With Amar’e Stoudemire’s help, Jerusalem looks to overtake Tel Aviv as Israel’s basketball capital

Amar'e Stoudemire is surrounded by young fans at his youth basketball camp in Jerusalem, Aug. 8, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Jerusalem basketball fans know that when the owner of their team tweets a smiley face, the signing of a new player is about to be announced.

The day before Amar’e Stoudemire made the surprise announcement that he would be leaving the NBA to play for Hapoel Jerusalem, Ori Allon tweeted a video of an active volcano that appears to be smiling. Rap music plays in the background: “Nothing can stop me. I’m all the way up.”

The signing of Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star and the biggest name to ever play for the Israeli Basketball Premier League, instantly makes Hapoel Jerusalem the team to beat. It could also mean that Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv and its powerful Maccabi Tel Aviv team, will soon be the face of Israeli basketball worldwide.

“Amar’e Stoudemire can be the guy who overturns the pecking order of Israeli basketball,” Eran Soroka, an NBA analyst for Sport5 television channel and chief editor at the Nana10 news website, told JTA. “The increased competitiveness and exposure will make Hapoel Jerusalem, not Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s team for the first time in decades. Stoudemire just has to perform.”

Stoudemire, who claims Hebrew roots and has visited Israel many times, told reporters at his basketball camp for Jewish and Arab kids in Jerusalem on Monday that he had turned down offers from at least three NBA teams. He said he felt his best chance to win his first championship was in Israel.

“To be able to continue to play the game of basketball in Jerusalem is an opportunity that can only happen once in someone’s lifetime and, for me and my family, we want to take advantage of this opportunity while I still have good health,” he said. “The most important thing for me right now is to try and create a winning atmosphere around Hapoel Jerusalem.”

In 14 seasons in the NBA, during which he battled injuries, Stoudemire averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He was drafted in the first round by the Phoenix Suns and later played for the New York Knicks for several years before finishing his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. At 33 years old, the 6-foot-10 forward is thought to have some basketball left in him.

Stoudemire and his wife, Alexis, are shopping for a home and looking at schools for their four children.

The signing of Stoudemire will bring increased attention to the team and the league, but it won’t have a “dramatic” financial impact, according to a source in the Hapoel organization who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters. The key will be success on the court, the source said.

“When we travel abroad, I assume the local media is going to be much more interested than it used to be,” the source said. “At the end of the day, if we win basketball games and we win titles and were able to create on-the-court success behind Stoudemire, then the signing will have been a good move.” (Stoudemire’s salary was not disclosed.)

Though the source said Hapoel Jerusalem is not trying to “dethrone” Maccabi Tel Aviv, he acknowledged the team wants what its competitor has.

Maccabi Tel Aviv has been the undisputed king of Israeli basketball for decades. Between 1976 and 2008, it won all but one Israeli Basketball Premier League championship, and has won four of eight since. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the only Israeli team that plays in the EuroLeague, Europe’s top basketball division — which it has won six times, including three times between 2001 and 2005. David Blatt guided Maccabi to an improbable league title in 2014 before becoming the first coach to leap from the EuroLeague to an NBA head coaching position, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, later in the year.

Long a middling team, Hapoel Jerusalem has been on the rise since Allon, an Israeli high-tech magnate, took over ahead of the 2013 season. He led a group of investors, including Stoudemire, in buying the team after its previous owner, the American oil tycoon Guma Aguiar, disappeared in 2012 and his unoccupied boat landed off the coast of Florida. Stoudemire gave up his stake in the team as part of his signing.

In 2014, Hapoel Jerusalem moved into the new Jerusalem Payis Arena, just down the street from its previous home court, where Stoudemire’s basketball camp was held. The upgrade from about 2,500 to 12,000 seats meant the fan base — and revenue stream — could be expanded. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena, which opened in 1963, holds about 11,000 fans.

At the end of the 2014-15 season, Hapoel Jerusalem won its first Israeli championship. Last year it lost in the finals to Maccabi Rishon Lezion, which edged Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals. Hapoel Jerusalem will compete this year in the EuroCup, Europe’s second division.

In the three seasons since Allon took over, Hapoel Jerusalem has seen its annual budget rise from less than $4 million to approximately $10 million — still well below Maccabi Tel Aviv’s budget of around $25 million, according to Israeli basketball league spokesman Shlomi Peri. In addition to Stoudemire, the team has signed several other former NBA players, though none warranting volcanic smiley face tweets.

Where Maccabi Tel Aviv has an entrenched advantage is in Europe. The team is among the 11 members of the European league that this year renewed 10-year contracts that guarantee a spot regardless of performance. This provides an edge in terms of attracting talent, exposure and revenue.

“I would imagine that just by participating in the EuroLeague you get a 4 million-5 million euro advantage,” the Hapoel source said. “We think we deserve a spot based on our performance over the past three years.”

At the moment, Hapoel Jerusalem can only qualify for the EuroLeague by winning the EuroCup. That’s a tall order given all the well-funded European squads in the way. But the team expects an opportunity to arise in the future, the source said, and until then it will keep building.

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s digital media manager, Omer Geva, said his team would not comment on the record about a competitor’s acquisition except to say that Stoudemire’s arrival was good for the league. Maccabi Tel Aviv has signed several former NBA players this offseason.

Omri Casspi posing for photos with kids at Amare Stoudemire's basketball camp in Jerusalem, Aug. 8, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)
Omri Casspi posing for photos with kids at Amare Stoudemire’s basketball camp in Jerusalem, Aug. 8, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)

Soroka, the analyst, said Stoudemire could help bring more attention to the league and perhaps attract a few more NBA players. The success of Israeli Omri Casspi, the Sacramento Kings forward, and former NBA slam dunk artist Nate Robinson’s stint last season with Hapoel Tel Aviv also seem to have raised the country’s profile.

Casspi, Israel’s first player in the National Basketball Association, joined Stoudemire at Monday’s camp along with fellow NBAers Rudy Gay, Chris Copeland and Beno Udrih, who were on a mission for Casspi’s nonprofit foundation to promote Israel’s image internationally.

Well over a third of the players in the Israeli basketball league come from the United States. Many have either played in the NBA or hope to. The league caps the number of foreign players a team can have on its roster at eight, and requires that two Israeli players be on the court during games.

Though the Israeli league is average by European basketball standards as far as competitiveness and salary, the lifestyle and friendliness to Americans help attract NBA players despite the security problems, Soroka said.

“We have the beaches, we have the good-looking girls, we have the bars,” he said. “People speak English, people are very warm and welcoming. A lot of people consider Israel the 51st state for a reason.”

But the main factors for most players are money and competition — in other words, the quality of the league, Soroka said. What impact Stoudemire has on that remains to be seen.