Thursday, November 24, 2005

Where They Are Today - Corey Gaines

Corey Gaines finished his career in Israel just two years ago. He did it in BC Haifa. After a long successful career in the NBA (played for New Jersey, Philadelphia, Denver and New York), Europe (Scavolini Pesaro, Verona and Galatasaray) and Israel (played for Hapoel Eylat, Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion and Haifa), he seems closer than ever to go back to the best basketball league in the world – this time as a coach. Since announcing his retirement and went back to the USA with his Israeli girlfriend, he having a lot of success as a coach in the ABA league and as a personal trainer for draft candidates.

“I called it a quit as a player at 39, and left Israel back to the US. I got a job offer from Paul Westhead, who coached me in the past in Loyola Marymount (and lead the Los Angeles Lakers for the championships in 1980). He offered me to join me as his assistant coach in the ABA team of Long Beach Jam. I agreed and joined him and the other asst. coach Earl Cuerton, who is a good friend of mine”, says Gaines, “Then, all of a sudden, Westhead got an offer from the Orlando Magic, so I replaced him as head coach”.

“We had great players on our team – DerMarr Johnson, Matt Barnes and the Japanese point guard Yuta Tavusa. After he left, we didn’t have a point guard on the roster, so Earl said: ‘hey, why won’t you be a player coach, and be the playmaker of the team?’. That was a good idea. I was going as the first point guard on the team, but I only managed to play in the first ten minutes. That was enough for us. I was opening the games, and the young players felt more comfortable and we didn’t stopped winning until the finals, where we lost to the Utah Snowbears.

“In my second season in Long Beach, I couldn’t play anymore. I was finished. Although I wasn’t playing, the team continued winning. We did a good job, but couldn’t win the championships. Last summer I got an offer from my agent to work out young players and prepare them to the NBA draft. I worked with Aundrey Blatch (who was picked in the second round by the Washington Wizards) and Greek Kostas Vassiliedis. My job was to prepare them both mentally and physically to their workouts with the NBA teams. This year I’m going to continue with the Jam and hope it will help me get a coaching job in a NBA team – that’s my aim”.

If you ask Gaines who is his role model as a coach, he picks a long honorable list of coaches, among them some surprising names. “I played for Paul Westhead, Pat Riley, George Karl and Valerio Bianchini (who coached Gaines in Pesaro) and I learned a lot from them, but Efi Birenboim and Moysh’le Weinkranz also have a great contribution to my coaching knowledge. Efi is one of the best coaches I ever had. He is a players’ coach, and knows how to relate to them. Efi understands players and that’s the hardest thing for a coach. I liked the Way Moish’le let me do my thing outside the court, when I was playing for him in Eylat. Going to the beach in the mornings and dancing at nights. He had only one demand – that I will give my best on the court, and that what I did”.

Apparently, Gaines came to Eylat as s personal import of Joe Dowson, who still plays on our country’s courts. “after my rookie in New Jersey in 1989, I went to play in Venezuela’s summer league, in Porto La Cruz and met Dowson there, who told me about Israel” Gaines recalls, “Seven years after, Dowson played in Eylat and offered me to join him there. I already had European experience in Italy and Turkey, but I found out that all Joe said was true. The people of the city welcomed me, hugged me and took care of me. We had a good team with Amir Katz, Meir Tapiro and James Forest and we also beat Maccabi Tel Aviv that year. I already beat Maccabi in the past with Scavolini, but I wasn’t so impressed with them back then. In Eylat it was much harder and more exciting to beat Maccabi”.

Since that win, the veteran point guard experienced the taste of win over the Yellows some more times and was close to do it again, five years later as a BC Haifa’s player. That year, Gaines had Birenboim as a coach and Marco Bolic as a shooting guard and Stanley Brundy as center. The team managed to get to the semifinals, where it missed one chance to beat Maccabi in the Playoffs. “We could have surprised them, but I twisted my ankle and we missed it. That was my worst moment in Israel”, claims Gaines.

During his six and a half seasons, the so sufficient point guard learned all about Israeli basketball, and all his sides. Even though he always got a lot of praises and appreciation, he knows it doesn’t worth much without a real team competition in the league. That’s the main problem of Israeli league, in his view. “Everybody knows who will win the championships. That sucks. There is no competition and nothing to fight for. You don’t need to look much to find out what’s wrong with Israeli basketball”. In Europe, Gaines predicts it won’t be so easy for Maccabi to win the Euroleague for the third time in a row, with the removing of the foreign players restriction in Europe. “Now everybody will imitate Maccabi and sign American players. That will cancel Maccabi’s relative advantage in Europe”, Gaines presumes.
  • who are the best players you been with in Israel?

