At the end of September 2003, Saronas Jasikevicius landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and with him the balance of power in European basketball changed. The 27-year-old point guard was at his peak, having just played a key role in a great season for Barcelona and then won the MVP title at EuroBasket in 2003. His trophy case from the previous 12 months included the Euroleague championship. , Spanish league crown, King’s Cup and Eurobasket gold medal.
His next challenge was to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Promised Land and JessicaBicius delivered. In his two years wearing the yellow-blue of Tel Aviv’s beloved team, Sharas has collaborated with all-time greats like Anthony Parker and Nikola Vujicic to elevate Maccabi to the Euroleague championship. And they did it in style, from Derrick Sharp’s three-pointer against Zalgiris – in a game that saw Jasikevicius score a career-high 37 points – to the record elimination 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 were able to restore the dominant spirit again. Sure, Sharas won another Euroleague title in 2009 with Panathinaikos Athens and Maccabi won in 2014, but those were fleeting moments, surrounded by seasons of struggles.
On Thursday evening, Jasikvicius returns to Tel Aviv as head coach of Barcelona. Both the coach and his opposing club are eager to build something historic that will compete with the Maccabi dynasty of the first decade of the mid-2000s.
Barcelona had already knocked on the door of history last season, Jasikevicius’ first on the team bench, when it reached the championship game in Cologne, Germany, before failing against Anadolu Zero Istanbul. The man on the side made sure his team did not enter this season with any complacency. While retaining nine core parts from the runner-up’s squad, Barcelona raised the bar by signing four more top-tier talents.
The result? Barcelona is the only unbeaten team in the Euroleague over six rounds and it was no luck. Three of those wins came against the 2021 playoff teams.
Maccabi enters the game on Thursday in a series of three victories and it seems that the trainees of coach Ioannis Spiropoulos are improving from game to game. After their training camp was disrupted by a handful of players infected with COVID-19 and forced to cancel all participation in international pre-season tournaments, Spiropoulos interrupted for him his work in building the team’s chemistry.
It took two and a half games, but that chemistry is now getting stronger. Since beating AX Armani Exchange AC Milan by 22 points at the break of its third round game, Maccabi has beaten its rival in 11 of the last 14 quarters.
Sapropoulos is a long-term coach. His first position in the Euroleague was with Olympiacos Piraeus, where he spent four seasons and led the club twice to the Euroleague championship game. He inherited Maccabi in a difficult place in 2018 and is already the oldest non-Israeli coach in the club’s history. No coach has been on the sidelines of Maccabi for more than four consecutive seasons since the late Ralph Klein in the 1970s and Spiropoulos will reach that mark if he returns next season.
Maccabi’s track is swinging upwards. So far, Spiropoulos has successfully incorporated seven new signings into the rotation – including four Euroleague recruits (Keenan Evans, Roman Sorkin, Cameron Taylor and Iptach Ziv). And the team received fantastic support from the home crowd when the first three home games were sold out.
This brings us to Thursday’s confrontation. Sharas comes with a serious contender for the title led by MVP nominee Nikola Mirotic and the talents of all the Euros Nick Claths and Brandon Davis. But to reach the status of Maccabi’s Jasikevicius’ teams, Barcelona must be able to walk the road and shine in front of hungry teams with enthusiastic 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 winning its last Euroleague championship, it must be able to turn Arena Menora Mivtachim into a fortress, as it was in the days when Saras threw oops to Parker and Mysau in Aston. Now these alley-ups come from Scotty Wilbkin and go to Derrick Williams.
It may only be Round 7, but this confrontation between Maccabi and Barcelona has significant value for both teams and could ultimately be a major milestone in their attempts to conquer continental glory.