It’s a long way to fly for a home game, but that was the effect when Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv’s players walked into Staples Center, more than 7,500 miles from Israel, to play the Clippers in an exhibition game on Tuesday, Oct. 20. Rather than wearing the blue uniforms normally associated with a Maccabi away game, the players wore home gold, which gave the superficial appearance of a Lakers-Clippers match-up.
Every Maccabi basket earned loud cheers in the arena, which was filled to 72 percent capacity, or 13,700 seats (2,000 more seats than Maccabi’s Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv). Fans waved Israeli flags and held up signs written in Hebrew. And there seemed to be more kippot in one place than at any time outside of the High Holy Days.
“I thought that tonight I’d be coach Don Levy,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy told The Journal. “I thought that might help.”
But during a road trip overshadowed by the Tel Aviv suicide of a former team manager and team coach Pini Gershon’s refusal to leave the floor after a second technical foul in New York on Sunday, Maccabi players suffered the additional indignity of finding their Staples Center locker room burglarized during a game lost to Los Angeles 108-96.
The Clippers, which has a woeful NBA history, managed to best a club that has 48 Israeli National Championship titles and five European Cup wins. The Maccabi Electra had no answer for 7-foot Chris Kaman or the athletic rookie Black Griffin, who combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds.
Then there was Kaman, who stood almost 3 inches above Maccabi’s tallest player, Yaniv Green, and it showed as he had his way in the paint. Kaman scored 18 points, including six in a row to start the second half that turned a 53-42 halftime lead into a laugher.
Griffin stands 6-foot-10 but is so athletic that he played taller than that Tuesday. He scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as seven Clippers scored in double digits.
Maccabi’s Chuck Eidson scored 18 points and Doron Perkins had a triple-double with 16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, the final assist coming in USC graduate David Bluthenthal’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. Bluthenthal scored 12 points.
Yet despite being dominated for the second time in two days (the Knicks beat Maccabi 106-91 on Oct. 18), the Tel Aviv players felt satisfied with their effort. And perhaps they were more motivated in the wake of the apparent suicide of their former manager, Moni Fanan on Sunday. The crowd observed a moment of silence before the game.
Fanan’s official title for 16 years was manager, but he was much more than that. According to Yedioth Ahronot’s Ynet News, Fanan helped select the players, greeted them upon arrival to Israel, met all of their needs and, legend has it, used to change their light bulbs at 3 a.m.
Bluthenthal said Fanan was one of his “good friends. He was the link between the players and [management]. I was the first guy in the gym and he was always there a few minutes before me.”
Fanan allegedly hanged himself in his Tel Aviv apartment over financial problems. He owed millions in shekels to former team members, having promised investors high returns that he was unable to deliver.
And then Tuesday night, the Maccabi players returned to their locker room at halftime to find it had been burglarized. Maccabi coach Gershon said money and watches were stolen from the locker room. On Friday, Lt. Albert Gavin of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Station said the suspect stole more than $22,000 in cash and property from the team.
Gershon was upset with the security breach, but he was pleased with his team’s on-court showing.
“I’m feeling good, because they’re a better team [than the Knicks],” Gershon said. “They’re working on things and we’re working on things, and you can’t ask for better than that.”
This Gershon was different from the one who refused to leave the Madison Square Garden court after receiving two technical fouls against the Knicks. Gershon was upset at the replacement referees, and it took the pleading from Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, founder of the Israeli orphanage Migdal Ohr, which received proceeds from the game, to finally get Gershon to leave after eight minutes.
The Gershon who coached at Staples Center was on his best behavior, infrequently shouting at the refs and limiting most of his objections to “where’s the call?” gestures.
Grossman, meanwhile, sat courtside at Staples and received as much attention as any celebrity. At halftime, he spoke for four minutes, starting with saying “Hinei Ma Tov” before saying a few words about Migdal Ohr’s mission, reciting the “Shema” and then leading the fans in singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Maccabi players, meanwhile, felt the Clippers were better than the Knicks, and that they played better.
“We executed our offense better, played better defense. We were fresher,” said Bluthenthal, who had his own group of family boosters in Section 110.