in everything, and always conducts himself as a professional. He serves as a role model for so many people…to think we really considered taking Ryan Leaf…It was a true dilemma, but we ended up making the right decision.

“He was a true blessing for us and I wish he would stay for another fifty years. You see how tough it is for Miami to find a replacement for Dan Marino or Denver with John Elway (who was picked by the Colts in 1983but refused to play for Bob Irsay and got traded to the Broncos). Peyton is in the same class of quarterbacks”.

In order to keep their star quarterback out of harm's way for such a long time, they need to find him a skilled body guard who can protect him from rival defenses. Someone in the mold of Tariq Glenn, who was so successful indoing just that over the last eight years. But the veteran offensive tackle decided to retire last summer and left the Colts shocked, looking for alternative solutions. Irsay admits he was surprised.

“Tariq was a great player for us” said Irsay, “He surprised us, we didn’t expect him to retire this year, because he is still in his prime. But I believe we will adjust to the new situation. We have Howard Mudd as offensive line coach and he is a hall of famer in his field. We will miss Tariq, but we picked Tony Ugoh in the draft. He is a terrific athlete, who was a discus thrower in college and we believe can do the job, we also have Charlie Johnson, who played well in the Superbowl, after replacing Ryan Diem who was injured”.

“This it how it goes in the NFL business. You need to cope with unexpected things on the way, things never go as expected. You have to adjust to the changing reality – from injuries to other problems. I believe we we’ll be OK, with our experienced coaching staff, a healthy Dallas Clark and the Anthony Gonzalez, who’s going to be a great player”.

When Irsay promises the Colts will be OK, he means much more than that. As a reigning champion, it’s only natural, he wants to return to the biggest event in American culture. “Winning the Superbowl was unbelievable, but it was also the toughest four hours I ever had in my life. You come within 100 meters from the Everest top, knowing that if you lose, you’re going the fall all the way down.

“We worked so hard during the season and there were lots of doubts raised: Can Peyton lead the team to the Superbowl? Is our defense good enough? When we accomplished that, we knew we become a part of history. It was fun, and I’d like to do it again this year”.

Side by side with his football passion, Irsay is deeply involved with music and arts. He writes, composes and even plays with famous musicians – his friends John Mellencamp and Steven Stills (from Crosby, Stills and Nash). The music never leaves him, even when he travels with the Colts on their way for a road game. He always takes his guitar with him… while Elvis Pressley and Jerry Garcia’s original guitars that he purchased, stay behind in a well-kept place in his house.

“My art is my life, it’s the most important thing for me” Irsay proclaimed. "Music has been an important part of my life since I started violin lessons at age six. For me, it's an outlet for creative expression and I particularly enjoy setting my poetry to music I've long admired singer-songwriters and have been influenced by some of the best - Bob Dylan and John Lennon to name just two".

It’s not really surprising that Irsay is such a big fan of Dylan. They both have a lot in common: The music, the Jewish roots, the ideologies and the beatnik way of life, that was infused into both of them by Jack Kerouac. Actually, in 2001 Irsay bought the original manuscript of the famous writer's "On the Road” for $2.43 million.

“I am a big Dylan fan. It was well known that his origin name was Robert Zimmerman and obviously, he had his issues with Christianity and Judaism” Irsay noted. “You can say I’m also blending it all – Christianity, Judaism and other philosophies and ideas and try to take what is positive from each thing. I believe in treating the other as he should treat you. I think people are not doing a good job by judging others. Usually they try to label you, and expect you to act according to their labels. But I just won’t take it”.

Because this is how Irsay is…football and music, Judaism and Christianity, father and mother, weight lifting, boxing and doing business, Peyton Manning, Deight Freeney, Lennon and Dylan. It all combines within him, because Jim Irsay is all of it. A human being. And he certainly has nothing to apologize for that.

This text was published on ynet on Sept 25th 2007 after Yom Kippur

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Stormin' into New Orleans

"I don't came all the way from Israel just to see the Saints?" – time after time I was asked by surprised New Orleans residents to explain what are my business in their decaying city. You can understand their amazement. In the US the city is still mentioned with regard to hurricane Katrina, but not a lot of Americans still occupy their mind with thoughts about it's wreckage, people and football team. Today, a year and four months after the storm.

Once upon of time, things were different. New Orleans was known as the nightlife capitol of the US. The city that care gorgot, they used to call it. That's how it was in the French Quarter, between the Jazz concert and the strip clubs of Bourbon street – Sodom and Amora of America. The alcohol, drugs and sex all over made you forget any care, worry or the wife that stayed behind with the Kids at home. And then Katrina came and changed everything. No only that the care showed it face in New Orleans, since those terrible days, it seems it was the city itself which was forgotten.

Congressional hearings, civil protests and even the well spoken documentary by Spike Lee didn't really managed to attract the attention of the government to the rebuilding process. Although they try to convinse everybody that the Big Easy is back, the scars on it's bleeding streets indicates there is a crisis going on. That's the way it goes when you have Iraq and Afghanistan on the top of your agenda. In our mother empire it's not accustomed to act according to the principal of your poor – first. And George W. Bush knows that in the neglected Louisiana metropolin there are a lots of poor, this year more than ever.

The city is ruined, half of its residents are still refugees all over the country, but the government keeps on with its invisible hand policy, which fits well with it's capitalism principles. In the end, they believe in the White House, everything will fall into its place. The hand is invisible, so is the pocket it needs get money from. The simple people needs to start up their life again with charity and yeah…on the refuge the Saints supplies – Hope, something it need more than money.

I also spent a considerable amount of money on plane ticket and hotel in order to get to New Orleans for the second time in my life and have a chance to watch the Saints in the Superdome – a dream that lasted six years until his fulfillment, six years since I became a die hard fan of the team. Just like that, a result of an unexplained neurotic episode.

