Derrick Sharp, assistant coach with the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, will not have his contract renewed. He has been with the team for 17 years first as a player and latterly as a coach. This is a sad day for all sports fans. Sharp is an American in origin but I hope he lands a position with another team. We would hate to see him go.
In 2004 Sharp made one of the greatest clutch shots in the history of sports. There have been other “miracles” more important from a sporting point of view but in the context of the nasty international political scene that year, none more meaningful for an entire nation.
Here is an article I wrote sometime after that event which I hope puts in context the shot that was heard round the Jewish world in my tribute to Derrick Sharp.
Until I came to Israel I never paid attention to pro basketball. The NBA games were never reported in the newspapers in our part of Canada, nor were the standings. Maybe there’d be a short item on who won the championship and that would be it.
In 1986 I was doing Reserve Army duty at some camp. We had finished the day’s work and many of us were just lounging around in the tents when I saw a stream of soldiers heading in one direction. “Where are they going?” I asked.
“Basketball game tonight on TV. Maccabi vs Milan.”
“What’s the level of the game here?”
“Go see for yourself.”
Nothing else to do so I went down to the TV room. Right away I recognized a player on Milan. That was Bob McAdoo. I knew him because I used to read The Sporting News and in order to get from the baseball to the hockey, you had to pass through the basketball. Many times there were big pictures of McAdoo and his name was in screaming headlines. I said to myself, if McAdoo is playing, even if he’s in a wheelchair, this basketball can’t be all that bad.
It was an exciting game, Maccabi squeaked it out, and I learned that there were games on TV every Thursday night during the season. I joined the throng and became a Maccabi fan.
Many people outside Israel think that all Israelis talk about is politics or foreign affairs. What Israeli men talk about in season is Maccabi. A lot of women too. Even though soccer is much bigger generally, no one ever wins anything. Maccabi is one of the perenniel contenders for the European basketball title. This was no small feat before the fall of the Iron Curtain since then all the Russians and Yugoslavs who today would be starring in the NBA populated the some of the stronger teams outside Israel. Yet Maccabi won the title in 1977 and 1981 and went to the finals in 1980, 1987, 1988, and 1989.
The 90s were the dark ages. Big budgets, major investments in players, loaded with talent, but not one trip to the Final Four, which gets you a shot at the title. Maccabi fell into a routine of conventional, predictable, conservative basketball, and this always earned them a fast exit in the elimination rounds. The organization tried to avoid any hints of controversy and spokesmen comported themselves like representatives of an effete establishment never needing to explain itself to the masses. Then coming up to 2000, it looked like Maccabi backers had given up on the quest to get back to the Final Four and would be satisfied with national titles. First they announced a drastic cut in budget and secondly they hired the wild maverick of Israeli basketball, Pini Gershon, to be the coach, and gave him a substandard roster. Pini represented everything that Maccabi had forgotten to be, innovative, unpredictable, creative, and most of all, he had a big mouth, the press loved him. Ask him a question, and you never knew what he’d say, and he could rattle off jokes like a stand-up comic. He had been the most successful coach in the Israel local league outside the Maccabi family for a long time and many of his mocking darts over the years had been aimed at the stuffed shirts at Maccabi. That’s why they waited so long to turn to him. They had to dine on a lot of crow first, kosher or not. But what else could do they do? They had tried everything and everyone and there was no one else left, unless they ran in a series of foreigners, to attempt to breathe some new life into the franchise. It was strange though to bring in Pini and expect him to accomplish something on the cheap. Maybe the Machiavellian idea was to set him up for embarrassment and thus disable the clamor of the fans for Pini, Pini, so they could get back to the business of failure as usual. We’ll never know.
Pini took his no-names to the Euroleague finals his first year 2000, first time Maccabi had been there in 11 years. He came back in 2001 with a good team and brought home the bacon, or whatever it is Jews bring home. Unfortunately in 2001 the Euroleague had split into two, so Pini’s title was from the Suproleague, which was just half a loaf. Still he showed them it was still possible to facilitate the cream rising to the top if you had some knowledge of the pasteurization process.
The Euroleague reconstituted itself in 2002 but Pini wouldn’t be there. His mouth had gotten him tossed completely out of organized basketball.