“In my life I played two great shooters like Reggie Miller and Antonello Riva and I was lucky enough to have great shooters in Israel. Like Amir Katz in Eylat and Bolic in Haifa. ‘Taz’ (that’s how Gaines calls Tapiro) of those days was a good young player, but it’s not the Tapiro of today. I remember having a tough time against Adi Gordon (Hapoel Jerusalem’s PG) and Lemont Jones (Galil Elyon’s PG), but the best point guards I ever played against outside the US were definitely Alexander Djordjevic and Petr Naumoski”.

Another player, Gaines joined forces with lately was Dennis Rodman. He did it as a coach in his first year with Long Beach, where Rodman decided to try his Comeback in 2003. Gaines claims Rodman was not a problematic player, surprising as it sounds.

“People has a certain opinion about him. He have a public image that was probably correct at the time, but now he clamed down completely. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. I remember going out with him a couple of times. We went to his club in Newport Beach and it was very nice”, says Gaines. “As a player, he always worked hard, listened to all he was told and gave it all for the team. He was sure that he can go back and play in the NBA at the age of 42 and physically he could have done it, if his knees didn’t start to hurt. Since then he keeps himself busy with all kinds of businesses that are not related to basketball. Part of it is because he is getting bored pretty fast”.
  • have you ever talked about Israel?
“We did talked about Israel, and Dennis told me he wants to come and visit. Actually, he was planning to come, but he has this personal business that prevented him from doing so, but I believe he will come eventually. I don’t see why not, I also would like to return. From all the places I’ve been outside the US, Israel was the best place to be at. The place where I would like to have a home there”.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Where They Are Today - Mike Mitchell

Last summer, a little bit after the closing of the Maccabia games in Israel, the US Maccabia games started far away in the city of San Antonio. There were a lot of VIP’s visiting the opening ceremony – some of the city celebs, head of the Maccabi organization in the US and Mike Mitchell, who was serving as the games commissioner and whom is remembered as one of the best players in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s history. The Maccabia games are not the only community activity Mitchell (49) is taking part in. actually, since retiring from basketball only three years ago, the former star devoted himself to a lot of charity programs for the community.

“These days I mostly work with underprivileged youth” says Mitchell from his home in San Antonio, “I’m trying to give something back to the community and contribute. When you see those poor children doing something with their life, you feel like you are getting a lot in return”. In that way, Mitchell keeps his polite elegance behavior from the basketball court – behavior which he was not once criticized over his very long career”.

I retired at the age of 46, after seven years in Reggio Emilia in Italy and I think I could play a lot more, maybe two years or even twenty”, claims Mitchell and explains why did he decided to end his professional career, 22 years after it started as a rookie in the Cleveland Cavaliers. “At some point you watch your children grow up and you feel you need to get closer to them before they’ll leave the house. Sometime in life you need to make a change and invest more in your family. My decision was not based on my age or because of my ability”.

Mitchell, Who had and impressive career of more than ten NBA seasons (with the Cavs and San Antonio Spurs) speculate his career got so long because he left for European basketball, which considered less intensive. “I don’t think I was able to keep up so long in the NBA, and probably would retire at 35, but back then the gaps between European and American basketball was much bigger than today. I always preferred shooting the basketball, and I was never much of a physical player, so it was much easier for me overseas. I went to Italy when I was 32 and after three successful seasons moved to Israel to play for Maccabi”.
  • How did your relationships with the Yellows started?

“At first, Maccabi offered me to join them, I wasn’t so interested. My wife was worried because of the security situation and I promised her that there is no chance I’ll play in the Middle East, but Maccabi didn’t gave up, and I was getting daily phone calls from Moni Fanan (Maccabi’s manager). He told me: ‘Come to Israel, Mike. Just come to visit’. He called so many times, that even my wife got persuaded and said: ‘OK, lets go and visit Israel’. When we got there all our fears were gone”.

