Ido Kozikaro stepped from his car and was engulfed by a delirious mob in Haifa who grabbed him, hoisted him onto its shoulders and paraded him to a Japanese restaurant.
Kozikaro was holding the championship trophy of the Basketball Super League, Israel’s highest division, that he and his Maccabi Haifa teammates had wrested an hour earlier from Maccabi Tel Aviv with their stunning upset of the dynastic squad.
The celebration that started shortly after midnight would continue at a nearby nightclub until the early morning.
Haifa’s 86-79 victory over Tel Aviv, winner of 50 of the previous 58 titles, on June 13 came just one year after Haifa had finished last with a 5-21 won-loss record, including a 15-game losing streak.
“It is just an unbelievable feeling,” said Kozikaro, a 16-year veteran. “We made history in Israeli basketball, Haifa basketball and also in my career because I’d never won a title.”
Following the dismal 2011-12 season, a Haifa housecleaning yielded an overhauled roster featuring three American players with NBA experience and a head coach, Brad Greenberg, who served as an assistant for two NBA teams and an executive for two others.
“This year was as special a year as I’ve had in basketball, without a doubt — maybe the most special,” Greenberg, 59, told JTA.
Greenberg, a Jewish Long Islander, had never visited Israel before arriving last year to lead Maccabi Haifa to a 17-10 record and its first championship.
Tel Aviv had finished first with a 22-5 record and defeated Haifa in their five meetings this season.
The championship game’s turning point, in Greenberg’s assessment, occurred early in the third quarter when Haifa hit consecutive three-point baskets that shaved a seven-point deficit to one. Soon after, Haifa grabbed the lead.
“Instead of us stumbling, we didn’t stumble, and we countered them,” Greenberg said.
“I didn’t know it was over until the game was over, trust me,” he added. “When the [final] buzzer went off, that’s when I knew we won.”
Maccabi Haifa’s owner, Jeffrey Rosen, was watching the game on a live Internet feed from his Manhattan apartment in what he called “stunned disbelief.” He was wearing his lucky green shirt, evoking the team’s uniform color.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Rosen said. “It still takes your breath away to scratch and claw your way against the New York Yankees of basketball, Tel Aviv. There’s no way those guys didn’t expect to win that game; they beat us five times this year. But [we] pushed them over in the last few minutes and won.”
Rosen, who owns a Miami investment company and bought Maccabi Haifa in 2007, oversaw the team’s return to Israel’s top league and then several competitive seasons before falling to ninth place in the 12-team league in 2010-11 and then rock bottom the year after.
But after last season, Rosen said he went about assembling a cast of players who blended experience and youth, came from winning backgrounds and were committed to team defense and accepting their roles.
Key recent additions included Kozikaro; former NBA players Donta Smith, Cory Carr and James Thomas; American Pat Calathes; and Gal Mekel, a Tel Aviv native and this year’s league MVP.
The mix, Rosen said, recalled the selfless New York Knicks teams he long ago cheered on to two NBA championships in the early 1970s.
Carr, Haifa’s elder statesman and a former Chicago Bull, played a limited role but believes he contributed leadership and experience gained from playing for nine Israeli teams.
“Obviously the championship is very gratifying,” said Carr, an Arkansas native married to an Israeli woman from Buffalo, N.Y. “It’s all about winning. And at 37, it’s all about helping the next generation.”
Rosen will meet with team management this week in Manhattan to chart a course for next season. Several players have become free agents and, Rosen said, “sober” decisions must be made.
He hopes Haifa’s championship spurs outside investors to seek partnership roles, which could help increase the team’s nearly $3 million annual budget and enable him to continue signing strong players.
Mekel could be bound for the NBA. He spoke with JTA on Thursday from Milwaukee, where he had just tried out for the Bucks, and this week he will work out with the Dallas Mavericks.
Greenberg could be headed back to the NBA, too. But he plans to return for the second year of his two-year Haifa contract.
Sipping coffee on the terrace of his ninth-floor Haifa apartment as he savors his team’s title run is an experience he says he would like to replicate.
“I’m excited,” Greenberg said, “about continuing on with a team that’s now got a championship under its belt.”