As Maccabi Bazan Haifa Visits Target Center, Basketball Continues To Grow At International Level
Pick a level of basketball and chances are Maccabi Bazan Haifa coach Brad Greenberg has been involved. The Long Island native has held positions across the globe, including stints in the NBA as an assistant coach, director of player personnel and general manager and a head coach in the collegiate game.
But as he returns to the United States with Maccabi Bazan Haifa, an Israeli Super League team, he seems to have found his place. He’s content. He loves his group of players—none of whom, according to him, fall under the category of “knuckleheads.” And he’s living in a country pushed up against the Mediterranean Sea that provides a new, beautiful geographic location to call home.
Not to mention he gets to coach the game he loves—a game that no longer has borders.
Basketball continues to grow internationally, and aside from soccer it’s one of the most widely participated sports in the world—particularly in Europe. Each year new prospects pop up that have the potential to one day reach the ultimate goal of playing in the NBA, and based on the numbers of international talents making that leap in today’s game, there are scouts all over the globe looking for the next up-and-coming prospects.
Twenty-five years ago, when Greenberg was in the early stages of his career as an NBA assistant, the scope of basketball worldwide was drastically different.
“It used to be that the best 20 American players were better than any Italian player or Spanish player or Croatian player,” Greenberg said. “That’s not the case anymore. Now, the best players from any one of those countries are just as good as the Americans in their age group. It wasn’t that way before, but the game has grown.”
Tonight at Target Center, two teams with varying ranges of international talent will square off an exhibition matchup. The Minnesota Timberwolves, equipped with five international players on their roster, will host Maccabi Bazan Haifa with tipoff set for 7 p.m.
The Wolves have five international players, hailing from Montenegro, Spain, Russia and Puerto Rico. Maccabi Bazan Haifa itself has six Americans on its roster and five more who are Israeli natives, and the squad is making a two-game NBA preseason tour this month showing, once again, that basketball across the globe is not only alive and well—it’s also competitive.
Maccabi Bazan Haifa faced the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, falling 108-100 against their NBA opponent but fought until the end. The Warriors led by two points with two minutes left and four with 40 seconds remaining, showing the Israeli Super League club was on the verge of potentially causing an upset.
For NBA fans, the exposure of facing an international opponent gives an indication of how global the game is becoming. For an international team like Maccabi Bazan Haifa, it’s a way to test itself on the biggest stage. Some of their native players have never gotten the chance to play competitively at the NBA level during their careers.
But many of them, like center Ido Kozikaro, have watched the NBA from a far and have played against some of the league’s top international stars. These standout athletes, like Minnesota’s Andrei Kirilenko, often show up on scouts’ radars when they are teenagers. That was the case for Kirilenko, a native of Russia who became a potential prospect when he was 15 years old.
That’s when Zarko Durisic first saw Kirilenko play. He and Pete Philo are currently the Timberwolves' two directors of international scouting, and the team's scouting system is constantly watching games across the globe, either in person or on video, searching for the next player with elevated potential.
“You can see the talent, but at 15, 16 years old, they’re just kids,” Durisic said. “How are they going to develop? There are so many factors besides basketball that can influence them both positively or negatively. Bottom line, the character decides the type of player he’s going to become. It’s a process.”
Kids around the world have more opportunities through camps, tournaments and leagues to enhance their skills, and the coaching is elite across the board.
Even Greenberg said he learns constantly from the people around him in Israel.
“The international game is great; the coaching is outstanding,” Greenberg said. “The players are getting better and better. The Israeli League is a really good league. I learn a lot every day from my assistant coaches. The style of play, the ball movement, the pick-and-roll. The spacing on the floor. So wonderful.”
Exhibitions like tonight’s game at Target Center help connect the NBA with other leagues and teams around the world, another facet of international ball that has changed over the past few decades. Wolves coach Jack Sikma was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977, the level of international involvement with the league was minimal compared to today. Now, not only do players around the world go on to have All-Star careers—like Kirilenko, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—but the NBA has a presence all over the globe expanding its brand.
Now teams like Maccabi Bazan Haifa travel to the U.S., and NBA teams go abroad. The Wolves will face the Pistons in Winnipeg on Oct. 24 as part of the first ever NBA Canada Series, and the Heat and Clippers just played in China over the weekend.
“I just think it’s great for our league and our sport where there are a number of teams interacting internationally,” Sikma said. “The NBA knows it’s hard to expand our market if we’re just looking at the United States. We’re a world market, and those games are important to expanding the game.”
Fellow Wolves assistant Bill Bayno has participated in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative in Africa, he’s been a consultant in the Korean Basketball League, a staffer at the Eurocamp in Italy and coach in the Philippine Professional Basketball League. He’s seen the game around the globe, and he said opportunities like tonight’s game give international teams a chance to see how they can compete against the league many dream of one day joining.
“They’re playing against the best players in the world,” Bayno said. “To have that going back, knowing they had Golden State, they were down two with two minutes to go…it’s a confidence builder for them. It’s good experience; we can play against these guys.”
This global game is something Greenberg became interested long ago as the Trail Blazers’ player personnel director—holding that title while current Wolves coach Rick Adelman was head coach. One of his first duties on the job was working with Drazen Petrovic, and that early taste of international basketball served as a precursor to the position he holds now.
After tonight, Greenberg’s squad will head back to Israel and begin its regular season on Sunday. Win or lose, they’ll take the NBA experience with them when they return home.
Awaiting them, wherever their schedule takes them around the globe, are more high-level basketball games waiting to be played.
“It’s pretty neat, and I’m lucky,” Greenberg said. “I’m lucky I’m able to do this.”