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.



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