In late September 2003, Sarunas Jasikevicius landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and with him, the balance of power in European basketball shifted. The 27-year-old point guard was at the peak of his powers, having just played a key role in a magnificent season for FC Barcelona and then earning MVP honors at EuroBasket 2003. His trophy case from the previous 12 months included the EuroLeague championship, Spanish League crown, Copa del Rey and a EuroBasket gold medal.
His next challenge was to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv to the promised land and Jasikevicius delivered. In his two years wearing the yellow-and-blue of Tel Aviv's beloved team, Saras teamed with all-time greats like Anthony Parker and Nikola Vujcic to lift Maccabi to back-to-back EuroLeague championships. And they did it in style, from the Derrick Sharp miracle three against Zalgiris – in a game that saw Jasikevicius score a career-high 37 points – to the record-setting thrashing of Skipper Fortitudo Bologna in the 2004 championship game in Tel Aviv.
However, after two seasons Jasikevicius left to play overseas and neither he nor Maccabi has managed to recapture that dominating spirit again. Sure, Saras won another EuroLeague title in 2009 with Panathinaikos Athens and Maccabi triumphed in 2014, but those were fleeting moments, surrounded by seasons of struggles.
On Thursday night, Jasikevicius returns to Tel Aviv as the head coach of Barcelona. Both the coach and his opposing club are eager to build something historic to rival the Maccabi dynasty of the first decade of the mid-2000s.
Barcelona already knocked on the door of history last season, Jasikevicius's first on the team's bench, when it reached the championship game in Cologne, Germany, before falling short against Anadolu Efes Istanbul. The man on the sidelines has made sure his team did not enter this season with any complacency. While keeping nine core pieces from that runner-up roster, Barcelona raised the ante by signing four more top-tier talents.
The result? Barcelona is the lone undefeated team in the EuroLeague through six rounds and it has not been a fluke. Three of those wins have come against 2021 playoff teams.
Maccabi enters Thursday's game on a three-game winning streak and Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos's men seem to be getting better from game to game. After having their training camp disrupted by a handful of players contracting COVID-19 and being forced to cancel all participation in international preseason tournaments, Sfairopoulos had his work cut out for him in building team chemistry.
It took two and a half games, but that chemistry is now getting stronger. Since it trailed AX Armani Exchange Milan by 22 points at halftime of their Round 3 game, Maccabi has outscored its opponents in 11 of the last 14 quarters played.
Sfairopoulos is a coach who's in it for the long haul. His first EuroLeague position was with Olympiacos Piraeus, where he spent four seasons and led the club to the EuroLeague championship game twice. He inherited Maccabi in a tough spot in 2018 and is already the longest-serving non-Israeli head coach in club history. No coach has roamed the Maccabi sidelines for more than four straight seasons since the late Ralph Klein in the 1970s and Sfairopoulos will reach that mark if he returns next season.
Maccabi's trajectory is on an upward swing. So far, Sfairopoulos has successfully integrated seven new signings players into the rotation – including four EuroLeague rookies (Keenan Evans, Roman Sorkin, Kameron Taylor and Iftah Ziv). And the team has received fantastic support from the home crowd with the first three home games having been sell-outs.
That brings us to Thursday's showdown. Saras arrives with a serious title contender led by MVP candidate Nikola Mirotic and All-EuroLeague talents Nick Calathes and Brandon Davies. But to reach the status of the Jasikevicius Maccabi teams, Barcelona must be able to go on the road and shine against hungry teams with passionate fans. Barcelona has lost its last four trips to Tel Aviv.
For Maccabi to climb the ladder and play in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 – the season after it won its most-recent EuroLeague championship, it needs to be able to turn Menorah Mivtachim Arena into a fortress, much like it was during the days when Saras was throwing alley-oops to Parker and Maceo Baston. Now those alley-oops are coming from Scottie Wilbekin and going to Derrick Williams.
It may only be Round 7, but this showdown between Maccabi and Barcelona has significant value for both teams and could end up being a key milestone on their respective attempts to capture continental glory.