Not as in my case, you could attribute the love of the local healthy fans to their local loyalty. There is no other logical reason to relate to the biggest loser in NFL's history. Today they don't any choice left. All of New Orleans look up to the Saints, because they are their only bouy in the pool of mud around them. Mud that nobody cares too much of drying.

New Orleans is a small city in American standards and after the washing it experienced, it even shrunken (only half of its 500 thousand citizens return from exile). Despite its humble territory, you can split it in two – New Orleans of above and New Orleans of down-under (and there's no correlation to Uptown/Downtown terminology). In August 29th 2005 the divide became clearer when the storms water left the French Quarter alone, but wiped out the other neighborhoods, shattering them completely.

Today, except few puddles here and there, the city is not flooded anymore, but the destruction is apparent until today. Overwhelming the visual shocking evidence of shattered homes, are the horrible stories. Everyone has one, although lots of residents of New Orleans of down-under can't tell theirs. More than thousand killed, thousands others still missing. You also know that they won't be back anymore.

In the "Upper New Orleans" life go on, slowly though. The wealthy resident are slowly recovering their homes and businesses. Even the tourists start drizzling again through Louis Armstrong airport, and becoming mist over the beers glasses in the sleezy bars of the French Quarter, where the Neon started shining again, as well as the police cars flashing lights.

Yeah, life is good in Bourbon Street, but if you take a wrong turn, it may end. Crossed the border between Upper and Down-under New Orleans and you might find yourself washed away through the bare sewage of drugs and crime struck Canal street.

In spite of what the authorities try to show with their campaigns, New Orleans is still divided between reach and poor, those who reconstruct their homes and those who invaded others, between working men and murderous drug pushers, and yeah…between whites and blacks. It seems the only things that trickled into the life of all of the city population are the waters of Lake Pontchertrain and the New Orleans Saints - The destruction and hope, that everybody shares.

The Saints are an unusual case of rebuilding. Maybe that's why the local see a glimpse of hope in them, with their ability to change, renew and come out of the ruins. The rejuvenation of the football team gives to the people a lot of feel good atmosphere, but also self confidence and faith in the resurrection of the city. The Saints recovered of the toughest of their 40 years of existence, to charge into the playoffs in the best season they ever had. Now, they even looking forward to the Superbowl. If they can do that, New Orleans can surely rebirth. And the fans, they believe. Sure they believe, as the bunch of signs show from every house or store: "We Believe!".

Three months ago, nobody believed in the Saints. After a catastrophic season they experienced in the shadows of Katrina's clouds, nobody had a reason the believe in them, even the die-hard fans. A week before the 2005 season started, the team was forced to leave to Texas and watch their home court – the mighty Superdome – turn into a giant public shelter for the storm refugees and disintegrated from inside out.

During these days, the team was also disintegrating from one hotel to the other, between one lose, to the second to the third. With no supporting home crowd, with no minimal training conditions, the Saints finished the season with a horrendous record of 3 wins in 16 games. Rumors started to float about Tom Benson, the team owner, intentions to abandon the city and place it in San Antonio for good.

In the End, 185 million dollars that FEMA invested in the reconstruction of the Stadium, and a subtle fiscal pressure that the NFL board of directors put on Benson, brought the Saints back home for 2006. but it wasn't enough to gain the hearts of the fans.

The one that did manage to do just that, big-time, was the 42 years old new coach, Sean Payton, whom in his first year as a head coach in the demanding NFL, decided to tear apart the infrastructure that his predecessor laid, and started rebuilding – a little bit like the recovery effort of the whole city, but full steam. Payton released half of the team's roster and piled in the locker room bunch of veterans with good personalities, Ones that would be ready to devote themselves to the chronic looser, in this extreme impossible situation.

Among those new players, arrived also the new Quarterback, Drew Brees. Like New Orleans, Like the Saints, so is the 28 years old star who needed to recover himself after tearing a ligament in his throwing shoulder. That was the reason he was released by the San Diego Chargers and had some trouble finding a new team. But Payton wasn't afraid to gamble on him, two months after he got out of surgery. It was the best gamble the brilliant-bold-young coach did, one out of many. After a long recovery period, Brees led his new team to the Playoffs, as one of the best players in the league.

Brees story is one of bunch of miracles happened in the Superdome this year. Another big miracle was picking Reggie Bush second in the 2006 draft in April. The USC Running-Back was considered as one of the best gifted players to ever get out of college league, and was destined to be the first pick in the draft owned by Houston. But the Texans passed on him form unexplainable reasons. The Black and Gold blessed their uncommon good fortune, and put their hands on the bright star. Now, with a "President Bush" of their own, the local residents can give up the original one, from Washington DC.

Above all the good performance on the field, Brees leadership and Bush promise, it was their contribution to the community that stood up. Like others in the Saints organization, Brees and Bush dedicated themselves to work with helpless in the real world outside the one again protecting Superdome, and became local heros, real civil servants.

Bush surpassed it all when he put hundreds of thousands of dollars to some of the city's institutes, even before he signed his millions contract. In addition to that he leads a campaign called 'yard by yard' ( to help raise money for his new home town recovery (actually, Bush is from San Diego, California). He also put 25 presents of his 25 Jersey sales to the same cause (needless to say, his jersey is the most popular all over the US).

The Fans didn't stay apathic. They were willing to forgive and forget – the 39 previous years of ongoing failures and disappointments, the agony and broken hearts and even Benson abandoning murmurs. For the first time in the Saints history, all the season tickets were sold out even before the season started - Sold-out which is even more impressive when you think about the dramatic shriveling of the population in the last 14 months. As many as 900 thousands people are living now in the greater New Orleans – 70 thousand of them own a season ticket.