Derrick Sharp, a point guard only six feet tall out of South Florida, was recruited by Maccabi in 1997 from an obscure team in the lowly third division, a total unknown. He would be fourth string at best, maybe play a bit in local matches but not in the Euroleague. Ahead of him in the backcourt was Oded Katash, whom the Knicks would sign in 1998 but he never got there because of a lockout, Doron Sheffer, who played alongside Ray Allen at Connecticut and himself was the 20th pick overall in the NBA draft, and Guy Goodes, the veteran, as good as the other two.
Sharp gradually snuck up on everyone. He demonstrated an ability to completely shut down the best point guards of Europe when put opposite them. He was played more and more because of that, and then he proved that he could hit three pointers at a high success rate, and in the clutch as well. What made him popular among the fans was that he always displayed tremendous heart and competitive spirit. It didn’t matter what the score was. When Sharp was out there you saw a guy giving 110 per cent every second. He wasn’t much good at running the attack, so he settled in as the team’s super sub.
During 2002 with Pini on the sidelines, thanks to his work in the building the team the year before, Maccabi struggled back into the Final Four but that was it, and in 2003 they once again reverted to the status of abject failure. Then the Euroleague awarded Israel the right to host the Final Four in Tel Aviv in 2004. Pini was summoned back from the cold as the only hope Maccabi would have to reach the Final Four and play for the title before its home fans.
What did Pini do to get himself kicked out of basketball? It was this comment, among a gathering of army officers. “Even among blacks there are different colors. There is dark black, and there is mocha. The mocha type are more clever, and the darker color usually come from the street. The ones whom are a bit more mixed in race, like Andrew Kennedy for example, you can see his status, his personality. The other black ones are truly idiots.” (Andrew Kennedy, Virginia, played 12 years in the Israeli league.)
This was said at a private gathering months before and someone taped it. Anyone who knows Pini personally and that includes all the African-Americans and African-Europeans who played for him over 25 years knows full-well he is not a racist. He’s a joker and when he gets wound up he is liable to say anything for laughs, without meaning any of it. But the scandal became too grave and serious because the next question raised in the public is why the officers in a conscript army that has large numbers of African-Israelis in it didn’t speak up. Pini himself went before a parliamentiary committe and stated, “We were joking around. Things were said about all the players. I slipped here and there, from the stupidity, from the joking around.”
In 2004 Derrick Sharp, the man from nowhere, and Pini Gershon, the man who had been banned, together would achieve what has been called the Zalgiris Miracle. The achievement went far beyond basketball since Israel was two seconds away from the brink of a disaster that could have had long-term dire economic and diplomatic consequences.
Sharp, now the elder statesmen on Maccabi warmly welcomed Pini back, who after all had given him his opportunity to achieve stardom. Besides there were other fish to fry now, big fish. Israel had taken a horrendous battering in world media during the Intifada, the soccer authorities refused obstinately to allow international matches to be played in the country, big-name entertainers were avoiding the country, tourism had plummeted, and investors were shying away. A successful Final Four basketball tournament in Tel Aviv would prove to all and sundry that Israel was a safe venue with a society functioning normally with more than sufficient security. Having said that, the next problem that worried organizers was that if Maccabi did not get to the Final Four, who would show up to watch the games? Would there be enough fans to fill the stadium from the four teams that did make it, whether they be from Russia or Greece or Spain or Italy or Turkey or wherever, who would make the trip to a place they thought was a war zone. Israel could put on a great show but if the stadium were empty, it would be a pyrrhic victory. Only Pini could save the day and he was given the green light to put together the best team he could muster. Maccabi must get to the Final Four at all costs.
For the backcourt he landed the Lithuanian Sarunas Jasikevicius, who had led Barcelona to the title the year before. He brought back to the fold the clutch and capable American Anthony Parker. Up front he had probably the best centre in Europe in Nikola Vujcic, the Croatian, and alongside him he added Marceo Baston, another American and a solid rebounder. With the creative Israeli Tal Burstein joining them that would be the starting five supplemented by a talented supporting cast led by none other than Derrick Sharp.
