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Former NJ businessman offers hoopsters a chance to chase their dreams in Israel

Players exchange good wishes after the second day of the Maccabi Haifa tryouts, held July 20-21 at Nova Southeast University in Ft. Lauderdale. Photos by Ron Kaplan
Players exchange good wishes after the second day of the Maccabi Haifa tryouts, held July 20-21 at Nova Southeast University in Ft. Lauderdale. Photos by Ron Kaplan

FT. LAUDERDALE — Forty for four, perhaps five.

Those are the daunting odds for the players who came to Nova Southeast University in July to compete for a spot on Maccabi Haifa, a team in the Israeli Basketball Super League, and its “minor league” affiliate in Tivon.

Owned by Jeffrey Rosen, formerly of West Orange, the team was in Florida on the hunt for talent, and to whip up some interest stateside for what Rosen considers an international commodity.

With a few exceptions, the players — a mix of recent college graduates and former pros from teams all over the world — had come on their own dime; some are looking for their first professional gig while others are seeking one last chance to showcase their skills on the pro circuit.

Playing pro ball in Israel was “something I really wanted to do since I was in college,” said Brett Harvey, a 22-year-old guard who spent four seasons at Loyola University Maryland, averaging 12.5 points per game and establishing the school record for most games played (121). “Now I have the opportunity to do it so I’m trying to showcase my abilities the best I can.”

Harvey was a member of the gold-winning U.S. team at the 2009 Maccabiah Games led by Bruce Pearl, head coach for the University of Tennessee.

Playing alongside Harvey was Bernard Robinson, a forward with NBA experience as a member of the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats.

“I heard it’s great competition over there,” Robinson said during halftime of the second of two tryout games. “I heard it’s an adjustment, it’s a different style of game. I know [Haifa] will help the players get adjusted to the [lifestyle].”

Robinson has at least one friend already playing in Israel — former Bobcats teammate Alan Anderson, currently a member of Maccabi Tel Aviv.

If he didn’t make the team, Robinson said his agent was working on tryouts with NBA training camps. And it’s this attitude that worries Elad Hasin, Haifa’s new head coach.

“If Israeli fans see American players committed to the team, to the country, for sure they’re going to [embrace] them as much as an Israeli player,” he said. “But if they see — and it’s happened a lot — the American player committed only to himself because he’s thinking about the next contract, about putting up numbers, and that they don’t care about the team, whether they win or not, the fans are going to boo. We’re looking for a player that can be an individual on a high-level club, but can play in a team environment.”

In the Israeli league, 12 players “dress” for each game. The teams are usually split between Israelis and foreign-born players, but there have to be at least two Israelis or players who have made aliya on the court at all times.

Israel is a popular place for American players, said Hasin, who served as the team’s assistant coach for two years.

“Israel is probably the most Americanized country in Europe, it’s very easy. Everybody speaks English, it feels like home, even though it’s a long distance,” he said.

‘What are his numbers?’

Hasin, who at 31 is younger than some of the players he’ll be leading, was impressed by the day’s talent, which he observed from high in the stands with Rosen and his staff at Triangle Financial Services, where Rosen is CEO.

“Who’s that guy,” someone would ask. “What are his numbers?” At one point, following a full-court run that ended in a missed slam-dunk, Rosen said, “It’s okay to be a selfish player, as long as you’re a smart selfish player.”

“Exactly,” Hasin told NJJN. “You have to know the limits of the selfishness.”

“Jeff sees the recruiting in a different way than I do,” he said. “He sees it as marketing, as a story, as what will promote the club, and I see it as a professional, who will be the best guy, how he will fit the team? It’s a good combination. Jeff has the experience, as a businessman, and I think it’s something you have to think about.”

He cited Omri Casspi, the Israeli-born guard for the Sacramento Kings, as an example.

“Teams will choose him because he’s Jewish, an Israeli. Teams that [play where there is] a big population of Jewish people, for sure they’re going to consider it.”