Like most of the foreign players that landed here, Mitchell understood the Israeli reality is much different than the one is shown on the global media. “After all the horrors we so on CNN, we found an awesome country with great weather”, he recalls. “As a Christian, it was important for me to visit there. It’s totally different from the way you imagine it at home. This is a very important lesson I’ve learned during that year, that things are always not as they seem. Not only in Israel, but in every other place in the world. Me and my family had a lot of fun in Israel, and enjoyed the people and the Humus, I used to eat there. You can’t find it in San Antonio”.

One thing that Mitchell didn’t like in Israel was the local press, that buried him on the first occasion he was wearing the yellow uniform in his preseason game. “I remember that after I got to Israel, everybody wanted to see me play and the first opportunity was this preseason game, where I wasn’t very good. The day after all the headlines in the newspapers were saying I am finished, and that Maccabi did a mistake by signing me. I on my part said that I’m not a preseason, but a real time player. And indeed, in the first regular season game, I was pretty good and everybody praised me. That’s the way it works, and I would be surprised to see it works any differently these days”.

Mitchell’s European career lasted not less than 14 years – 13 of them in Italy, but even untill now he sees this one season (1991-92) with Maccabi as the top of his career outside the NBA. “Maccabi was definitely the best European team I ever played for and our campaign in the Champions cup was my best achievement outside the US. I think I played well, but unfortunately things got messed up in the quarterfinals against Estudiantes Madrid”.

Mitchell is still remembered as the one who tied the series, when he won the second game in Yad Aliyahoo when he took the ball – coast to coast – for an easy lay-up in the closing moments. That forced a third deciding game which Maccabi lost in a very sloppy end. “I remember those last seconds of the game, the point-guard passed the ball to Doron Jamchi, that slipped on the court and we lost any chance to go to the semifinals. It was disappointing but I still thought we had a good season”.

Mitchell might have been the best player in Israel at the time which is regarded as a golden era for local basketball, when proved NBA veterans like Purvis Short and Eugene Banks played here. Mitchell was impressed with them as well as some of the local talents. “Jamchi was a great shooter and Guy Goodes was a good point guard, but the best one was Gene Banks whom I played with in San Antonio and against when he was playing for Rishon Le’zion in Israel. I also enjoyed playing against Purvis Short from Hapoel, that made us a lot of troubles. Fortunately, we managed to win the championships eventually, with the support of our great fans, who stood behind me all the way”.

Inspite of winning the championships, after a thrilling final series against Hapoel, the management of Maccabi decided to keep Jose Vargas and cut the disappointed Mitchell. “I wanted to stay with Maccabi, even for less money, but they didn’t want me”, he says. “they thought I was too old and go with different directions. There were some other team in Israel who offered me to join them (Hapoel was known to be interested), but I prefered to go back to Italy and went to Reggio Emilia which I enjoyed very much. Maccabi lost the championships in the following year. With me it wouldn’t have happen”.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Where They Are Today - Purvis Short

“Purvis Short was the best player I ever coached” that’s what Ralph Klein, Israel’s legendary coach answers when he is asked to point out one name from the long list of players he worked with during all those years. For Klein, who coached Tal Brody, Miki Berkovic and Jim Boetwright in Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Detlef Schrempf in Germany’s National Team there is no doubt. Short, who was Klein’s player at Hapoel Tel Aviv in the 1991-92 season, is the best player he ever worked with. It seems short himself has the same positive impression from he’s cooperation with Klein: “Ralph is one of the greatest coaches I ever had during my career, and I had a lot of them. I always considered him a NBA coach”.

Klein might have been a NBA coach, but Short was certainly a player in the best league in the world – one of the best during the eighties. Since he was picked fifth in the first round of 1978 draft by the Golden State Warriors (one pick before the legendary Larry Bird), the Forward had appeared in 860 games, score 14,794 points, and had 3,767 rebound, 2,152 assists and 891 steals. All of it in 12 years of bright career with the Warriors (where he still hold much of the team’s records like most games, points and steals for a career there), Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets. In the 1984-85 season he finished forth in scoring with 28 points per game. In 1991 Short brought this incredible record to ‘Osishkin’ in that memorable season for the Reds.

At the end of that season, Short decided to retire from the game at the age of 35. Since then he is working for the national basketball players association, and serve today as the director of the players programs department. “We are giving all kinds of services to the players and develop educational programs for them” Short (48), who now lives in Houston, explains. “We run programs that help the in career planning, getting and education and even drugs preventing - Very important things. I have a staff of five retired players to help me that includes Elliott Perry, Roy Hinson, Tim McKormick, George Johnson and Frank Brickowski (who played for Maccabi in the early 80’s)”.