But the love of New Orleans to Saints is much wider and overwhelming than those 70 thousands fans that shakes the space trapped in the Superdome, you can feel it all over, anytime, everywhere – in Upper New Orleans and the Down-Under one.

There are literally no other conversations these days in the city. The horror stories of Katrina were replaced by arguments about the team chances in the playoffs – something nobody didn't even imagined back in the start of the season. Brees, Bush, Joe Horn, Deuce McAllister, Marques Colston and the other surprising starts took complete control on the everyday agenda.

I came to New Orleans to watch the Saints, in their last regular season game in the last day of 2006. on my way to the Superdom I was really happy to see the residents go out to the neglected streets and filling the parking lots with Hip-Hop music and barbeques smell.

People are smiling, enjoying life, surge into the gigantic stadium. Inside the atmosphere is not as calm. Tens of thousands fans are getting actively involved with the game, responding to every step, producing an unbearable sound – a chants for their messiahs, the players. A true genuine love, almost desperate. The Superdome that was altered as a shelter from the storm, became a household for the storm from within, sheltering from the frustrating silence outside.

In the end of a meaningless but very emotional game, the Saints lost 21:31 by the Carolina Panthers. It didn't change much about their chances – the team kept its position and went on to the NFC final. One win away from the Superbowl in Miami – Unbelievable.

The following day, the first one of the new year, the local newspaper The Times Picayune, opened his first 2007 edition with the headline – "Bring on the Playoffs". Touching, optimistic. One that kept on browsing through the inner pages found out that during the night there were three people getting murdered. A reminder of the bitter reality, which New Orleans is still coping with, when it wakes up of its dream, and find out it still in coma.

This article was originaly published on ynet - 13.01.07

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Bush that saved New Orleans

"I'm probably going get in a whole bunch of trouble" said Ray Nagin, New Orleans' mayor in an interview from the besieged city after hurricane Katrina. "We authorized 8 billion dollars to get to Iraq lickety-quick. After 9/11, we gave our president unprecedented powers lickety-quick to take care of New York and other places…You mean to tel mw that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man".

"You know, I'm not one of those drug addicts. I am thinking very clearly…I don't know whether it's the president's problem, but somebody needs to get their asses on a plane and figure it out right now…I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences…

"Don't tell me 40 thousands people are coming here. They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country", Nagin went on and on with the blunt interview, in which he heavily criticize President George W. Bush, seeing the apocalyptic sights of the city whirl pooled by water and looters.
"I am just – I'm at a point now where it don't matter", he broke down in the end, "People are dying. They don't have home. They don't have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same in this time".

A year after this overwhelming interview, It's hard to say New Orleans recovered. The fun lovin' city, the corrupted night life capitol of the US, was deserted and stayed behind with half of its citizens gone. Those who stayed are trying to resurrect their life after the horrendous destruction that the storm left behind.

Now, when melancholy and sadness all around, it seems only one thing left giving hope to the local residents – Mr Bush. No, not the hated president, god forbid...but a football player - 21 years old, Reggie Bush, whom came to the 'Big Easy' as a messiah on a white Hamer and brought a new optimistic hype with him. Something bigger than sports. Something that might pull the city from the mud she is stuck in. in every way.

They say that the Southern Louisiana's swamps is a breeding nest for mosquitoes, alligators and football players. There are a lot of football stars growing up in the area, but when it comes to the local NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, the fans community knew only disappointments. Since it was established 40 years ago, the Saints made themselves a name of chronic no-luck losers that always fails in most critical time, even if they can't be accountable for it.

Once upon of time, the local voodoo shamans claimed that the source for the failures is in the course of the deads, buried so they say under the giant Superdome. Now, when the graves are flooded and the whole city became one huge cemetery, there is no use in metaphysic explanations for the devastation of the Saints during 2005. for once, it is fully expectable.

The Saints did manage to evacuate in time in the eve of the storm, leaving to San Antonio, but left their property, heart and mind in their New Orleans' homes and in the Superdome, which became a giant shelter for the thousands of refugee, and was torn apart inside-out. For a moment it seemed as if they left their loyal fans forever.

It didn't felt that way because of the players and coaching staff, that did all they can as refugees in Texas, under impossible conditions, to give the residents a light sense of normal life. Something to look forward to, beyond the personal recovery of each and every one of them. The lack of confidence was caused because of owner Tom Benson.

The 79 years old automobile dealer, whom bought the team in 1985, signaled in the last couple of years about his intentions to take his players, bag the equipment, and leave to another city – bigger and with a better media and commercial potential. Hurricane Katrina was a one time opportunity to do it. The team left to San Antonio because of the circumstance, but if it was up to Benson, it might as well stayed there.

A flirt with San Antonio's mayor and public statements indicating disconnecting from the city, brought the biggest break of trust between Benson and New Orleansians: Nagin opened his big mouth again and demanded that the billionaire will bring the team back to the city, but to stay away from its municipal borders. The residents started their own bizarre custom and sprayed harsh slogans on furniture and refrigerators that they got out of their houses.

Benson became a persona non grate in Louisiana, but the NFL board of directors forced him back to city, since deserting it in its worst time could have serious implications of the image of the league as a whole. The Saints marched back home this year, but the fans didn't, they developed too much of a deserting anxiety. Few of those who stayed purchased season tickets for 2006. Most of them preferred to buy a Benson's voodoo puppet from the closest witch shop, so they can put pins in it.

