Zvika Sherf of Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv arrives at the 2008 Euroleague Final Four in Madrid as one of the most experienced head coaches to never have lifted the Euroleague crown. He has come close, however – twice reaching the continental title game with Maccabi – and he won another European trophy, the 1993 Cup Winners' Cup with Aris Thessaloniki. Sherf's bench experience is vast, covering more than a quarter-century with teams from Israel, Greece, France, Russia and Poland. All his experience and skills were put to the test when he took over the Maccabi job in January and boldly told his players that they would reach the Final Four. Lo and behold, Sherf proceeded to guide them directly to that goal, and now Maccabi has another golden opportunity to add to its Euroleague legend. In this Euroleague.net interview, Sherf speaks about what he did to turn Maccabi around this season, about some of his top players and about today's game as compared with when he started as a coach. He also makes a strong case for himself as a basketball ambassador. "I want to see basketball reach the popularity everywhere like it is here in Israel, where it's even with soccer," Sherf told Euroleague.net. "That needs to be our goal...Basketball is an amazing game that needs to be played in more communities and to get more children playing."
Hello Zvika, and congratulations on a fine season so far. You stepped into the head coach's role in January and the team has been one of the best around since. What it was like to take over midseason and what did you change to help Maccabi get so much stronger?
"First of all, it's never good to take a team in the middle of the season, although I have done it successfully several times in my career. I think we had excellent players, although there were all kinds of injury problems that complicated matters. The first thing I did was to strengthen our defense. Then I started to explain to our players, especially the new ones, what Maccabi Tel Aviv is all about. What the expectations are. What the tradition is. What the Euroleague is. There are teams from certain countries that don't always know how to divide their energy between domestic games and the Euroleague. For us at Maccabi, the Euroleague is very important and we do everything we can to get to the Final Four. This is the club I grew up with and I am coaching here for the fourth time and I can tell you that the tradition here and playing in the Euroleague are very important. The crowd fills the arena for every Euroleague game no matter against whom. So we improved our defense, improved some things in our offense and got some players back. And we had some nice results. For us to get back to the Final Four is very nice."
After advancing to the Final Four, it was revealed that you had told the players before your first game in charge, back in January, that Maccabi would play in the Final Four. How could you have been so certain then?
"I wanted to fire them up. That was one of my ways to increase their confidence and to make the team stronger."
From the very beginning, you began playing Terence Morris more, and he responded with a terrific season. What did you see in him when you took over that made you think he could anchor the Maccabi froncourt?
"Terence Morris is a player that brings our team together in many ways: offensively, defensively, rebounding. He's a very competitive player. He always wants to get better and to work more for the team. And we didn't have many options at the power forward spot. So he began to play more and more. Eventually, by the time of the series against Barcelona, he didn't play as good because he had carried a lot on his shoulders until that point."
Another player having arguably his best season is Yotam Halperin. How important are his contributions to Maccabi's success?
"Yotam Halperin is a boy that grew up at Maccabi and for many years was marked as a bright talent. But he didn't always hold up under pressure. This summer he played for me on the Israeli national team and he had an outstanding European championships. When I took over at Maccabi, I told him he just needs to keep playing that way. In the two or three games that Yotam didn't play well, Maccabi lost. And I think that says everything."
What differences are there between coaching a team to this stage of the European season now and the first time you did it, more than two decades ago?
"Then, just like now, it was exciting. But the basketball has changed. The athleticism has changed. The speed of the game has changed. There were no three-point shots then. Now, we play with quarters. Then you'd go a whole game with five or six, maybe seven players. Over the course of time, the amount of games has grown. Also the amount of injuries has grown. If you look all around Europe, players suffer many more serious injuries now than before. Also then, you would build your team at the start of the season and you couldn't make changes after that. Now you can make changes before this stage and that stage and sometimes it's good and sometimes not so. So basketball has changed, but it's still basketball. I loved it then and I love it now."
Like your counterpart in the semifinals, Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani, you started coaching in the Euroleague in your 30s. Unlike him, you now have years or experience to fall back on. How important do you think that experience will be for the Final Four?
"I started to coach at a very young age. Pianigiani, I think, was an assistant coach for many years first. I started coaching youth when I was 17 or 18 years old. So when I was in the Euroleague at age 32, I had more than 10 years of head coaching experience. Pianigiani was an assistant under Carlo Recalcati and others and he has his own experience from that. I think that experience can play a very important role, but that you have to give young coaches plenty of credit."
On the other hand, many of your key players – Morris, Esteban Batista, Omri Casspi, Will Bynum and Alex Garcia come to mind – are playing their first Final Four. How can the club's long experience in this event help them in this new situation?
"Lack of experience is not too much of a big deal. In some cases yes and in some cases no. Sometimes experienced players feel they've ‘been there, done that,' while inexperienced players may be nervous, but often excited with a great desire to win. But Maccabi has great experience and great tradition and as a club we are trying to prepare everyone for the Final Four."
What do you know about Montepaschi and what do you see as the keys to the semifinal game against them?
"Montepaschi is a team that throughout the season has played very consistent team basketball, and aside from the injury to Kaukenas, not much has changed there. In the regular season, they did very well in a very difficult group. And they came through a tough Top 16 group - with Panathinaikos, Partizan and Efes Pilsen - in first place. We are still gathering information and analyzing it to see how to tackle this team, but I have no doubt that Montepaschi is a very good team."
This Final Four will be a tribute to history, including two of the 50 greatest contributors that you coached, Miki Berkowitz and Panagiotis Giannakis. What does the 50 Years of European Club Basketball celebration mean to you?
"When we had the ceremony honoring the greats from Maccabi, I stood beside Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu. I told them, ‘Except for two players, I coached all these guys. Everyone but Tani Cohen-Mintz and Tal Brody.' I want to see basketball reach the popularity everywhere like it is here in Israel, where it's even with soccer. Or at least a close second. That needs to be our goal. That basketball is a close second to soccer, or even as popular. Basketball is an amazing game that needs to be played in more communities and to get more children playing."
As someone who coached the great Maccabi teams of the mid-1980s, with players like Miki Berkowitz, Motti Aroesti, Kevin Magee and Lee Johnson, how would your team today fare against those teams?
"That's one of those questions I'm asked often and I don't think you can really make the comparison, because every style is different and every class of players is different. I'll tell you this. I received a telephone call from Miki Berkowitz after we defeated Real Madrid in Spain in the Top 16 and he told me, ‘That was one of the best games I've ever seen Maccabi Tel Aviv play.' So I leave it to Miki to make that comparison."