There were just two catches to the grand scheme. First of all, Maccabi had to get to the Final Four, and no one was going to roll over for them. And secondly some of the national organizations that make up the Euroleague began a noisy, incessant, and noxious campaign to move the tournament out of Tel Aviv, claiming if the city was “unsafe” for soccer it was unsafe for basketball. The suspicion here was that because some like the Spaniards did protest too much, there was an element of anti-Semitism in all the caterwauling. So you had two parallel plot lines developing side by side and as the season came towards the finish line, neither had been resolved. The tension, as they say in the theatre world, was rising to a fever pitch. But no one foresaw the how dramatic the climax would be.
It worked out this way after a season of games and elimination games. Three teams went through, qualified. The fourth slot was still up in the air. By the quirk of the schedule the slot would go to the winner of the last game of the season between Maccabi, at home, and Zalgiris Kaunas, from Lithuania, led by their national hero, the unstoppable giant Arvydas Sabonis, playing in his farewell regular season game prior to retirement. There would be the usual 11,000 people jam-packed into Maccabi’s stadium and the entire nation watching on TV.
Zalgiris wrested the lead in the second half. Maccabi scratched and clawed, and hung in there. But time was running out. With Sabonis hitting on all cylinders, Zalgiris arrived at the final minute of play with a six-point lead. Sabonis fouled out, 29 points, nine rebounds. Some fans began to head to the door, others stood to applaud Sabonis to honor him for his herculean effort, his splendid career, and to recognize the reality, the Lithuanians had prevailed. Maccabi cut the lead to three, 91-94, with 2.2 seconds remaining but now a Zalgiris player with a 90 per cent foul-shooting average would take two free throws that everyone of sane mind saw as the final two nails in the coffin of Maccabi’s season. In the time-out Jasikevicius having fouled out as well went over to congratulate the coach of the Lithuanian team on his victory. Incredibly both foul shots were missed and incredibly the Zalgiris player who moved in to grab the rebound had moved too quickly. In the blink of an eye there was a glimmer of hope. The ball was handed to Maccabi under their net. But two “incrediblies” were not enough. It would take a third.
Yogi Berra, the iconic former catcher of the New York Yankees, had encapsulated the nature of sports in one sentence, “it’s never over until it’s over.” Israelis had never heard of Yogi Berra but Derrick Sharp surely did. He played every game the same way, full tilt down to the last microsecond.
There were now two seconds on the clock. Here was the hand of Pini. Someone would have to try a “hail Mary” pass (or whatever the Jewish equivalent term is for that) and any other coach under those circumstances would logically have given the assignment to an American with some experience in American football. Pini tabbed the veteran captain, Gur Shelef, an Israeli, who had ridden the bench much of the year and poured out his bitterness and disgust at his treatment in the newspapers. Shelef looked way, way down court and let fly.
Derrick Sharp is a good three-point shooter but only when he can plant his feet. No time for that now. He leaped up, caught the ball. Sharp was in a crowd, out of his comfort zone. He spun, dribbled, and off balance whipped it at the basket. Swish. Buzzer. Game tied. Overtime.
Both teams were down to reserves mostly in the overtime, but there was no stopping Maccabi now. It was on to the Final Four. The only word sportswriters could find to sum up the victory in one word was “miracle.” Those with a religious bent declared it could not have happened without divine intervention.
Normally teams that arrive at the Final Four feel the weight of tremendous pressure from their media, their fans, their owners, and this goes double for the championship game. But the Maccabi players, having strained under the tonnage of an entire nation’s realpolitik complexities they carried all season on their shoulders, no less, arrived at their first match loosey-goosey, almost giddy from having this pressure removed. Hey, now, it’s just a basketball game. Show time, baby. They absolutely demolished Skipper Bologna in the semi-finals 118-74 smashing a host of Final Four offensive records. Even facing formidable CSKA Moscow in the finals was just another day at the office, as they roared to the team’s first Euroleague title since 1981 with a 93-85 victory. This triggered one of the biggest celebrations in the history of the young embattled state.
Pini would make it back-to-back titles in 2005 and three appearances in a row in the finals in 2006, losing in the final. It was the Golden Age of Maccabi and it was all made possible by the heroics of Derrick Sharp.