For his good fortune of the most hated man in the south-east, it's not the hell spirits that decide his destiny. The last draft brought New Orleans a messiah in Reggie Bush. The 29th of April will be remembered as one of the most important days in Saints history. USC star, one of the best college football players of all times, fell in the hands of the Saints against all odds. Now, when the sun is flickering again through the heavy clouds that covered it, you can say it laughing out cloud that something good came out from devastation.

It's been two years that Bush is mentioned as one of the most heralded sportsman in the US. After his first year in the LA campus, it was obvious he was a unique talent. An un-human athlete with exceptional field vision. One of a kind. As in the case of Lebron James in basketball, it was well known that Bush will be a future first draft pick. After he shattered so many NCAA records, won to championship as a Trojan and a lot of personal trophies (one of them, the luxuries Heisman Trophy), there were speculations surfing up that the Houston Texans started losing games intentionally so they can have the worst record in the NFL, which means gaining the first draft pick, which means getting Reggie Bush.

But even Bush, which is known for his sharp awareness and his great instincts, couldn't predict the dramatic turn of event come draft day. The negotiations with the Texans was getting into a dead end, because of the unprecedented financial demands of his agents. In Houston's ground control, they were saying: "We have a problem", and turn to their plan B, a totally unexpected scenario: The Texans went for NC State's defensive end, Mario Williams, that didn't ask as much.

They couldn't believe it in New Orleans, but picked Bush second without hesitating. Shocked sports journalists all over the US were overwhelmed as well – It reminded them of the spooky decision the Portland Trail Blazers made in the 1984 NBA draft, picking Sam Bowie second, favoring him more than Michael Jordan.

Well...Reggie Bush is not Michal Jordan, and won't be like him. Basketball is a game of stars with international exposure, unlike football – the ultimate team sports, which has troubles gaining popularity overseas. So it happened that Bush found himself in New Orleans – a modest media market of 250 thousands people, that rediscovered their team. With the news about picking Bush, the fans flooded the ticket offices. 55 thousands season tickets were sold in only a month – a new record. Really astonishing, considering the dwindling of the city population in the last year.

In few hours Bush became the most popular celebrity in the city and during his first visit there, he got chanted everywhere he went. Even the cynical Saints fans, whom maintained their apathy, when Benson started a new page and signed coach Sean Payton and Quarterback Drew Brees, found themselves smiling and shaking hand with the owner. Hey, he's the one who will need to pay Bush millions. He has no choice. The sports hope of New Orleans is his financial opportunity.

With 62 million contract for six years, you can say that also Bush got his financial opportunity. His magic numbers on the field transferred onto millions in his bank account. And there is no one like Bush dealing with the numbers. That is the reason he was so anxious to wear the Saints number 5 jersey, even though it contradicted to league rules.

It could have been an unimportant anecdote, but in two days after the draft there were 15 thousands order for his new jerseys. Without putting a number on them, stores couldn't deliver the goods. Bush asked the league to take a step towards him and promised to donate 25 percent of his merchandise income to the recovery efforts of New Orleans. The league denied his request, but Bush decided to stay firm with his promise, even though he had to settle for number 25. The new jersey became a hit and is sold in a crazy rate.

It was only a first sign of his noble behavior. A short time after he came to New Orleans, he donated tens thousands dollars to a local school for disadvantaged kids which was going to be shot down. He took upon himself to save a neglected high school football field which was destined to be destroyed. He took advantage of his connections with Hamer company (that signed a millions sponsorship deal, like he has with other commercial companies like Adidas) to donate ten SUB's to the authorities that fighting these days to rebuild New Orleans. Bush, that came from the other coast of the US, was discovered as a true philanthrop. A true service man in the ruined environment of the city.

True, there are a lot of athletes who invest a lot of their money, time and fame into charity, but nobody does it even before negotiations on his contract started. That's why the way Bush had put himself for the benefit of the city, such a short time after he went there and even before signing a contract, is an unheard of true unique story.

"Yes, it is abnormal" said Bush agent, Mike Ornstein to the Times Picayune, "There is not another player who has done as for the community he was moving into before he got signed. This is my 32rd year doing this, representing athletes like Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe. They're all older guys. Reggie is the first rookie I've worked with for a long, long time. He's very, very special.

"We came here on draft day, and we drove around the community. Peter King, who writes for Sports Illustrated, made a statement in the car: 'Reggie, you have a chance to be the most influential player in the history of the National Football League.'

"He looked at Peter and we were driving around, and he said, 'You know what? I'm going to be that guy.' He stuck by that, and this is the start of that".

And if it is only the beginning, there is truly a reason to be optimistic. Reggie Bush is like the famous Dutch young kid who stuck his finger in hole in the damn and save his city from the flood. It is enough for the citizens, whom stopped expecting the president George Bush and his administration to help them. For now, they will settle for their own President Bush – He didn't score a touchdown yet or won a game for the Saints, but he is giving the people of New Orleans someone to look up too. As even mayor Nagin himself knows, as he chanted in his crown speech after last June elections: "We got Reggie Bush". Because people are dead, they don't have homes, but with this 21 years old kid, at least they have hope.

- this article was published in it's Hebrew version on on Aug 29th, 2006

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Where They Are Today - Billy Thompson

From all places it is in the holy city, within the basketball arena of Jerusalem, where you can feel the essence of Judaism, you can still hear Billy Thompson's name echoing all over. Even today – eight years after he left Israel. Why is it so contradicting? Because "The Priest" is not only a nickname anymore for the 42 years old Thompson. For several years now, the awesome basketball player is serving as a pastor for Jesus People Proclaim International church in Boca Raton, Florida. And maybe there is no reason to be surprised. When you hear Thompson speaks, you can sense his great love for Jerusalem, Israel and Judeism – all of these became prominent motives of the church and community he's leading.

