Pini Gershon, coach and showman

Jan 31, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Pini Gershon, coach and showman

Every coach has his best qualities. It may be his knowledge of the game, experience, or maybe his gut feeling. It could also be his relationship or ability to communicate with the players, his capacity of motivating them or making decisions. And of course, there is character as an inseparable part of personality. For most coaches, character is very important, but I think it was never so relevant as in the case of Pinhas "Pini" Gershon.

Gershon was born on November 13, 1951 in Tel Aviv. His childhood was marked by the absence of a father who abandoned the family when Pini was a small boy. Gershon's relationship with his mother was always very close, to the point where after winning the Israeli Cup in 1996 with Hapoel Jerusalem, he shrieked into the television cameras: "Mother, I've brought the Cup."

Gershon played football with Hapoel Tel Aviv and basketball with Maccabi Darom, a club related to Maccabi Tel Aviv, but his playing career came to an early end due to injury. Already infected by the basketball bug, he chose this game and the only way to stay close to it was coaching. The road was long and slow, but he wasn't in a hurry. Gershon started at age 25 with Betar Tel Aviv in 1976-77, and after that he moved to Hapoel Holon for two seasons. Then Hapoel Gan Shmuel until 1981. He coached as many as 12 (!) Israeli teams, a complete league! His whole career is marked by comings and goings. He was fired and signed like no other coach. When he was with a club, he was normally deemed a "problem" because of his big mouth, but when he was not there, the problem was even bigger!

Coach and showman

Gershon was always a great coach, but his career had an unusual reputation because of his temperament and many of his statements. He never held back on what he said. Sometimes he would cross some red lines and had to suffer the consequences, but many times, what he said was just part of the "Pini show". Nobody stayed indifferent to Pini Gershon. Before a game against a team coached by a another well-known Israeli coach, a journalist asked Pini about the duel between the two brains. Pini's reply was a question: "Who's the other brain?" Another time, after losing a Korac Cup game with a very talented, but very young Hapoel Galil Elyon squad, he said of his team’s effort: "Sometimes when you go to sleep with babies, you wake up wet."

After coaching Galil Elyon from 1981 to 1983, Maccabi Haifa (1983-85), Hapoel Tel Aviv (1985-86), Maccabi Haifa again (1986-87), Betar again (1987-88), Maccabi Haifa yet again (1988-89), Hapoel Haifa (1989-90) and Ironi Ramat Gan (1990-92), Gershon returned once more to Galil Elyon. And then a miracle happened: The Gershon-led Galil squad became the Israeli champion and broke Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 26-year domination! In the final series, Galil Elyon defeated Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-1 and that was Gershon's big moment. The one in which he entered, once and for all, the elite of Israeli basketball.

When Gershon was coaching humble teams, he often to criticized Maccabi and accused them of anything, even of buying referees! The last thing he expected, probably, was that he one day would coach Maccabi... but it happened. In the 1998-99 season Maccabi Tel Aviv got off to a very bad start to the season, Gershon was free and their paths crossed for the first time. The first thing Gershon said was that he had played for Maccabi Darom, as if the Maccabi colors had been his forever. He had good results and returned Maccabi to the Final Four in Thessaloniki, with David Blatt as his assistant coach. In semifinal, Maccabi defeated FC Barcelona convincingly, 65-51, with great defense, but the team fell to Zeljko Obradovic's Panathinaikos in the final 67-73. Ironically, one of the Maccabi’s executors in that final was Maccabi’s homegrown guard and fan-favorite Oded Kattash, who scored 17 points in the game. Maccabi's roster was top-notch with Arriel McDonald, Derick Sharp, Nadav Henefeld, Gur Shelef, Doron Shefer, Doron Jamchy and the recently deceased Nate Huffman, who led the team with 18.2 points and 9.4 boards.

Triumph in Paris

The year of the "two Euroleagues" Maccabi chose the Suproleague organized by FIBA. The team won its group with a 15-3 record and in the eighthfinals defeated Slask Wroclaw 2-0. In quarterfinals, Maccabi swept Scavolini Pesaro 2-0 to reach the Final Four in Paris. In the semifinal game against CSKA Moscow, Maccabi prevailed 86-80 with McDonald and Huffman as its best scorers with 17 points apiece. The title game was the big Maccabi revenge from the previous year and it defeated Panathinaikos 81-67. Huffman posted 21 points and 9 rebounds and McDonald recorded 21 points plus 9 assists. Dejan Bodiroga's 27 points were not enough to stop the Yellow tide.

