Veteran Kozikaro Living Out Dream As Maccabi Bazan Haifa Visits For NBA Preseason
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Ido Kozikaro has seen and done a lot during his 17-year professional basketball career, but this is a first. Never before has Kozikaro, a 6-foot-7, 253-pound center, made the trip to the United States to compete against NBA opponents.
This preseason, Kozikaro, 34, is getting that chance. The veteran fan favorite of the Israeli Super League is making a two-game NBA tour this month, including a trip to Target Center on Tuesday as Maccabi Bazan Haifa will face the Timberwolves in a 7 p.m. tipoff.
Finally, the longtime professional is getting a taste of playing in NBA venues.
“It’s kind of a dream that happened to come true,” Kozikaro said. “And I’m so happy to be here, to experience the NBA atmosphere, to see how things work and after that playing on the court against the best players in the world.”
The Wolves’ matchup with Maccabi Bazan Haifa marks the first time the Wolves have hosted an international opponent. When the teams meet Tuesday it will be the second and final NBA preseason matchup of the year for the Israeli club, having played the Golden State Warriors on Thursday.
Maccabi Bazan Haifa was one of the original eight teams in the Israeli Premier League in 1954 and has reached the postseason in three of the past five years. They’ve faced NBA preseason competition in two of the past three years, although Kozikaro was not on the club when the team faced the Nets in 2010.
Kozikaro is taking it all in, but even though it’s his first NBA tour it is not his first time competing against NBA talent. Nor will Tuesday be the first time he’s faced members of the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s done both in Europe and as part of the Israeli National Team, where he’s faced forward Andrei Kirilenko and injured point guard Ricky Rubio in previous seasons.
Both Timberwolves players, along with Montenegro-native Nikola Pekovic, received great praise from Kozikaro for the way they play the game. He said there is a difference in intensity between other players internationally and those who are able to be successful in the NBA, and all three of those Timberwolves players have it.
“I must say that the European players who play for Minnesota, especially, in my opinion, are the ones I appreciate the most, even in Europe,” Kozikaro said. “I really appreciate Pekovic, the way he plays. I love Kirilenko, I love to watch him play. I’ve seen the Russian team play without Kirilenko and with Kirilenko. It’s two different teams. It’s really interesting. This Minnesota, this here I think is going to be a special team here in the league.”
The same can be said for Rubio, a player Kozikaro faced when he was about to make the jump to the NBA. He began hearing of Rubio when the young guard was 16 and making a big name for himself in Europe. Three years ago, he faced Rubio and could see he would be a special player.
Kozikaro said Rubio’s unique skill set—the way he moves the ball and creates opportunities for his teammates—is more conducive to NBA success than Euroleague ball.
“It’s a little difference in the game—it’s more one-on-one, and everybody knows his passing ability and his passing skills,” Kozikaro said. “I’m happy for him. He was drafted, he stayed to work on himself at home close to his family, and when he was ready he came here and was successful. I think it’s great for him, and like I told you I appreciate his game as well.”
Like Kozikaro is happy for those European players finding NBA success, his Maccabi Bazan Haifa coach, Brad Greenberg, is happy Kozikaro and his fellow Israeli native teammates are getting a chance to play in NBA arenas this preseason.
Greenberg has been associated with basketball at the collegiate, NBA and international levels during a career that spans three decades. He knows how special it is for a guy like Kozikaro, who has played in 301 career Israeli Super League games, has been named an All-Star three times and has been in three Israeli Super League championship games, to get this opportunity.
“He appreciates the international players because he’s seen them in Euroleague games,” Greenberg said. “They have great respect for them. They’ve seen them up close. In Ido’s case, he’s played against them in international competitions.”
What fans might see when the Wolves face Maccabi Bazan Haifa is the difference in NBA and international basketball that Kozikaro described after practice on Monday. He said international clubs lack the size and athleticism that NBA teams have, so they must make up for it in strategy. He said teams abroad need to be more strategic in how they attack.
Maccabi Bazan Haifa will need to use that strategic mindset, as well as hit the boards hard to eliminate Minnesota’s second-chance opportunities, if they’re going to handle the talent the Wolves will showcase on Tuesday night. Kozikaro expects a much more difficult game than the 108-100 loss to Golden State on Thursday.
He played a little over 16 minutes on Tuesday, scoring nine points on 3-of-5 shooting. With Maccabi's regular season opener set for Sunday, chances are a veteran like Kozikaro could see a limited role in Tuesday's NBA finale. But that doesn't mean his team isn't anticipating a big challenge awaiting them at Target Center, and it doesn't mean Kozikaro won't enjoy his time playing in an NBA venue.
“I think they’re a better team than the Warriors—I think we’ve got to come out and play the best we can,” Kozikaro said. “I know the Warriors expected us to be much weaker than we were, but I don’t think the Warriors are as good as the Wolves.”