From Yad Eliyahu to Nokia Arena: 41 years of magic moments

Apr 25, 2004 by Yarone Arbel, Print
From Yad Eliyahu to Nokia Arena: 41 years of magic moments

Every popular sport has its legends, the most-recognized players, teams, games and last-second plays that will always be part of fan memories and trivia. And every popular sport has its monuments, too, the legendary arenas where all the magic takes place. In football, places like Manchester United's Old Trafford or Barcelona's Camp Nou are known the world over. When it comes to European basketball, there's is no doubt which is the most famous arena: Maccabi’s Nokia Arena, known until this season as Yad Eliyahu. It was 41 years ago, in 1963, that Tel Aviv constructed its first professional basketball court and named it, officially, Yosef Burstien Stadium. But it was soon known to all as Yad Eliyahu, after the neighborhood where it is still located. Back then, it was an open-air arena, without a roof to cover the court from bad weather. It took until 1972 for a roof to be put on, and only then did Israel really have its first indoor basketball arena.

In order to celebrate the addition of the roof in 1972, the Israeli Basketball Federation asked to host the most important game in Europe, the finals of the European cup, precursor of the modern Euroleague. Ignis Varese and Jugoplastika Split, two of the biggest names in European basketball history, came to Tel Aviv to officially inaugurate the new, improved arena. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the team that most associated with the arena, but though it is considered to be the team's home court, the city of Tel Aviv is the actual owner of the arena. Since Maccabi has no home arena of its own, it chose the biggest and most prestigious one available to host its home games both in the Israeli League and in European competitions. For more than 30 years now, the arena has become more and more famous as all of Europe’s most legendary players have paid at least one visit during their career. What they have all found is an arena almost constantly full of 10,000 fans - actually 9,466 until hundreds of seats were added recently - for which Tel Aviv recently found a new sponsor, Nokia, in order to further expand and modernize the facility. The venue will be called "Nokia Arena" for at least the next decade, and in less than a season, the name has caught on already among basketball fans, proving that even after 41 years, quick adaptability suits both the place and its inhabitants.

At the same time, Maccabi’s fans have become known as some of the hottest and loudest on the continent. The traditional pre-game player introductions can sometimes give visitors more of a welcome than they want. On the other hand, the Nokia Arena fans are known for their love and understanding of the game. Visiting legends such as Juan Antonio Corbalan, Dino Meneghin and Drazen Petrovic were always welcomed with standing ovations, the same treatment that opposing teams who played well could expect even if they were beating Maccabi. Indeed, the latest Euroleague game at the arena offered another clear example of the Nokia Arena crowd's fairness. Thinking that their team was eliminated from the Final Four when Zalgiris center Arvydas Sabonis fouled out with seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Tel Aviv fans rose to their feet to cheer him. As far as the fans knew at that moment, Sabonis had knocked out Maccabi in what was undoubtedly one of the club's most important games ever.

Of course, that's when one of the greatest moments in nearly half a century of basketball played at the same location unfolded before the disbelieving eyes of everyone. A game-tying three-pointer on the buzzer by Derrick Sharp saved Maccabi's chance to make the Final Four in its own city. In that moment, there was proof that even in the oldest basketball monuments - or perhaps in them, most of all - many magic moments remain.