No team has played more EuroCup seasons than Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem and no player on Jerusalem has as much experience as veteran guard Yotam Halperin. A two-time EuroLeague champion and twice a member of the All-EuroCup Team, Halperin is now in the EuroCup Semifinals for the second time, where he and Jerusalem will meet Valencia Basket for a ticket to the finals. He is ranked 10th all-time in assists with 289 in the competition and has even further embraced that role on the current team. In a recent interview with Javier Gancedo of EuroCupbasketball.com, Halperin spoke about a wide range of topics, including the quarterfinals sweep of Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas, the series against Valencia, his previous trip to the semifinals and his role on this team. "I think this team needs me to pass the ball and organize the game more. And I’m very happy to do it this season, but I will be very happy to be more aggressive on offense as far as scoring," Halperin said. "As long as we are winning, it doesn’t matter what everybody does. If you win, everything is okay."
Congratulations on making it to the EuroCup Semifinals. This is the first time an Israeli team has made it this far in the EuroCup in over a decade. How does it feel to be so close to the title?
"I think it’s been a wonderful season from our side, not just because we made it to the semifinals but because of the way we did it, playing good basketball. We made a few steps during the season to become a better team and little by little the fact that we are playing better basketball, of course helped us get here. It’s a great feeling. We are working for this and when the results come, you are happy."
Was the series against Gran Canaria easier than you expected? Did you think that you could sweep the series in two games?
"To be honest, definitely not. I think Gran Canaria didn’t play their best basketball this season. I think they are a better team than they showed especially in the first game when we beat them by 20. I don’t think that is the real difference between the teams, to be honest. But we did a lot of things well. We controlled both games for most of the minutes. I think it’s a big thing to beat Gran Canaria on the road, not just for Jerusalem, but for any team in any league. Just a few days before that they beat Real Madrid in Madrid. They are better than they showed, but to answer the question, I think we, as a team, were playing perfect basketball against this kind of team and the fact that we beat them 2-0 was a kind of surprise, but we did a lot of good things in these games and we deserve to be in the semifinals."
This is Jerusalem’s 13th season in the EuroCup, which is the most of any team in the competition. How important is the EuroCup for the club and its fans?
"I think the last couple of seasons, the last couple of years, you see something new in Jerusalem. We have a new owner, new management, a new coach, Simone Pianigiani, and for him I also think it’s something big to be in this situation. I think the fact that this team has some type of tradition, some kind of growing up from being another average basketball club to be a stable basketball club that every season has a good team is very important. I don’t know what we are going to do next, if we are going to make it to the final or win the competition or stay in the semifinals, but the most important thing for the club right now is to be stable and to stay on the top of European basketball every season."
You will play Valencia in the semifinals. Since you already met twice in the regular season, what do you like about this team?
"I love this team, to be honest. I think they play great basketball. I think it’s very, very difficult to play them. The fact that they have been playing together for a long time with the same force as last year and the way they play makes them to maximize their potential. For me Valencia has been one of the favorites from the beginning of the season to win this competition. And the fact that they reached the semifinal is not a surprise to me. We expect an aggressive game with a lot of good shooters, great big men. They have their own style of basketball and when they play good, as we saw in the third game against Khimki, they dominated the game. They are a great team. This is Valencia. We have to be ready for two or three games, whatever it will be."
In the two games you played against Valencia, the road team won. Taking that into account, will home-court advantage be less important in this series?
"I don’t think so. I think home-court advantage is important, especially in a best-of-three series. But this kind of series can be complicated, because the first game becomes very crucial. And if you look at the games against Valencia, I think we won by 3 or 4 and we lost by 2 or 3, so it’s very hard to expect what’s going to happen in a best-of-three series, but it can be a long war and it can be a short war. In the end I think the fact that Valencia has the home-court advantage is an advantage for them."
You were a great scorer for much of your career, but this year you are averaging 4 assists per game. Have you made the transition from being a shooting guard to a point guard?
"Our team is different this season; we have a lot of players that can score. Curtis Jerrells is doing a great job of it and Jerome Dyson and of course Amar’e Stoudemire, even Tarence Kinsey who for his career was a role player and he came to our team and became one of our main guys. When you have this kind of a team around you, you have to do the extra thing around it. I think this team needs me to pass the ball and organize the game more. And I’m very happy to do it this season, but I will be very happy to be more aggressive on offense as far as scoring. But as long as we are winning, it doesn’t matter what everybody does. If you win, everything is okay. I am just trying to do the best I can."
Let me ask you about Amar’e Stoudemire. A lot of players that come from the NBA come with the wrong mentality, but he has come and worked hard and been very productive. How important is it to have a player like him being so much a part of the team?
"You know, I have heard this question so many times this season. ‘How is Amar’e?’ ‘What is Amar’e doing?’ Amar’e is a regular person. To be honest, when Amar’e signed for Hapoel Jerusalem, it was a big shock for everybody, and we didn’t know what to expect. What kind of person, what kind of teammate, how is his character. And when he came, the first two weeks, three weeks, one month, we all thought that he is joking with us, the way that he is behaving, the way he does his things, because he has like a junior guy’s approach to come and work hard and trying to help everybody. And everybody said, ‘it can’t be. It has to change. He is a superstar.’ And surprisingly, Amar’e is one of the best teammates I have ever played with. He really cares about the team. He really wants to work hard. He is always trying to help and always trying to see what he can do better for the team without any excuses or complaints. And I think the reason he is such a great player is this reason. I think him making a lot of progress during the season. I think he struggled a little bit with the different basketball and I think the fact that he’s so open minded and so positive character helps everybody. It helps him and it helps us. And we are all lucky to have him here."
This is your second time in the EuroCup Semifinals. You played in the semifinals in 2012 with Spartak St. Petersburg. What do you remember about that?
"I have good memories. We had a good season with Spartak. I think it was the first time ever that Spartak reached the semifinals, so it was something big for the club. We played against the home team, Khimki, back when [the semifinal] was only one game. It was a great experience for me, a great experience for the club. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the finals, but we had a great season. It was a great competition, and whoever doesn’t play in the EuroCup doesn’t know how tough it is to reach the semifinals. This is my time in the semifinals and I hope to go to one more step at least."
I want to ask you about the other semifinal: Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar against Unicaja Malaga. What do you think is going to happen and what is the key to that series?
"We played Loko earlier in the season and they have changed a lot since Sasa Obradovic came to the team and we can see the results. I think the fact that Loko has the home-court advantage is a big advantage for them. And it could be the key because it is very difficult to play there in Russia. But Malaga surprised me, if I had to bet before the series between them and Bayern I would have put my money on Bayern and they just made a big, big, big third game against them and won the series. So I don’t k ow what to expect, but I think Kuban is the small favorite because they have the home-court advantage and they have been playing great lately. It’s hard to guess, but I think the series is open for both side."
And now your series; what do you need to do well to beat Valencia?
"We have to be patient. Valencia is definitely a team that can run, run a lot, and score a lot of points easily in a short time. We saw it against Khimki how they in three or four minutes almost finished the third game. I think that if we are going to have the ability to make as few mistakes as possible against them, it will be better for us because any mistake you make against Valencia you pay for it immediately. We have to be very conscience with the ball and make sure that every offense is important for us. Because if we lose our mind, it’s going to be an easy game for them. We have to stay in the game as long as possible, especially the first game, and try to win the game."