LeBron James Returns to Cleveland — Israel's Champion Hoops Team a Side Show

The LeBron carnival’s coming to Cleveland, and the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team has a front-row seat.

In fact, the 2014 Euroleague and Israel Super Basketball League champions will be participating.

On Sunday, Tel Aviv will present the inaugural challenge for NBA superstar LeBron James as he returns to his hometown Cavaliers as a free agent after spending four seasons with the Miami Heat. And the Israeli club will be facing the coach who led them to both titles – David Blatt was hired in June to guide the rebuilt Cavs.

Guy Goodes, the Tel Aviv assistant who ascended to head coach when Blatt moved to the National Basketball Association, knows what to expect when he brings his guys to face the King before a packed house and hordes of media.

“It’s a show, a circus,” Goodes said earlier this month at Nokia Arena here on the team’s annual media day prior to a four-game, 17-day trip to Brazil and the United States.

Such an atmosphere “is not what a coach wants” in preparing his team for a season, Goodes acknowledged, adding that “it’s not the optimal preparation.”

But Goodes wasn’t grousing. Maccabi’s two exhibition games against NBA clubs — Tel Aviv also plays the Nets in Brooklyn two nights after meeting the Cavs — and Blatt’s hiring bring “honor to Israel,” he said.

Blatt, who led Tel Aviv for four seasons, told JTA from Cleveland, “The fact that my first game as an NBA head coach, ironically, is against the team that I was so much a part of is almost overwhelming.”

The new Cleveland coach should have plenty to feel good about with the revamped Cavs, who have failed to make the playoffs since James made the exodus to Miami in 2010.

Not only did they bring back the four-time Most Valuable Player, but also reeled in all-star forward Kevin Love from Minnesota in a trade. And they re-signed their young point guard Kyrie Irving, the NBA All-Star Game’s MVP last season.

Blatt recognizes that James’ return to the Cavaliers “is much more important” than his own NBA debut.

“I would be happy to be his warm-up act in this game because I think he deserves that,” Blatt joked.

Former NBA guard Jeremy Pargo, a one-time Cavalier now playing for Tel Aviv, is looking forward to his much less heralded return to Cleveland.

“Any time you can play an NBA game or against an NBA team, it’s always exciting,” he said. “It should be fun. The fans there have always been great.”

The games in Cleveland and Brooklyn also bring a serious dimension — as fundraisers for organizations benefiting Israeli soldiers and children from Israel’s South affected by the rocket attacks from Gaza that prompted Operation Protective Edge this summer.

Twelve Israeli soldiers wounded in the Gaza battles will be flown in for both games. In Brooklyn, the Nets will wear uniforms with their names spelled in Hebrew.

That game will mark a New York homecoming for Maccabi forward Sylven Landesberg, a native of nearby Queens. On a recent visit there, Landesberg said he was mobbed by Israelis at a shopping mall who noticed him wearing a team shirt.

“Going to Cleveland, playing against our old coach, LeBron, Kyrie – some of the best players in the world – I’m a huge competitor, so to be able to take part in a game like that, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m psyched,” said the heavily tattooed Landesberg, who sat out Maccabi’s title runs with an injury.

“It’s going to be a packed house, I’m guessing, and I don’t think I’ve played in front of a crowd that big before. It’s going to be amazing.”

Landesberg’s relatives will see him play in Brooklyn. The parents of Jake Cohen, a Tel Aviv forward from suburban Philadelphia, will attend both games.

Cohen got a taste of the NBA while playing in Las Vegas for the Phoenix Suns’ Summer League team before returning to Israel to join the national team. One practice in nearby Rishon LeZion was halted by three air-raid sirens, he said.

His mother prevailed upon him to call her each day of the war — Cohen said he complied with the request. “I don’t like making my mom nervous,” he said.

Both parents saw Cohen play in Tel Aviv last season. Neither had ever been to Israel.

Cohen said that Blatt’s jumping from Israel straight to the NBA is “not a fluke.” Still, Cohen said, “we want to beat him.”

Landesberg said of his ex-coach, “I know he’s not going to take it easy on us — not one bit. I want to test myself against the best.”

While not NBA caliber, Tel Aviv and several other Israeli clubs are indicative of the improved quality of hoops in the Jewish state.

Since 2009, Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel became the first two Israelis to reach the NBA. Now Blatt, a Boston native who immigrated to Israel in 1981, and who lives near here with his wife and children, also is a pioneer.

“I think it says a great deal,” Blatt said when asked what the trio’s ascension indicates about Israeli basketball.

“Worldwide, the game has become more open and less border-oriented. You see it from a lot of different countries: the migration of players and other talents to and from one country to another and one continent to another,” he said. “And I just think that this has been a natural progression that we have sort of become included in.”

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