“The pride of Israel” in Belgrade once again

Author: Mr. Zoran Korać, Director of Institute for Politics and Economy of the Southeast Europe 

Last week I had the opportunity and the privilege to have coffee once again with the legend of Israel, a lawyer and the President of the Maccabi Basketball Club from Tel Aviv, Mr. Shimon Mizrahi. We remembered our first meeting in Tel Aviv back in 1990.

The reason for the meeting three decades ago was the initiative of the Basketball Federation of Yugoslavia (KSJ).

At that time, Yugoslavia was, in the true sense of the word, one of the most important pillars of European basketball. Two greats of Yugoslav basketball, Nebojša Popović and Raša Šaper, together with a prominent official of KK Partizan, lawyer Đorđe Siske Čolović, came up with the idea of forming a joint basketball league of Yugoslavia, Greece and Israel.

I was tasked to visit the basketball associations in Athens and Tel Aviv and negotiate the support and approval for the said KSJ initiative.

In Athens’ Kolonaki District where we had an ordinary meeting for coffee and “pelinkovac”, I was met by a great basketball enthusiast, the then President of the Basketball Federation of Greece, Jorgos Vasilokopoulos.

I expected an easy agreement because I was familiar with several of his affinities. First of all, his great respect for Yugoslavian basketball and great sympathy for one of the best players of the world in amateur basketball, and later manager of KK Partizan, Dragan Kićanović.

Kića set the foundations of modern Partizan and created the spirit of the club at the level of “cult” on which the current Partizan rests. He became one of the most successful managers in Europe in just two years. In just three years, Kićanović brought Partizan from the position of leader of the Euroleague to Ghent for the newly established “Final Four” and finished in third place (Željko Obradović, the most successful European coach of all time, played in the Partizan at the time). The third important factor is Jorgos’ great respect for the coaches from the south, from Duda Ivković, through Šakota and Đurović, to later Željko Obradović.

When I presented him with the idea of forming a new league… Jorgos reacted with great excitement within 15 seconds – “fantastic”!

The very next day I was in the office of the President of the Israel Basketball Association. The meeting lasted five minutes. Faced with the idea of forming a new league, he answered briefly: “Sir, for such a topic the right address is Maccabi, Shimon Mizrahi”.

Within an hour I was sitting across from the famous Mizrahi, who at that moment had been the President of Maccabi for 21 years. I introduced him to our idea, and he immediately responded spontaneously: “We say YES”. It was so quick and so spontaneous that I began to worry if it was just a momentary opinion, so I asked timidly what the reaction would be to the establishment of a league of powerful Spaniards and Italians. The answer was as quick as the previous one and very direct: “I don’t care”.

The hammers of the provincial political dwarfs began the work to shatter Yugoslavia, and in the vortex of the country’s collapse, the idea of the powerful Basketball Association of Yugoslavia disappears.

Today, the basketball club Maccabi from Tel Aviv and Mr. Mizrahi, live and work in Belgrade, with full gratitude to KK Partizan and the Serbian people for the offered hosting in difficult times for Israel.

Mizrahi regularly attends matches at Pionir, Aleksandar Nikolić Hall, where Maccabi became European champions in 1977, and our Belgrade is the birthplace of the “Pride of Israel”.

And what does our Institute have to do with this topic? It truly has a lot to do…

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