Coming back to Tel Aviv, Maccabi was received with full honors. After four Euroleague title game defeats, the third European crown and first since 1981 finally arrived. Gershon was pretty popular, but still far from the heights he would reach years later.

After the big success, Gershon took a break from coaching, but in the summer of 2003 he returned, as the 2004 Final Four would be played in Tel Aviv. Maccabi managed to advance to the Final Four thanks to a miracle three by Derrick Sharp against Zalgiris Kaunas, which forced overtime when it looked like Maccabi was going to miss the final event at home. Winning the Final Four proved to be much easier. In the semifinal, it ousted CSKA by 93-85 and then, in a title game for the ages that broke several records, it blasted Skipper Bologna 118-74. Maccabi had an amazing team: Saras Jasikevicius (18 points, 5 assists), Anthony Parker (21), Tal Burstein (17), Maceo Baston (9), Nikola Vujcic (9), Sharp (9), Yotam Halperin (7)... It was an offensive feast.

It's hard to say who was most popular at the time, the players or Pini. In the official press conference after the game, sitting by my side, Gershon started talking about the game, but it quickly became a dialogue between him and the Israeli Prime Minister, Arik Sharon, who had called to congratulate Gershon. The coach even answered the call in the Prime Minister’s distinctive voice. And it was all live on TV. We all had to listen to a live conversation, in Hebrew, for about 10 minutes before we could go on. And Gershon was having a blast.

If someone pointed out that Maccabi had won because it was playing at home, the following season Gershon and the guys made it clear that it was no coincidence. Maccabi won Group B in the regular season with a 10-4 record, and in the Top 16 it was even better: 6-0 against Ulker, Siena and Cibona. In the quarterfinal series, it swept Scavolini 2-0 and advanced to the Final Four in Moscow. The semifinal was another duel between Panathinaikos and Maccabi, a new Obradovic-Gershon classic. Maccabi prevailed 91-82 to meet Tau Ceramica Vitoria in the title game; the Spanish team had shocked the event in the other semifinal by eliminating mighty CSKA 78-85. On May 8, 2005, Maccabi confirmed its domination with a 90-78 victory to claim back-to-back crowns. Jasikevicius shined with 22 points and 5 assists. Baston scored 18 points, Vujcic 13 and Parker 12. At the end of the season, Euroleague Basketball awarded Pini with the Aleksandar Gomelskiy Coach of the Year award, deservedly. In 2006, Maccabi made the final for the third time in a row in Prague, but Ettore Messina's CSKA finally managed to take the title with a 73-69 win, killing the three-peat opportunity for Maccabi and Gershon.

Gershon himself has told me several times that his main motto as a coach is "scoring one more point than the opponent," but in several seasons, his teams showed great defense. For instance, in the 1999-00 season, Buducnost, Pau-Orthez and Caja San Fernando scored between 50 and 60 points against Maccabi. In the quarterfinals, a powerful PAF Bologna side with scorers Gregor Fucka, Carlton Myers, Arturas Karnisovas, Marko Jaric and Gianluca Basile scored 62 and 64 points in two of three games.

Assistant coach in the end

After glorious years in Maccabi, Gershon moved to Olympiacos in 2006. The first thing he said when he arrived to Athens was that his sporting career started with him playing football dressed in red, the same color as Olympiacos, with Hapoel Tel Aviv. In 2007, he accepted the offer from the Bulgarian federation to coach its national team. He once explained to me that it was for sentimental reasons, because his ancestors had arrived to Israel from Bulgaria. He managed to guide the team in the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland.

He was back to Maccabi in 2008 and stayed there until 2010. The two following years he coached Hapoel Holon, but in 2014 he was back to "his" Maccabi... as an assistant coach! He was an assistant to Guy Goodes, who had been the assistant to Blatt when he was the head coach. Goodes had much less experience than Pini. However, Gershon didn't mind his secondary role at all. The circle between Gershon, Blatt and Goodes was finally closed.

The last time I saw Gershon was last year in Lillie, at the EuroBasket. He was wearing the Israeli team track suit. He told me he was the sporting director for all the Israeli teams.

When he didn't coach, he was a TV commentator. And of course, with his own style, not holding back and not very diplomatic, but he earned popularity among viewers. Pini has always been one of those people who speak their minds. And his enemies also add to that "and sometimes without thinking", but Pini has his own style and uses it every day. Most respect him for his sports accomplishments, but a few despise him because of his words, and not his work. However, nobody can say he's not a successful coach, with great personality and a peculiar style.

The million-dollar question is: when will be Pini going back to the bench? I have no doubts he will be back, the only question is when and where.