As someone who spent far too many frustrating minutes on the bench during my high school and college basketball career, I should, in theory, have some sympathy for the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv small forward Guy Pnini. A fairly mediocre player, distinctly lacking in athleticism, Pnini has managed until now to succeed way beyond what one could expect from a player with his limited basketball skills, certainly when compared to those playing for Maccabi’s opponents in the Euroleague.
Part of the explanation for Pnini’s success until now might be his reputation as a player who is willing to do practically anything to win. In his case, however, “practically anything” has consistently included cheap provocations designed to provoke opponents to do things that would prompt the referees to at best give them technical fouls or eject them from the game, or at least distract them in such a way that their performance would suffer badly. Pnini was notorious for such tactics, which not only included trash talk, which is generally acceptable, but also unusually hard fouls and cheap shots with the same goals in mind.
While such behavior is insufferable, it sometimes is the product of youthful enthusiasm, which often passes as a player matures. In Pnini’s case, however, that was not what initially happened. At Bnei Hasharon, Pnini earned a well-deserved reputation as a provocateur and cheap-shot artist, and that did not change when he moved to Hapoel Jerusalem, where his very flagrant foul on his current teammate, Lior Eliahu, made headlines. In Eliyahu’s words, “he [Pnini] could have ended my career.”
Since moving several years ago to Maccabi Tel Aviv, generally considered the pinnacle of Israeli basketball, it appeared as if Pnini had calmed down, although he still occasionally resorted to various provocations. In a recent interview, he claimed to have matured and before the much-touted showdown this past Sunday, with Maccabi fans’ most-hated opponent, Hapoel Tel Aviv, he spoke of the importance of the supporters maintaining their calm in such a highly-charged game. Indeed, words of wisdom and maturity from Pnini, who was named Maccabi captain earlier this season and appeared to take the appointment seriously. (Since the position naturally goes to an Israeli player, Pnini more or less got the nod by default, since Maccabi has relatively few Israelis on the team who play regularly, but that is an entirely different issue.)
On Sunday night, however, Pnini resorted to some of his most disgusting tactics. While guarding Hapoel forward/center Yonatan Skjolbrand, he unleashed a stream of curses and insults, the likes of which should never ever be heard on a basketball court, least of all in Israel – son of a whore [ya ben zona], German Nazi, garbage [zevel], your father should die of brain cancer, etc. – all of which he repeated several times. Skjolbrand, who apparently got his blond hair and distinctly non-Jewish visage from his Swedish father, who converted to Judaism and has lived in Israel for many years, remarkably kept his calm and refrained from responding verbally or physically. Pnini’s bad luck was that all these disgusting comments were caught on camera and thus were irrefutable.
To Maccabi’s credit, they relatively quickly realized the seriousness of the offence, suspended Pnini from the team (which these days is not a particularly terrible blow), took away his captainship and fined him 100,000 shekels, which will be donated to a charity to be designated by Maccabi and the player. Hapoel Tel Aviv submitted an official complaint to the Israeli basketball federation, which will also no doubt punish him. Pnini issued the requisite apology, but listening to him, I had the impression that he was more concerned with the damage he did to his career and the pain he caused his family than the suffering of his victims (Yonatan and his family). In any event, he is also likely to be suspended from the national team, and this would definitely be an appropriate additional punishment.
Having said that, an incident like this does not take place in a vacuum. If Maccabi Tel Aviv’s fans call Hapoel’s Christian Arab football player Salim Toema a “terrorist,” and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Hapoel fans urge Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrachi to commit suicide, something is drastically wrong with our sports authorities and our fan culture. It’s high time that serious measures will be taken to eradicate these shameful phenomena and rectify the situation. Pnini is not a scapegoat in that respect and he fully deserves to be severely punished, but the problem is much deeper. Hopefully, what happened this past Sunday night on a basketball court in Tel Aviv will be a catalyst for meaningful reform.
In addition to being director of the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Efraim Zuroff played varsity basketball for Yeshiva College and in Israel was a player-coach for Elitzur Gush Etzion.