It was pretty surprising that Short decided to end his remarkable career in Israel. Here, on the banks of the Yarkon river, he showed up one day, with David Thirdkill on his side, as an improvised additions to the team which started the year very bad. “I wanted to experience living and playing somewhere outside of the US, and the opportunity came when Hapoel offered me to join them. I was a little bit afraid of the security situation, but I knew bad stuff happens all over the world. I decided to come to Israel with my family, and I didn’t regret it. It was a great experience”.

Short and Thirdkill replaced Wayne Campbell and Goran Grbovic. All of a sudden, under the supervision of coach Klein and with the help of Amos Frishman, Tomer Steinhaur, Shimon Amsalem and the other local players, they got Hapoel from the bottom of the league to being a serious threat on Maccabi’s dominance, “we really believed we can win the championship. We weren’t afraid of the”, says Short.

Almost every foreign player who lands in Israel claims he came to win the championship, a statement that seems absurd for the common israeli basketball fan, but when Short said it, back then, as well as today, it seems serious. Even for those skeptic journalists who said that at his old age he is a finished player. “I never took much notice to what they said. I knew what I can do and if I wasn’t capable of doing it, I wouldn’t come to Hapoel. During my career I heard a lot of stuff. There is always someone who will criticize you. For my part, I just let my basketball do the talking”.

“We had a perfect team and it’s not something that is easy to achieve” Short recalls, “We had a group of great players in every position and we were all friends. There was a good atmosphere and we all were committed to winning and really believed we can do it. My main contribution was my leadership and experience. I loved to share all the knowledge I got over the years with the young players, and that paid back on the court. I did everything I needed to do to win and they learned how to help me, so we can do it together".

Short and co. truly did it, almost all the way, but in the fourth and last game of the final playoffs series against Maccabi of Mike Mitchell, LaVon Mercer and Jose Vargas – a series which drove the country crazy – the Reds lost. A game which would be forever remembered because of the punch Mercer threw to Steinhaur’s face. Everybody in Yad Eliyahoo saw it, except the referees. “Maccabi knew we can beat them, as we did some time during that season. They were afraid of us and we were confident – from the coach to the last player on the bench.
  • So why did you lost at the end?

“Well that’s the million dollar question. It’s still bothers me. It was sad for me to disappoint the fans, after we managed to persuade them that we can beat Maccabi. In any case, I have to say those days of the final series were one of the most enjoyable times of my life. I never experienced that kind of emotion and desire like the one we had in our home games at Osishkin. It was crazy and I loved it. It was like coming back to college days. It’s a shame we didn’t win the championships, but this things happen”.

  • In Israel this things happen year after year. Maccabi win the championship over and over again. Do you have any suggestions, how to make the Israeli league more competitive?

“the first thing that needs to be done is to expose the Israeli league overseas. Everybody know about Maccabi, but are not aware that there are other good team in the country. When that will happen, other good foreign players would come. Personally, I always tells young players about the great experience I had, but Israeli basketball is not known enough in the world. As for the foreign players-local players ratio, it’s hard for me the express my opinion. I assume the local players association is familiar with the situation more than I do. In the NBA we don’t have these problems. The best players are the ones that play. There is no discrimination between one player and the other based on his ethnic background”.

The modest Short, that played in great arenas in front of 20,000 fans in the NBA, didn’t felt uneasy with Osishkin’s small size or the heat and moisture in it. “it doesn’t matter where you play basketball, in the Palace in Detroit or small Osishkin in Tel Aviv, as long as you play your best and in Israel they used to play good basketball. I remember Jonathan Dalzell, Tomer (Steinhaur) and the point-guard Amos (Frishman) as good players. I had success in the league, not because it was weak. Simply, I knew how to get the best of my advantages and Ralph helped me a lot with that.

“Actually, I think Ralph could be an NBA coach. He was for sure one of the best coaches that I ever worked with. I have to give him the credit for the way I got involved with the team and the way I could still keep on and play at the highest level, baring my age”, admits Short, and it shows he still has a lot of appreciation of his former coach. “Ralph was a coach that knows his players and relate to them and he knows a lot about the game. I still talks highly of him here”.