"As the head of the church, I'm officiating services in my community, goes to hospitals and pray for the sick and off course doing confessions" says Thompson, "In our church we also celebrate the Shabat. I invest a lot of discovering and studying the Jewish roots of our religion – Christianity. There are a lot of Jewish people that comes to these events and we sing together in Hebrew".

Even though priesthood had become a profession for Thompson, he isn't ready to leave the basketball behind him just yet. Thompson, who was one of the first member of the Miami Heat expansion team between 1988-91, is still loyal to the team and serve as its chaplin. "I pray with the players before games. I pray for them to take the championship", say Thompson, "It's great being with players like Shaquille ONeal and Dwyane Wade. Just to see them play and getting to achievements, make me so excited".

Even today, Thompson see Jerusalem as a significant benchmark in his current career, which started back in the campus of the University of Louisville. Thompson and his friend Milton Wagner led the way to the Cardinals' NCAA title in 1986. He himself claims it happened as a result of divine intervention. "My life turned upside-down in 1985. I would drink a lot, hanging out in parties and my life was full of sin. I detached myself from my Christian education my parents gave me. Then, all of a sudden, I had a revelation. I understood god wants me to return to the right way – religion's way. I stopped with my sins and dedicated with my Christianity studies and basketball".

- Did religion and basketball never collided?
"The two never contradict each other. On the contrary, faith gave me strength. Even in hard days, I knew god is helping, even on the basketball court and that everything is possible because of him".Even though he said he never encountered a conflict between his two loves, Thompson chose to devote himself to religion studies after 1991, when he was released from the Golden State Warriors – his last NBA team – Three years before he first came to Israel. "I started my expertise as a priest two years before I came to Israel, and then I took a break. After I left Israel, I continued with my studies for three more years, started my involvement with my current church, and after a while I became a priest".

Thompson is a believing dedicated man, but in 1994 he stopped his religion studies and went to Israel in the age of 31 to came back and play basketball. Thompson claims that this was a decision taken with god's guidance. It was the second time he revealed himself and ordered him to comeback. The opportunity to do it in Israel is nothing less than a miracle for him.

"After I stopped playing basketball and started my studies in church, I had another revelation – God told me that I need to come back and play for few more years. I told my agent to check my options overseas and it was like a miracle, because the only teams interested were from Israel. First I got an offer from Hapoel Galil Eliyon and Hapoel Tel Aviv. I wanted to play with Milt Wagner in Osishkin, but I hesitated and in the meantime they signed Buck Johnson".

"Amazingly, the next team who approached me was Hapoel Jerusalem and I took the opportunity right away, and went there to be close to Jesus. It was probably a divine intervention. It was like a dream for me, going to such a beautiful country. It was exactly like it was written in the bible and the New Testament. My fears from terror attacks were proven to be false. It safer in Jerusalem than other cities in the US. I remember my wife (Cynthia, a full partner in the church's activity) and my daughter went jogging after sunset. Today it's highly not recommended to do it where we live now".

- Beside of the emotional implications of the journey to the holy land, what was your impression of Israeli basketball?
"Fans in Israel love basketball and understand the game and that’s what makes Israeli teams the best in the world outside the USA. It's amazing that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague twice in a raw and Hapoel Jerusalem won ULEB cup. That what proves god support in them".

Thompson also welcomes Pini Gershon, who coached him in Jerusalem, to the family of believers. "I'm happy to hear Pini found god. He always talked a lot and was joking all the time and I love him very much. I also love Doron Shefa and Adi Gordon – I think god connected us and made us a winning team. I remember clearly how we beat Maccabi twice in two cup finals and I'll never forget the winning basket Gordon scored in the last second".

"That's what always did" Thompson recalls, "clearing the way for Gordon to score the decisive baskets. He was the player I ever played with in Israel. Radisav Curcic was my toughest opponent in Israel, when he played with Maccabi. He was really tough. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the place where I should could have in Europe. We did get to the Korac cup's semifinals, but we lost to a greek team. I was frustrated that we stopped there, because I thought we can win it all.

Usually foreign players confess about their love to Israel, but never come back. Naturally, in Thompson's case, a confession is obligating. He loves Israel with all his heart and will come for a visit with some of his church members from Boca Raton, a "roots trip" in the holy land. With god's help, in the 15th of November, he will have a giant congregation in the basketball arena of Malcha.

"I miss Israel so much and miss the fans" says Thompson, "I want them all to come to the congregation – a salute for Israel. We will celebrate the countries existence and pray for it. There will be music and singing. Hey…those who will come, will hear me sing. I really want to talk about my love to Israel. It is the center of the world for me. It's the foundation of everything. I would like to build a church there and help feed the hungry".

- It looks that you are more Zionist than the common Israeli.
"I would like to be an ambassador for Israel and I'm still hoping some day they will let me do that. Maybe the Knesset will understand I can do a good job in representing the country and they'll give me a citizenship. I hope it is possible, although I had a bad experience in the past. The way that they treated me in the media after I was accepted to the church – this is my only negative memory of Israel".

Well before the big congregation in Malcha, Thompson was willing to leave us with some promising blessings for the future: "I hope to meet all my good friends from Israel soon. Pini Gershon, Danny Klein, Uri Manzur, Morris Ohayon and Adi Gordon of course. I also hope that Ehud Olmert (former Jerusalem's mayor) will be there, he really supported our team. I expect to see all the fans who stood by me through the years. My heart goes out to them and I miss them. I was really happy for them after winning ULEB cup, they deserve it. Hey, I'm sure I can get involved with the team again, as a coach or even as a player. Maybe I can arrange something and bring Shaquille with me. Then we can even beat Maccabi".

