There is a love affair brewing in Tel Aviv between Maccabi FOX head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos and the club's loyal fans. In just his first full season on the Maccabi sidelines, Sfairopoulos has successfully navigated through a minefield of injuries and maximized the talent of the available players. In doing so, he has the team doing things it hasn't accomplished in years. Rallying from an early 18-point deficit to dominate the fourth quarter en route to an 88-79 victory over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens on Thursday was just the latest example.
Maccabi is now riding a six-game winning streak after reeling off five in a row earlier in the season. The last time Maccabi had a five-game winning streak was in 2014-15, which was also the last time it reached the playoffs. The last time it had a longer winning streak was the season before, when it won eight in a row between the regular season and Top 16. Maccabi celebrated its most-recent EuroLeague at the end of that campaign. The win over Panathinaikos one week after it bested defending champion CSKA Moscow. The last time Maccabi beat Panathinaikos and CSKA in the same season? For that you must go back to 2006-07.
The star of that 2006-07 Maccabi side, whose season ended with a 2-1 playoff loss to CSKA, was Nikola Vujcic, who is now Maccabi's sports director. To see the way Vujcic was carrying himself in the arena on Thursday night brought the Maccabi elders back to the days of the Maccabi dynasty of the mid-2000s. Vujcic had a plan in putting together this year's team which was built on lessons learned from the tight-knit group that won back-to-back EuroLeague crowns in 2004 and 2005 and can be seen in The Insider Documentary Series: Symphony in Yellow.
This year’s team was built on character. Of course, talent was primary in bringing in new players, but knowing that there were veterans, leaders, hard-working guys who put the team first was what Maccabi believed would keep the team together when tough times hit. Tough times like when three starters (Tarik Black, Omri Casspi and Nate Wolters) and team captain John DiBartolomeo are out with injuries.
The victory over Panathinaikos was the third in a row without that foursome. Maccabi won all of those games despite a busy schedule and sometimes using only nine men in the rotation. Credit goes to Coach Sfairopoulos, who has kept his team focused and believing in these tough times. Naturally, Sfairopoulos gives all the credit to the players. The Greek coach opened his post-game remarks on Thursday with a few words in Hebrew to the delight of the local press on hand with the following words: "What heroes our players are!"
He followed that up by praising nearly every player who took the court. "What can I say about Deni Advija? I think he had his best game in the EuroLeague. What can I say about Yovel, when he guarded Calathes? As we saw, Calathes scored 8 points and had 4 assists. What I can say about Scottie, Tyler or Othello? What can I say about Elijah, who came in at the end and was very crucial for the win? I think everybody who played the game gave his maximum, his heart and for this, I am very proud of the players."
To come back from such a big early deficit, you need a little help from the fans, too. The Maccabi faithful have helped turn Menorah Mivtachim Arena into a fortress again and as a result, the Israeli champs are undefeated through eight home games. The fans' impact in the game was also noted by Sfairopoulos's Panathinaikos counterpart, Hall of Fame Coach Rick Pitino.
"This is one of the premier crowds in all of basketball. I've experienced Kansas. I've experienced Kentucky. I've experienced Portland Trail Blazers when they were really good. And this was one of the best in all of basketball," Pitino told reporters. "It's loud, but some places you go to the fans are chanting, I don't know what they're chanting, but they're not paying attention to the game. They're going through their slogans and they're not really watching the game. Maccabi fans are into every shot, into every referee's call. It's a great crowd, I give their fans a lot of credit."
The last words go to Sfairopoulos, who further ingratiated himself to the Maccabi faithful when referring to the team's home arena by its original name: "We will fight here, in Yad Eliyahu, with all of our heart, to keep this fortress unbeaten."
And by doing so, he has Maccabi on a path that brings up special memories in Tel Aviv from days of old.