Short is saddened when he hear the news that Klein is battling cancer and says: “I want to tell Ralph that he is in the thoughts and prayers of me and my family. I want to thank him for the his contribution to my life and for the nice time I had beside him. I want to strengthen him and hope he’ll beat the disease and I’m going to make sure of that, when I’ll come for a visit”.

  • So when do you intend to return to Israel?

“It is something I truly consider. Israel is a great country and I tell it to everybody. The people accepted me warmly, and I’ll always remember it as a good experience. I can’t think about one best thing about Israel. It was one of the meaningful and joyful times of my life”.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Where They Are Today - Neal Walk

In the summer of 1969 the NBA draft lottery was decided with a coin toss that gave the first pick to the Milwaukee Bucks, on the expense of the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks used their good fortune to pick Kareem Abdul-Jabar, that lead them to the the team only championship two years later. The Suns had to settle for a jewish center from Florida, Neal Walk. Ten years after, with career stats of 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds in his resume, he ended up in Israel, playing for Hapoel Ramat Gan – back then a considerable contender – even for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Walk’s dominance in the paint, Steve Kaplan and Or Goren's outside shooting and the good fundamentals of the point guard Avigdor Moskovic, Hapoel Ramat Gan didn't manage to beat the yellows for the championship. Three years after he arrived to Israel, Walk left it for good. "one day I got a note from Tel Hashomer camp which ordered me to be drafted for the army” walk explains. “I got scared and didn’t like terror attacks and the tension in the country anyway, so I just packed my belongings and came back to the US".

Six years later, In 1988, Walk’s life story had a tragic twist, after he suffered from a benign tumor in his spine, which made him paralyzed in his lower body. Since then, Walk never walked again, but even that didn’t stop him from playing basketball – on his wheelchair. Five years he spent in the USA wheelchair basketball league. During that time he was invited to the WhiteHouse as an honor representative of American Para-athletes.

Even during these days, Walk stays close to basketball and is serving as a community representative for the Suns. He’s is also working for the photography unit of the team. On the other hand his Israeli connection was getting weaker, but the memories stayed strong enough. Not always positive though. One of them gives him the shivers until now. “I remember that during one of the halftimes break of one of the final series game against Maccabi, there was an exhibition game of a wheelchair team. It really shook me back then, and I was having a hard time recover from it in the second half and we lost the game. Some years later, my life had changed for the worst and it was me playing on a wheelchair”.

“Overall I liked Israel. I liked the weather, the beach, the beautiful girls and Golda Meir, but to be honest at some time I got sick of the wars and tension and from people arguing all the time”, Walk recall, and claims he still get updated in the politics of the troubled Middle East. “The Palestinians want to throw the Israelis to the Mediterranean sea. There will be always people there that will oppose any agreement. But I have no problem they’ll get Gaza and the West Bank” he say and jokes: “You can say I’m a ‘Shalom Ahshavnik’ (‘Shalom Ahshav’, or ‘Peace Now’ in English, is a Israeli famous leftist movement)”.

Put a side the not so convenient recollection of Israel's everyday life, Walk don’t have too good memories of Israeli basketball and don’t get too excited from the last two European championships of Maccabi. “How many American players plays now in Maccabi? (5 as for 2005). It’s always been the same strategy for Maccabi. They were getting citizenship for their foreign players, like Aulcey Perry and Earl Williams, and that’s why no one can beat them. Well…You can understand them. You can’t say Israelis were such good basketball players. In Ramat Gan we had me and Charlie Davis, Steve Kaplan, Steve Schlachter, Or Goren, Avigdor Moskovic, Yehuda Levy and some Kibbutznik’s and soldiers”.

At least Walk remembers Schlachter, Moskovic and Yehuda Levy as “nice persons", but it doesn’t seems to be the case about the team’s biggest star Steve Kaplan. It seems Walk keeps some of his grudge for him till now – 25 years after. “I remember that when I first came to the team, Kaplan came to me and said: ‘do you know who is the best scorer of this league for the the last three consecutive years?” Walk recalls, “It didn’t make an impression on me. ‘so what?’ I tasked him, ‘I played against Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain and Willis Reed’. So sure…he was a pretty good shooter, but I always thought he was kind of sissy”.

Even though Walk insist things didn’t got to a dramatic confrontation, he admits there was not a lot of love between them. “Our relationship just didn’t go as smooth as you expect. He also looked a bit pathetic we the way he combed his hair from side to side, to cover his bold head. Our assistant coach, a short guy, also used to comb his hair that way but in another direction – from back to front. Anyway, Kaplan was arrogant. I loved Schlachter though, and his wife Bina. He was a funny guy and at least he made an effort on the court”.

