The Club Scene: Hapoel Jerusalem looks to bright future

Mar 21, 2014 by Frankie Sachs, Print
The Club Scene: Hapoel Jerusalem looks to bright future
This season marks the one-decade anniversary of Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem's greatest triumph, defeating Real Madrid to win the 2004 ULEB Cup title. The club located in the Israeli capital is not looking back, however, but rather is focused squarely on the promising future at hand. Over the past year, Hapoel has introduced a new CEO and a new ownership group. Next season it will change addresses to a state-of-the-art Jerusalem Pais Arena, which is nearing completion. And in its new home, the plans are for Hapoel Jerusalem to emerge as a European basketball power.

Jerusalem's new leadership has deep roots with the club. Both CEO Guy Harel and club chairman Dr. Ori Allon, the head of the new ownership group, grew up among the Hapoel faithful behind the baskets at Goldberg Arena. In the time Harel and Allon have been working together, Hapoel has not only improved on the court, but refocused its efforts on strengthening and maintaining ties in the community. The preseason was peppered with events to bring players and fans together, some of which were attended by Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, who is also a supporter of the team. The players have begun making regular visits to local schools and fostering those relationships.

On the court, Hapoel has been in top form in both the Eurocup and Israeli League. Next week it travels to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, where a victory against the local side can bring Jerusalem to the Eurocup semifinals for the first time since 2006. This season fan interest in the club has returned to that of its peak years. Goldberg Arena is sold out nearly every night, its homecourt advantage has become as meaningful as ever and the fans are clearly back in love with their team.

The big step awaiting Hapoel comes next season, when it moves into its new home. Nestled into what has become Jerusalem's sporting home in the Malha neighborhood, the Jerusalem Pais Arena is nearing competition. It is built in an ideal location for fans, tourists and visiting teams alike: next to the city's iconic Teddy Stadium and the Jerusalem branch of the Israel Tennis Center, across from the Jerusalem Mall and near the railway station.

Though the new arena is less than two kilometers from the team's current home, which was opened in 1985, it is light years ahead. The arena features 11,600 seats, four times as many as in Goldberg Arena, and all the modern amenities expected of a modern basketball venue. The Jerusalem Arena project is years in the making. The site was chosen as far back as 2005, but the building has only taken place in recent years. With an eye towards what the future might bring, the arena is being built to Euroleague standards. And playing in the Euroleague in the next few years is a goal that Allon has publicly set for his team.

Allon took control of the club in July after his joint bid landed a majority stake in the team. Partnering with Allon as minority owners are Arn Tellem, basketball super-agent; Amare Stoudemire, New York Knicks center; Eyal Chomski, founder and CEO of Adler Chomski, Israel's largest media group; Howard Wietschner, a retired partner from Goldman Sachs; and Shalom Menora, owner of investment firm Menora Financial.

From that day, Hapoel has been planning to win not only this season, but into the future. Over the summer, Hapoel put a premium on signing players willing to make long-term commitments with a vision of having Israel's top talents donning the team's red jerseys. In addition to head coach Brad Greenberg, guard Yotam Halperin and forward Lior Eliyahu both signed three-year deals to provide the backbone of the team.

Allon, a high-tech entrepreneur who currently serves as CEO of Urban Compass and previously developed technology that he sold to Google and Twitter, respectively, takes a keen interest in the club. He visits Jerusalem all the time, but lives overseas, thus the club's day-to-day operations are led by Harel and Chomski.

Harel became Hapoel Jerusalem's CEO just last summer, but his connection to the club goes far back. His father, Avi Harel, served as one of the club's directors in the 1990s. Guy Harel was a devoted fan as a child and later was team manager when Hapoel won its first title, the Israeli State Cup, in 1996. He has an MA in Sports Management, worked as a basketball agent and outside of sports in business development before joining Hapoel. Between his knowledge of the city and its fans, his connections in the basketball world from his days as an agent and his education and experience in business, Harel represents and brings together everything Hapoel needs to continue its climb to the top of Europe: passionate fans, talented players, dedicated owners and world-class facilities.

A stroll through Hapoel's offices in the Jerusalem city center reveals hallways dotted with posters of Doron Sheffer, Will Solomon and rest of the heroes from that memorable night in Charleroi, Belgium, 10 years ago. In the decade since, Hapoel has seen its fair share of highs and lows. In addition to being among the few clubs to win the competition, Hapoel has also lost more games than any other club in Eurocup history. While it collected two more State Cup crowns, a first Israeli League championship has remained elusive. And at the top, there was instability as Arcadi Gaydamak came and went as chief sponsor and Guma Aguiar, who purchased a controlling share of the team in 2009, disappeared on his boat in 2012 and was never found.

Hapoel Jerusalem has moved past those tough times and to the glow of a bright future. In just a few months, Hapoel fans will be able to serenade Halperin, Eliyahu and the rest of the Jerusalem stars with "Jerusalem of Gold" songs in a shiny new home under the watchful eyes of Allon and Harel. And that could be the recipe for a golden era for basketball in the Holy City.