Off the cliff

Rosen established Triangle, a sports and entertainment investment firm based in Aventura, Fla., in 2005 after spending more than 30 years with RoseArt, the family toy and stationery business in Livingston.

He bought the Haifa team in 2007 and within two years had transformed it into a success on and off the court; the team returned to the Super League after a 10-year absence.

“I always wanted to do something in Israel,” Rosen said prior to the second afternoon of tryouts.

While in Israel for the inaugural season of the now defunct professional baseball league, Rosen took in some basketball games and was hooked.

“The bug of an established Israeli sport stuck with me and it was something I wanted to develop.” He welcomed the chance, “instead of being on the donor side, to be an investor and on the entrepreneurial side, and to be in sports…. It was the perfect storm for me.”

Rosen has become increasingly involved with the running of the team.

“I don’t know how to be not hands-on,” he said. “Here I am, an American Jew, going into Israel, working with Israelis, who in many ways are similar to myself and my lineage and background, and at the same time the Israeli personality is different than the American-Jewish personality. The challenges are still there.”

Rosen has applied American marketing techniques to establish Haifa’s brand. In 2009, he launched Inside Israeli Basketball, a half-hour TV magazine program aired on the SNY and other cable channels.

“I think the show lights up our market, which is the United States as well as Israel, and shows Jews and non-Jews that there is serious sports and serious basketball going on and that they can be a part of it, not only on the sports side, but on the business side,” he said.

Rosen said he expects Inside Israeli Basketball to move into more markets next season.

“Though sports is a theme, it’s very much a cultural show about Israel, and I think that’s what’s gotten the audience interested. It’s a show that encapsulates Israeli life. It makes Israel very normal, very typical.”

The cultural show will continue when Haifa plays the Nets in an exhibition game on Oct. 3 at the Prudential Center in Newark. It’s one of several moves intended to increase the franchise’s presence. Between Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets, Maccabi Haifa has 20,000 followers/friends — which is more than some NBA teams — said Andrew Wilson, Triangle’s director of marketing. He called Rosen “the Mark Cuban of the Israeli Basketball League” for his grasp of innovation.

“He’s passionate about the game,” said Wilson, who’s been with the organization for three years.

Rosen is also passionate about what he calls an obligation to “give back to the city and to serve the community.”

To that end, Rosen teamed up with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ to create the Haifa Hoops for Kids program. “It allows us to bring poor kids in Israel to the basketball games who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” he said. “Part of our program is our outreach program to bring our players — both Israeli and American-Jewish and non-Jewish players — into the malls, into the schools, into the foster homes, and more impoverished programs that exist and make Maccabi Haifa part of the community.”

Rosen echoed Wilson’s assessment of his personality. “I am passionate as a fan, I’m passionate as an owner. You put your time, your energy your money on the line. You’re dedicated to winning — because sports is about winning — but we see some of these kids, particularly the special needs kids, come to our games and they’re excited to be in that environment and look up to the players, [and] you say to yourself, you’re doing the right thing, and it’s a little bit easier to take a loss when that happens.”

Rosen makes time to return to his NJ roots “as much as I can,” he said. “You can’t keep me too far away from Jersey. I’ll forever be involved in MetroWest.”

Team effort

The constant squeak of rubber on the hardwood gives the impression of extremely large mice. The players are split into four teams for games on two courts. Those judged to have superior skills by Rosen and his staff will compete against each other in the second game.

In between periods, some players are constantly in motion while others are more quiet and contemplative. Are they tired? Keeping something in the tank? Trying to masquerade an injury? No one shows up anyone else; it’s all fist-bumps, back slaps, and words of encouragement.

Harvey served as “quarterback” for his team, calling out plays and leading them down the floor. Despite his relatively small stature (six-foot-one, 175 pounds), he dropped in long-range shots, passed effectively, and penetrated through the tangle of taller opponents. It’s a delicate balance — trying to create opportunities for your team, but also trying to shine as an individual for the scouts.

“This is a team game. It’s all about playing together, sharing the ball, and see who’s a good team player,” Harvey said.

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