Walk works for the Suns which was one of the best teams in the NBA last year and he enjoy it very much. “I love it here and I think we have pretty good chance to win the championship this year. Steve Nash had earned his MVP trophy, Amare Studamire is a freak and Mike D'Aatony is a great coach whom I played against as a player in my only season in Italy, before I came to Israel”. Says Walk and asks to send his best wishes for all his friends in Israel.

And what about Kaplan? I ask. “You know what…tell Kaplan I have more double-double games in the Suns history. More than any other player. More than Charles Barkley, more than Kevin Johnson, more than Shawn Marion. More than all of those guys – It’s much more than he ever did in his career”.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Where They Are Today - Korky Nelson

Most of you might remember him as the blond giant on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s bench, but Korky Nelson remember himself mostly as a Maccabi Rishon LeZion player. The team that was a family for him, even on his lowest point in the early 90’s, which eventually forced him to retire from basketball at the age of 36. “In 1992 I was hit with four blows” says Nelson, 49 today. “I passed the Gulf War, which was a hard experience for me. I tore my ACL. I got divorced and got bankrupt after my house in California was ruined during an earthquake. I fell from top to bottom. I was lucky that Maccabi Rishon stood by me all along”.

It’s been more than 12 years since those troubled times and Nelson managed to regroup in he’s life path. “I went back to the US broke and confused” says Nelson, “I had to go back to my parents house and look for a job. I asked god to help me. I was traumatized and needed a change in my life. I started working as an instructor for neglected youth. I raised funds, clothes and food for underprivileged kids in eight different shelters”. Nelson’s new occupation didn’t help him to re-acclimate in his homeland, certain not financially. “I was getting payed for a month the same amount I was getting for a nabbing rebound in Israel”.

Redemption came as Nelson hooked up with an Israeli-American businessman, who got him a job in the silicone valley in Microsoft. Some years after, he left his job for his private business as a technical advisor. “I couldn’t keep up with the daily routine of an employee. I wanted to be independent”. Says Nelson from his new home which is being built in Bakersfield, California, near the golf course where spends much of his time.

After awhile, Nelson made another change in his life and started working as a teacher in a special education school, until he started the last chapter as a professional, as a producer of sports and entertainment events. These days he’s working with the NBA retired players association and helped to arrange some charity golf tournaments for raising money to veterans that has no insurance or pension. This initiative is gaining momentum for the 2006 all-stars event in Houston. “I remember that me and Shmulik Zisman (former Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Ramat Gan and Hapoel Tel Aviv point-guard) had the same idea in Israel, because the payment policy was so lousy there. In fact, I offered George Gervin (the “Iceman”), who is the head of the NBA retired players association, to add the retired players who played overseas, and he agreed. My goal is to start a website that will include all the Mike Carters and the Carl Amoses. There people can renew contacts, find job offers, get help etc.” says Nelson and claim: “I was lucky to play for Maccabi TA and Maccabi Rishon. They always paid me on time and overall my time in Israel was great”.

Nelson’s time in Israel started at 1982, three years after he finished his studies in Santa Clara university. “my coach in Santa Clara told me to look for a job, because I won’t make it as a basketball player, but I insisted to keep on with it and got drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the 10th round of the 1979 NBA draft” Nelson recalls his pre-Israeli career. “I didn’t have an agent and had no contract, so I went to Europe and played for Nice, France. When I came back to the US, Paul Silas invited me to the Los Angeles Clippers camp (where he met former Maccabi Tel Aviv player, Tom Chambers). Silas didn’t signed me but recommended me to George Karl who was coaching a CBA team in Montana. I played well, and coach Karl was impressed. He said that: ‘I never met a white guy who can get twenty rebounds a game’. At the end of the season the team got bankrupt and I went looking for a job elsewhere.

“at the summer of 1982 I played for the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer league, and I remember Larry Weinberg (former Blazers’ owner) presenting me to Hapoel Ramat Gan, Eithan Megido. They offered me to go play for Ramat Gan in Israel, and Weinberg was even willing to give me a nice check to go there”.

