TEL AVIV — Jubilant Israeli basketball fans celebrated Maccabi Tel Aviv’s dream season Monday, a day after the team clinched an overtime victory over Real Madrid in the Euroleague basketball final in Milan.
Thousands of fans clad in Maccabi yellow filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Monday evening, with many jumping into its landmark fountain. Celebrations erupted in other cities as well, with TV and radio stations airing special broadcasts.
The players were greeted by jubilant fans when they landed at Ben Gurion Airport Monday afternoon.
All three of the major Israeli TV stations aired special broadcasts to cover the team’s arrival at the airport. Hundreds of fans waited for the team in the terminal as officials engulfed the players and coaches as they disembarked from an El Al plane.
Following the official reception there, the team met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai before the main festivities began at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. All other news was pushed aside, as the country’s leaders stopped their business to rally around the team.
“At the UN I drew the red line and in Europe you showed what a yellow line is,” Netanyahu quipped, referring to his campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.
In Tel Aviv, fans chanted slogans and waved yellow fans as players danced on stage while hoisting the championship cup.
Shai, 18, from Tel Aviv was on his way to Rabin Square Monday night to celebrate with tens of thousands of others congregating there.
“We hope this night never ends,” he said, while sitting in a burger joint with two friends, all clad in Maccabi yellow.
“If you love Maccabi you always believe. Even if they lose on Thursday we will still love them because they are our team.”
According to initial ratings figures, about a third of the country watched Sunday’s game live on TV, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Both men called head coach David Blatt after the game to offer congratulations.
“You were an example of determination. The whole team fought like lions and won,” Peres told Blatt. “I watched the whole game and nearly had a heart attack. You are heroes and have brought incredible pride to the State of Israel.”
Peres, who said he was wearing a yellow tie, invited the team to his residence for an official reception upon their return.
“Israel is good at impossible things,” he said.
A nation of 8 million, Israel still has a small-town feel to it when it comes to its international sporting successes. Dominated by political conflict and a sense that it is harshly judged by the outside world, it relishes any opportunity to flaunt a sense of normalcy on a global stage.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been a source of national pride, even as its player base has become less and less Israeli.
Maccabi has seven Americans who played at US colleges, and only two Israel-born players are part of the regular rotation. Its foreign players, including former Boston College guard Tyrese Rice and former UNC Greensboro point guard Ricky Hickman, were instrumental in Sunday’s victory.
Maccabi has dominated Israeli basketball for decades and has grown into a European powerhouse, winning five titles. But in recent years, the team’s aura has faded.
Last year it lost the Israeli title for the third time in six years — after having lost it only once in the previous 39 — and entered the European championship as a huge underdog.
The team that won back-to-back European titles in 2004-05 featured future NBA players like Anthony Parker, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Maceo Baston. Later, homegrown talents Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel also migrated to the NBA.
In contrast, this year’s team was devoid of big stars. It needed a dramatic win on the road to even make it to the Final Four and its victories over heavily favored CSKA Moscow in the semifinals and Real Madrid in the final were sparked by the outstanding play of its bench. Rice, the tournament’s MVP, hit the game winner in the semifinals and dominated the final game, scoring 26 points, including 14 in overtime.
“No one believed in us,” Maccabi captain Guy Pnini said. “It is hard to fathom and this will take a long time to sink in.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.