The 2004 Final Four is just the latest in a long line of major basketball events to be played in Tel Aviv. Indeed, on two other occasions the European club champion has been crowned in the same city and arena that will decide the 2004 Euroleague kings. Interestingly, until this year local power Maccabi never played for a continental title in Nokia Arena, known until this season as Yad Eliyahu Arena. Maccabi didn't make the first European final there, in 1972, and did not qualify for the Euroleague in 1994, when the last Final Four was played there. Euroleague.net spoke recently with two stars who did become champions in Tel Aviv - Hall of Fame legend Dino Meneghin and Spanish League record-holder for the longest career, Rafael Jofresa - and both hold fond memories of their crowning moments in the city. Meneghin, leader of the Ignis Varese dynasty of the 1970s, won his second title in Tel Aviv by a single point over Jugoplastika in 1972. "Israel is a basketball-loving country," Meneghin said. "They have great basketball culture and tradition, and to play there is an incredible experience in a fantastic atmosphere." More than two decades later, in 1994, Jofresa and Joventut Badalona won their club's only title at Yad Eliyahu. "The atmosphere in Yad Eliyahu was superb," Jofresa said. "I loved every time that I had games there."
For Meneghin, playing in Tel Aviv was nothing new, as Varese counted Maccabi among its biggest rivals almost every season. "Maccabi and Real Madrid are the two teams we faced every year," Meneghin told Euroleague.net. "In 1972, I remember there was a great atmosphere even though Maccabi was not playing. The crowd was very involved anyway, and split its support equally between us and Jugoplastika. Israel is a basketball-loving country and the fans at Yad Eliyahu cheered for all the great plays that night."
Meneghin's appreciation for Tel Aviv goes beyond the court, however. He started to travel to Israel early in the 1970's and never stopped: "When you walk around downtown there, you feel a quiet city where the people live without worries. They work, and do all the normal things, the only difference is the security. It's everywhere, but just to prevent and make sure that all is good. I remember after one of our arrivals there, my teammate Charlie Yelverton went jogging on the beach and the police stopped him to ask who he was. They had recognized him and wanted to talk about the game."
Whether winning or losing against Maccabi at Nokia Arena, Meneghin always felt the emotion of the Tel Aviv fans. "The crowd is big and passionate. They support their players, yelling and whistling at the visitors. But they were far from the court, and you could play quietly.. They supported their team all game, but if you made a great play, they respect it and clapped for you. They have great basketball culture and tradition, and to play there is an incredible experience in a fantastic atmosphere."
When the last Final Four was played in Tel Aviv, exactly 10 years ago in 1994, the only two countries represented on the court were Greece and Spain. The rules said that the teams from the same country had to face each other in the semifinals, so while Panathianikos and Olympiacos played one semifinal, Joventut and Barcelona played the other. The final would be between Olympiacos, the favorite that season, and Joventut, the underdog despite having suffered an historic final defeat to Partizan just two years before. That loss, on a buzzer-beating triple by Sasha Djordjevic, was a memory that Joventut tried to erase in Tel Aviv. Now in his 21st season in the Spanish League, Jofresa remembers that by winning in Tel Aviv, his club and his career reached their high points.."Many people maybe do not give the real value to the fact of reaching the final and losing it," Jofresa told Euroleague.net. "You have to be there first, and that is not easy."
By the time Jofresa played for the title in Tel Aviv, the Final Four era had transformed the competition for a European champion. Now, there were two games in three days, and four teams involved, which contributed to an even more festive atmosphere in the city. For the players, however, there was little tourism between practices, team meetings, press conferences and games. To help his players relax, however, Joventut coach Zeljko Obradovic made sure they went out on game days and did something together to take their minds off basketball.
"I remember lots of security wherever you went, but there were no problems at all," Jofresa said recently. "We could not see as much of the city as we would have wanted because we were there for only three days and spent most of the time practicing or getting ready for the games. I remember that our coach Zeljko Obradovic, in a genius-like move, wanted to distract our minds from the tension of the games. So on the mornings before the semifinal and the final he took the team first to the Tel Aviv zoo and later to a bird park of the city. It was great. Other than that, we didn't get to see much of the city even though the Final Four vibe could be felt everywhere. The first semifinal involved two Greek teams - Panathinaikos and Olympiacos - and the Greek fans flooded the streets in green and red. There were fewer fans from Spain for Joventut and Barcelona, but they also contributed to the big Final Four party."
Of course, the excitement was greatest within Yad Eliyahu, which Jofresa already knew, as did Meneghin, as one of the great basketball venues anywhere.
"Whenever a big event arrives, the arenas get a bit dressed up for the occasion," Jofresa said. "Of course, the Final Four is one of those events and the atmosphere in Yad Eliyahu was superb. There was the rivalry between the Greek and Spanish crowds even though the Greeks outnumbered the Spaniards. However, Yad Eliyahu was a very comfortable place to play. I loved every time that I had games there."