Maccabi Haifa Heat goes from worst to first
A year after finishing last in the Israeli Premier Basketball League, the Maccabi Haifa Heat won its first championship in a stunning turnaround for the team and its owner.
Former MetroWest (N.J.) resident Jeffrey Rosen, who bought the team in 2007, was reveling in the afterglow, the recipient of hundreds of congratulatory phone calls and messages.
“The feeling is just fantastic,” Rosen said in a phone interview, and Haifa “is just charmed by the surprising win. Having a good season would have been gratifying, but to have a chance at—and to win—a title, you can say our cup runneth over.”
On June 13, Haifa upset Maccabi Tel Aviv—the Israeli basketball equivalent of the New York Yankees in terms of historical success and budget—86-79. The team was led by first-year coach Brad Greenberg, a former assistant coach for the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers and general manager for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rosen said he was feeling “very pleased, validated, joyful, really happy for a city that was really starved for basketball and a winning team…. It was a storybook ending.”
The championship was so out-of-the-blue that Rosen was caught unawares. “I had all these really neat plans if we finished in second, if we finished in third—and a blank piece of paper for the championship. So I’m saying, ‘What am I gonna do now?’”
Rosen had spent more than 30 years with RoseArt, his family’s toy and stationery business in Livingston, N.J., when he decided it was time for a change. After the company was sold in 2005, he upgraded his definition of “toys” and created Triangle Financial Services, a sports and entertainment investment firm based in Aventura, Fla. He also looked for a project in Israel.
“My initial feeling was more of a give-back to the Jewish people, my Zionist philanthropic needs to be filled,” said Rosen. But rather than just making donations, he wanted something that would allow him to be more hands-on, “an area in which I could bring some of my business acumen and at the same time doing something fun and interesting.”
He found that opportunity when he joined a group that was introducing professional baseball to Israel. When that fell through after just one season, Rosen figured he’d have more luck with basketball, the second-most popular sport in Israel after soccer. But rather than go in with a consortium, Rosen decided he wanted to run his own show and bought the Haifa club in 2007.
Unfortunately, Rosen was not in attendance when Haifa won the championship. Instead, he watched the game on the Internet channel he had created especially for the Israeli basketball league with his nephew, Brandon Rosen (another nephew, Matt, was in Haifa “representing the family”). “It was not a big audience, but he was my good luck charm,” said Rosen, who ordinarily takes in the games with his office staff. “I thought being close to family would be the right way to watch the title game.”
The Heat’s accomplishment reverberated back to Rosen’s old stomping grounds.
“Jeff is a great owner and friend and a major donor to UJA,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. He added that marketing director Andrew Wilson, the multi-ethnic team, and its coaches are “great good-will ambassadors for Israel.”
Kleinman said the federation has enjoyed close ties with Rosen’s team for many years, creating the Haifa Hoops for Kids program, which hosts basketball clinics for hundreds of disadvantaged kids in Haifa and environs, as well as establishing a sports internship program through Masa, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel that promotes young adult learning and work experiences in Israel.
“Most recently, we worked with the team in facilitating collateral programming for Birthright Israel, Masa, JCC day schools, and Hillel as part of the team’s exhibition series with NBA teams,” Kleinman said. The Heat have played against the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, Minnesota Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors; this fall, they will visit the Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns.
Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate executive vice president, Israel and overseas, put things in a more personal context.
“The Maccabi Haifa championship is not just a sports record, it is history in the making,” he said. “For us Israelis, it is unconceivable that a team other than Maccabi Tel Aviv will hold the champion’s plate. Tel Aviv was in hegemony for decades with no real competition. Then came Jeff Rosen and challenged the concept. He built a team based on Israeli and Jewish young talents, he shaped it in American standards, he created an attractive home for the team in Romema, he revived the support from the fans, and he showed us Israelis that with determination and professionalism, even the sky is really no limit.”
Ron Kaplan is the features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News, from which this article was reprinted by permission.