Tel Aviv, never a city to turn down an excuse for a party, lived up to its reputation Monday night and welcomed its triumphant basketball team back with a celebration befitting its nonstop reputation.
Showing remarkable resourcefulness on short notice, the Tel Aviv Municipality on Monday launched a full-fledged street party to celebrate Maccabi Tel Aviv’s clinching of the European Championship in Milan the night before. Revelers, clad in the team’s trademark blue-and-yellow and brandishing flags, vuvuzelas and their children on their shoulders, began flowing into Rabin Square at 7 p.m., just as the players themselves were arriving at City Hall for a reception with Mayor Ron Huldai.
By nightfall, the crowd had swelled into the thousands and was packed into not just Rabin Square but the surrounding boulevards of Ibn Gvirol and Sderot Chen. Police barricades had blocked the area to traffic and local vendors and restauranteurs had set up sidewalk stalls peddling beer, hot dogs and piping-hot pastries to keep the partygoers fueled.
A little after 8 p.m., the players, who had been greeted by hundreds of screaming fans at Ben Gurion Airport and were then treated to an audience with both Huldai and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were presented to the roaring crowd. Shouts of “Maccabi!” and “Ole Ole!” competed with the pumping dance music pounding through the square, and while the players shimmied on stage with their mascot, the crowds danced in the streets and waved flags. The Tel Aviv Municipality Building was dressed up in yellow and blue lights which rotated to show the words “Maccabi,” “Tel Aviv” and the final triumphant victory margin.
A few moments later, fireworks shot off from the roof and illuminated the night sky.
Maccabi Tel Aviv clinched victory over Real Madrid in the Euroleague basketball final in Milan on Sunday night, storming to a 98-86 win in a remarkable five-minute overtime period.
On Monday night, a trio of 18-year-old fans about to join the army were enjoying a meal at a burger joint near Kikar Rabin before heading over to the party. Shai, from Tel Aviv, said that he and his two friends Tal and Dor had wanted to fly to Milan to watch the game in person, but hadn’t been able to raise enough cash. So they watched at home with their families instead and Monday night, clad in Maccabi yellow, were looking forward to celebrating until sunrise.
“We hope this night never ends,” he said. Asked if he had doubts during the nail-biter of a game, he shook his head.
“If you love Maccabi, you always believe,” he said.
Tal said he was hoping rival European fans were paying attention to how Tel Aviv celebrated its victory on Monday night.
“If anything, Israel can teach Europe how to party,” he said.
According to initial ratings figures, about a third of the country watched Sunday’s game live on TV, including 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, Sunday’s MVP, 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 before Sunday’s. 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 it 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.