- pictures courtousy of JPProclaim church in Boca Raton

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Monday, April 16, 2007

where they are today - Roland Houston

There was a time when Haifa was a basketball city, the days before Geovani Roso and Yaniv Katan (Maccabi Haifa soccer players), when a game between Hapoel and Maccabi – derby, Karmel style - would bring a lot of passion, excellent basketball and extreme tension. Days which Roland Houston still misses. "The derbys were complete madness, I really loved it and it saddens me to hear that it has all gone. I feel sorry for the basketball in the city and the Israeli league as a whole", says the player that was the icon of the Haifa scene, and regarded until to day as one of the best foreign players ever landed in Israel.

Today, at the age of 45, Houston serves as an assistant coach in George Washington university in the US capitol, and takes pride of the young talents he developed. "I worked with Rasul Butler from Miami Heat and with Steven Smith and Pops Mensah-Bonso who will be NBA players in the future. Before I started my coaching career, I tried my luck as a player's agent and even went back to Israel to follow some young local talents. But after a short while I realized that its not for me. You can't trust no body in this business".

His lack of trust in the basketball officials already started during the end of this five years Israeli career. Five years, all of them as Hapoel Haifa's player – a leading force in Israeli basketball of those days. Five years which he see as the best of his 14 years as a basketball player. "I left Hapoel Haifa in 1990, after I injured my ankle. After five great years with the team, it was an uneasy breakup, and I left in bad note. A lot of it because of the owner, Yaacov Schlesinger".

It seems that even now, 15 years after he left, Houston still mad about Schlesinger, who invested a lot of money on the team, but was also the first sign of its collapse in the early eighties. "He (Schlesinger) and his right hand, Yossi Livne, ruined the team, which was so close to win the championships in 1989. we had a great team with Jim Jusevic and Guy Goodes and all I wanted is to build on this success and maybe even beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the year after. Unfortunately, Schlesinger wanted to do everything fast and this is not the way you build a basketball team".

To beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs is something a lot of import players fantasize of, but Houston was one crazy shot from actually doing it, in the 1989 semi-final series. It was LaVon Mercer who scored this crazy basket at the buzzer, and ended Hapoel Haifa's season and lead the way to another Maccabi Tel Aviv championship. Houston was the only big man who could cope with former yellows' star, the late Kevin Magee. "I believed we can beat Maccabi and we almost did it" he remembers, "I wanted to be a part of the first team that takes the title from Maccabi and we were very close. It was like David against Goliath".

"I knew they were a good team, but I was confident of myself and of the possibility of beating them. Nobody believed we can do it, but every time we played them I found out that we can beat them. I also knew that they respected us and they knew we could beat them. When we lost after Mercer's shot, it drained us emotionally. It hurt so bad because I gave everything I had and we still missed it. When I look back, I think I can be satisfied because I know I gave it all and well represented Hapoel Haifa and the city. That's the most imported thing in sports".

So Hapoel Haifa lost in the end, and after several years it went bankrupt from its assets and its status at the top of Israeli basketball. That said, Houston assumes that the challenge he and his teammates presented to Maccabi, gave Pini Gershon and Hapoel Galil Eliyon the faith, five years later, that they can beat the perennial champions in 1993 – Something that looked impossible before that series with against Hapoel Haifa.

"The great series we had made teams believe they can beat Naccabi", claims Houston, "When Galil Eliyon actually did it, I'm sure they learned from us. Its just a shame we were not able to do it ourselves, and that is Schlesinger's fault. He waived Jusevic and brought other players who ruined the team chemistry and its building process. He actually destroyed the team with his own hands and with the help of Livne. This lawyer made a lot of money out of me, but when I needed him the most, shook me off. He worked for the players as well for Schlesinger, which resulted are own demise".

It's no coincidence, that one of the few questions Houston still knows how to ask in Hebrew is "eifo ha'kessef sheli?" (where is my money?), a question he was forced to ask over and over again when he was in Israel. When Houston hears about the current owner of Hapoel Haifa (that was united with Ramat Hasharon) – Miki Berkowitz, he is assured that the team will be managed in a better way than with Schlesinger and his kind. "Miki is a professional, who knows the business of basketball from close and he will know how to run it properly".

Berkowitz is one of those players that Houston learned to appreciate over his years in Israel and it seems that a lot of them still have special part of his past. "I had a chance to play against great players in Israel", he says, "In my time, it was a terrific strong league and I'm very sorry to hear it became uncompetitive and that the Israeli talents are leaving it. I remember Magee, and Earl Williams as well as Doron Shefa, Doron Jamchi, Adi Gordon and Haim Zlotikman, who played with me in Haifa. I'm really proud of Goodes, because of his career as a player and coach. You can say I actually raised him since he was a 16 years old kid and until he became a great player and a winner with Maccabi".

Houston also stayed close to the common people of Israel and keeps getting updated all the time about the Middle East's politics, which still interest him, even now in the US, "I loved the people, I loved going to eat fish in Tiberius and spending vacations in Eylat".

"I loved the Israeli experience, even talking about politics. I remember that I was caught up twice in a suspicious object events in the Karmelit subway, and it helped me understand how come the Israeli people can be so nice, but so aggressive at the same time. That time already, I knew it would be very hard to achieve peace and unfortunately, it seems I was right, although I keep praying for your sake and the world's that it will happen eventually. You deserve that. I have a lot of friends in Israel, I had fun there and I got a lot of support from the fans, especially in Haifa".

- photos courtesy of George Washington University Athletics

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

where they are today - Micheal Ray Richardson

If there are any Israeli teams out there who are interested in a coach, what about the following candidate: As a player he has a reach background of eight seasons in the NBA, four of them as an allstar. In the beginning of the eighties who was arguably the best passer in America and one of the best defensive players around. You can also add 15 successful years in Europe to this respectable record.