Actually, the offer Weinberg and Megido didn’t really got the likes of Nelson back then and he admits that he was afraid to get to the troubled middle east. “I was this naive guy from the California coast and I was frightened to death to come to Israel, which from my point of view was a country in a state of war”, Nelson remembers, “all of a sudden I got another offer from Barcelona and I was about to refuse the Weinberg-Megido. I would have end up in Spain unless they would demand going for tryouts in New Jersey. Eventually, I went to tryouts, but it became longer and longer, and I was with no money in my pockets, where I had only a flight ticket to Israel with El-Al. I remember calling my dad from the airport in New York and asking for his guidance. He answered: ‘do what your heart tells you to’. I was standing there in phone booth with tears in my eyes and told him I’m going to fly to Israel. I got his blessing and took the flight”.

After he arrived to Israel, things started to work out for Nelson. Megido decided to sign Steve Malovic and because of the foreign players restrictions in Israel back then, both of the players had to share their minutes between Europe and domestic league games. Hapoel Ramat Gan’s coach back then, Zvika Sherf, decided that Nelson will play for the team in Europe and Nelson proved him right in the first game against Les Mans from France. “I was playing great. Made fun of their center Floyd Allen. I finished with 22 points, without missing a shot. I was hitting Hook-shots with my right hand, my left hand. After that, in Mabat Sport (Israel’s mythological sports TV show), they showed everybody who is Korky Nelson”.

One year had passed and the dilemma between Nelson and Malovic was solved as Nelson married a local woman and got his Israeli citizenship. Maccabi Tel Aviv in it’s ordinary manner, watched the dynamic giant of Ramat Gan – which was the biggest opponent for the championships back then - and transfer him to it’s side, although it already had two good centers in Lee Johnson and Howie Lassoff. “I didn’t like to play for Maccabi TA, simply because I felt wasted sitting on the bench and didn’t really understand why they brought me there” admits Nelson, whom left in the following year for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s reserve team, Maccabi Darom, which was relegated in the end of 1986 season. “during that year, Rishon’s chairman, Yitzhak Perry approached me and offered to join his team which was then in the minor league. I accepted his offer and joined John Willis. Together we did the impossible and got Maccabi Rishon to the premier league in two years”.

Five years after he joined Rishon, Nelson closed a cycle when Micky Berkovic, Eugene Banks and Andre Spencer joined him in the greatest season in Rishon’s short history, when it got to the final playoffs series in 1991, and even beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in one of the games. “that was the top for me. I wanted to beat them so bad, because I’m always cheering for the underdog, and because it was very important for me to just Perry’s trust in me. Unfortunately, Maccabi Tel Aviv won the championships as always. They have the money and they are a dynasty. Everybody wants to be like them, but it’s very hard”.

It was probably the greatest moment of his career, but after that it was a free fall. Nelson got injured and was forced to retire. During that time he got separated from his wife and left Israel with no money after he got involved with a dubious jewish Boxing promoter, Aaron Brownstein (Who tried to bring Mike Tyson to Israel at the time). “I left Israel under sad circumstances, but I loved it very much. I loved the people, their warmth and openness. I loved it when businessmen, students and blue collar workers go to the Tel Aviv derby, Holonia or Rishon and give their soul because of people like me, who were happen to be basketball players. If I could go over it again, I wouldn’t miss even a single moment. Not even the late night hours, after partying in Tal Aviv’s clubs. I remember going out, getting so drunk, that we couldn’t even sleep”.

Some moments Nelson would prefer to forget, but are still with him until today are the moments of the Gulf War, which seem to traumatize Nelson. “even though I got Israeli citizenship, I didn’t serve in the army. I was scared. I would prefer to go to jail, like Mohamed Ali, than shooting Uzi and killing people. I wouldn’t go fight in Iraq today either. In my view, I served my time by staying in Israel during the Gulf War. It was hard. The sirens, the tension. I remember driving from practice through a red traffic light just to get to the sealed room. When I was teaching in the school in California, I was presenting my gas mask to the children. Actually, I still have it with me, side by side with the photo album Maccabi Rishon gave me before I left”.

  • It’s funny. Even though you played so many years in Rishon, people still remember you as this blond tall dude on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s bench.

“well…that’s the way it is. People love favorites. Everybody likes Maccabi and that’s why it’s so successful. On the other hand it’s a pretty pressured business. Like every company. There are a lot of politics there. By far, I preferred to play for a Cinderella like Rishon. To see it grow from a small team to an empire. That was a family and I felt very proud to be a part of it”