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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