After he retired at the age of 46, Larry Brown offered him to join the New York Knicks as his assistance, but instead he serves as the head coach of the Albany Patroons of the CBA – you can laugh about it, but it's the same team where Phil Jackson, another Knicks ex-player, started his coaching career. He split his time between France and the USA, so you can say he is familiar with the European scene. You can say he also acquainted with the Israeli scene. OK, He was here as a player twenty years ago. Today, he'll be happy to be back as a coach. Wouldn't you want Micheal Ray Richardson as your coach?
"It wouldn't be a bad idea to hire me as a coach, and in any case I would be happy to come back to Israel and work for one of the teams, whether it will be Maccabi Tel Aviv or any other team" say Richardson, an American citizen living in the French Riviera, who have troubles getting acclimated to the cold winter in frozen Albany, in upstate New York (Where he works with his assistant coach, former Hapoel Givatayim star, Derrick Rawland). "Obviously, my biggest ambition is to work in the NBA and actually I was invited by Larry Brown to join his staff last year, but it didn't go through. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas was not interested in my services".

So Brown's dismissal disrupted Richardson's effort to comeback to the team, where he starred as a player in his first four years in the NBA. Maybe it was even the rivalry between him and Thomas as players in the early eighties. The two were among the best guards back then and even cooperated twice in the 1982 and 1985 all-stars game.

Overall, Richardson (who is known as Sugar Ray), appeared in four all-star games during his prolific NBA career, which presents overwhelming statistics: 14.8 points, 7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 steals a game. Hard to imagine but young Richardson was really one of the players in the NBA back then. He was picked for the top defensive team twice and lead the league in steals four times. He even lead the league in assists once, in 1980 (10.1 asst. per game).

Despite of his achievement in the NBA, eight years after he was picked forth by the Knicks in the 1978 draft (before Larry Bird, former Hapoel Tel Aviv Purvis Short and former Maccabi Tel Aviv Mike Mitchell), and managed to play for New Jersey and Golden State in the meantime, Richardson found himself in the holy land. Hapoel Ramat Gan, a declining elite team during that time, brought him in 1986 in order to help her compete for the championship against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Hapoel Tel Aviv…Maccabi Tel Aviv…The Israeli come Richardson got to the middle-east basketball swamp, while he is in his prime, at the age of 31? The older basketball fans between us probably know the answer. Richardson was tested positive for cocaine and was suspended from the NBA and was asked to never come back – it was as unprecedented punishment, that marked the fight of then newly appointed commissioner David Stern against drugs use among the players.

And so, some months after he was outcast in his homeland, Richardson went on looking for a place to continue his magnificent career. One day the phone rang at his home. "Hi, my name is Avraham Hemo from Israel" presented himself the man on the line. It was the legendary coach and manager of Hapoel Ramat Gan, a veteran in basketball, whom also worked as a police officer. Hemo thought that under his supervision, Richardson will be able to restart his career and who knows…even to bring a title to Hapoel Ramat Gan.

"All I wanted was a chance to keep on playing basketball and the moment the opportunity came, I jumped on it right away" Richardson explains, "I wasn't afraid coming to Israel because I visited the country twice before as a member of the Nets that came for an exhibition game, and as a part of an American stars team that went there on a tour".

Richardson might not been afraid coming to Israel, but it seems Israel sure was afraid of him. As soon as the news arrived, they alarmed the late Kneset member Micha Reiser from the Likud party, whom demanded to discus the issue of the "drug-addict American played" coming to Israel. The head of the sport and education comity, Pinhas Goldstein, accepted Reiser's demand and attacked the team's decision to bring such a "non-educational figure". "Is a player that was suspended from the NBA because of drug abuse should find his place in Israel?" Goldstein wondered.

But not only politicians were afraid from the consequences of Richardson's involvement in the Israeli basketball league, the rival teams also didn't know how to accept the super-star that just landed in Ben Gurion airport and was welcomed with a barrage of slander. "It's a shameful disgrace that Richardson is coming to Israel" said Miki Berkovic, the leading star of Maccabi Tel Aviv and local basketball scene. It looked like Richardson signing with Hapoel Ramat Gan changed the balance of power between Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Ramat Gan and the other teams.

Although his coming to Israel sparked a public debate, Hemo and Hapoel union decided to stand behind Richardson. The coach even guaranteed that the player will stay clean under his supervision, an obligation that didn't manage to ease the tension. "I didn't read the papers and wasn't paying much attention to the things people say around me. All that I cared about was playing basketball again and the way that I can contribute to my new team. That's why I went there", claims Richardson who can't understand what was all the commotion about and how it got to the corridors of the Kneset.

Richardson probably tried to ignore the storm around him, but it didn't prevent the Kneset Comity from assemble in order to discuss his case. But eventually the issue never raised up in the meeting. Just when things started to boil, former FIBA president, Bora Stankovic, announced that there is no official document which indicates that Richardson was released from a amateur team from Denver, where he used to play. That's why, Stankovic explained, Richardson is forbidden from joining Hapoel Ramat Gan or any other team in Europe.

That’s how Richardson was prevented from taking part in Hapoel Ramat Gan as a player, because of spooky bureaucratic unclear reasons until further notice. The Hapoel union was forced to accept FIBA ruling and so was Hemo, whom wished the suspension is temporary. In the meantime he decided to keep Richardson around as an assistant coach. That was the first coaching experience of the future coach. Now he can even appreciate, but all he wanted back then was just to play ball and the true reason that it didn't happen eventually was because of Maccabi Tel Aviv, which had troubles accept the presence of the player and the threat it posed to its dominance.

"I was clean for eight years and I was determined to make the right decision in order to come back and play basketball" Richardson recalls, "The reason I wasn't given a chance is not connected to drugs or bureaucracy. The real reason was Maccabi Tel Aviv that had connection with FIBA. They probably felt threaten that they wouldn't manage to make me fail a drug test, so they use their influence with FIBA and managed to suspend me with un-serious excuses".

- Did Maccabi had a reason o be afraid?
"Of course. I believe that with me on the court, we could beat them and take the championships. If only they would have let me play, it was very hard to stop me. They were afraid, and they had a good reason to feel that way. But it's a shame that they acted in that way, although I would say this things happens everywhere. There are teams with a lot of power and influence and they use it to keep their supremacy".

Although he was forced to accept the ruling and understood he can't play until a final decision taken in his case, Richardson stayed in Israel and kept on working as Hemo's assistant. "It was fun and I learned a lot, but it was also hard to watch your teammates from the bench. You know that you are not injured and have no problem to play and you have this urge to step in, you want to help, but you are prevented from doing so", he recalls.

So what kept Richardson in Israel? Maybe it was the fondness of the country and it's people, maybe the expectation that someone from FIBA will make things right and fix the ill ruling in his case and maybe it was the relationship with Hemo. "I have a lot of respect for Avraham, he is a great person. He new basketball, but most of all he respected me as a human being and believed in me, something that shouldn't be taken for granted considering the tough situation I was in. He took me under his wing and gave me a chance after all".

Six months after he arrived to Israel, Richardson went back to the US, leaving behind him some bitter people. Apparently, Hapoel Haifa offered him a nice contract in order to get him for the following season, assuming the procedural problems will be solved until then. In the end the problem was solved, but it happened only after Richardson went to Italy and signed with Virtus Bologna in 1988.

"I'm aware that people said that I took money and left the country, but the thing was I got advanced payments from Hapoel Haifa that wanted me for next season. After I decided to sign in Italy, I needed to pay back the money, and that what I did eventually. I left Israel in good spirit and with a lot of love to the country".

The suspension removed, Richardson started starring on Italy's basketball courts, but his un-erasable drug abuse sheet kept on affecting his career. Under FIBA's instructions, Richardson had to be tested for drugs on regular basis so it can be assured that he is not using that anymore. One test almost got him suspended for life after it came out positive.

When the news about his looming suspension in Italy got to Israel, Hemo was asked if it's possible the player used drugs when he was in Israel. "He was completely clean with me", declared Hemo, and Richardson assures he was right. "Even though there were rumors, I stopped using drugs after I was kicked out of the NBA. I was totally clean in Israel as well in Italy. There was a misunderstanding that was cleared out and the fact is that I continued playing".

Richardson kept on playing for Bologna, which he lead to winning the cup holders European cup in 1990 with 29 points in the final against Real Madrid. Two years after that he starred for former European champions Yugoplastika Split in the post Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja era. With his Croatian team, he finally got a chance to play against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Yad Eliyahoo arena and put on a show with 30 points (4-4 from three points range), 6 rebounds and 5 assists – which didn't helped preventing the 85:95 defeat in the end. Doron Jamchi, who was "the best Israeli player" according to Richardson, scored 31 points for Maccabi.

In the end of that season, he came back to Italy and played two years in Livorno side by side with Wendell Alexis, future Maccabi Tel Aviv player. After that he went to the French Riviera beaches, and grouped in Olympique Antibes with another Maccabi star, Lee Johnson. That's where he met his wife and retried from basketball in 2001, after two more stints with Cholet in France and Foreli in Italy. "There is a time when you feel your body can't keep up with it anymore. When my time had come to feel that way, I retired. There weren't too many hesitations".

After he retired in the age of 46, and even though he started a new family (Richardson had five children, two from his current wife) and built himself new life in France, he went back to the US, where he became a mythological figure. Back at home, two producers Larry Weizman and Jim Podhoretz put his story in a film "What ever happened to Micheal Ray?" (2000). In the movie, which is comedian Chris Rock gives his voice to, there are some interviews with Richardson himself, as well as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Walt Frazer, Bill Cartwright, Hubie Brown and even David Stern.

Since he came back to the US, Richardson decided to dedicate himself to working with youth and was hired by the Denver Nuggets a an ambassador in the community in Colorado, where he presented his version of the story. "During the two years I've worked with the Nuggets, I lectured more than 30 thousands teenagers and the massage stayed the same" say Richardson, "Above all education and so, in the end everybody has to take care of himself and remember – we all have problems, but if you are strong enough and believe in yourself, you can solve them".

This season Maccabi Tel Aviv had a player that was probably not strong enough and failed, it was Rodney Buford, that came to Israel with a problematic record of his own, a little bit like the case of Richardson back in the eighties. For Richardson, things look a lot different today in the age of 52, and from his own experience he knows that the bottom line is that the responsibility is on the player himself: "When you are coming to Europe, you have to be very open minded with a new place, a new culture. You have to adapt to it. If you know you have a problem and you can't get over it, just stay at home. In an unfamiliar culture you have to be alert, and you should know people will look for you. That the way it goes in our profession and need to be ready for it".

Strange, but Richardson doesn't remember encountering any of those kind of troubles in conservative Israel of two decades ago. "There will always be people whom will be bad with you, but in Israel I felt at home" says Richardson, "The people were great, they respected me and were very open with me. It's a good country, good food, beautiful women. I remember the Cinerama club, which opened in the year I got to Israel. It was wild club, I enjoyed it very much. If I'd only had a chance I would come back. Maybe you can ask if somebody needs a coach over there?".

- All photos courtesy of Chuck Miller (Albany Patroons)

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