TEL AVIV, Israel - Thanks to basketball, Israelis who often feel besieged and battered finally have a reason to relax and even brag.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel's premier professional basketball team, plays tonight for the European Cup, and in bars and cafes across Israel, the usual dour discourse on violence, politics and the tumbling economy has been replaced by a rare euphoria. People are drinking to get happy, not to forget. They are lighting cigars and downing shots of vodka.
Maccabi Tel Aviv - the winner of 42 of the last 48 Israeli championships, and arguably the only sports dynasty in the Middle East - faces an underdog Italian team, Skipper Bologna, in the championship game.
"We can have a normal life," says Noam Malcman, co-owner of the Tel Aviv restaurant called 206, a retreat for players and fans of Maccabi, which was packed yesterday with revelers. "Listen, people are talking about basketball, not bombs."
Maccabi Tel Aviv reached tonight's finals by defeating a Russian team, CSKA Moscow, on Thursday night at Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena. The victory pushed news about the government's latest political problems to the bottom of yesterday's front pages.
Maccabi Tel Aviv's opponent, Skipper Bologna, upset Italy's usually dominant Montepaschi Siena by one point in overtime Thursday, in another game played in Tel Aviv. Only about 100 Italian fans traveled here, after fan clubs in Italy warned that visitors might not be safe.
In March, Euroleague officials almost decided to move the championship games out of Israel, after the Israeli army killed a leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas and fears rose that Hamas would launch a series of revenge attacks.
Israel quickly went on the offensive to preserve the tournament, motivated in part by a dearth of international sporting events here. Until last month, UEFA, the sanctioning body for European soccer, had banned its teams from playing here for the past three years, forcing Israel to play "home" games in Cyprus.
The basketball tournament was deemed a prize worth keeping.
"We pointed out that moving the venue would be unnecessary and inappropriate and would give a prize to terror," says Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "There have been attacks in Madrid and Turkey, and that hasn't prevented anyone from continuing to compete. We would expect the same to apply to Israel."
After European league officials voted unanimously to keep the games in Tel Aviv, the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth proclaimed in a headline, "Basketball beat politics." No European team formally objected to the venue, but players from a Spanish team refused to board a plane for a preliminary round in Israel. The team forfeited its game.
Having Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final makes the political victory all the sweeter. "We deserve the tournament out of merit, not out of grace," Peled says.
More than 11,000 people packed the Nokia Arena for Thursday's semifinals, and tens of thousands are expected to watch tonight's game on a big-screen television in the city's Hayarkon Park.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has won the Euroleague championship three times, most recently in 2001 in Paris.
"We don't need ambassadors," says Giora Simmer, a 50-year-old retired professional soccer player who was downing beers at the 206 restaurant yesterday. "We don't need foreign ministers. We have Maccabi."
Simmer, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, had all but forgotten the party referendum tomorrow on Sharon's plan to pull settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip: "Wake me up when that is over," Simmer says. "I love Ariel Sharon, but I bleed Maccabi yellow. Maccabi is my heart."
Fans have been treated to exceptional basketball in recent months. Maccabi Tel Aviv advanced to the European tournament early last month when a player sank a last-second three-point basket to tie a game, and then went on to win in overtime.
Maccabi fans chanted, "There is a God," and the team's coach, Pini Gershon, dubbed the victory a "Passover Miracle."
The Maccabi team came on strong again Thursday night, overcoming a one-point halftime deficit to run off seven straight points at the start of the third quarter, giving the team a final lead. The spurt was concluded by a dunk by Anthony Parker, an American who played in the NBA.
Parker is one of six American-born players on the Maccabi team, which also has two players from Croatia and one from Lithuania. In July 2002, Maccabi signed Tamir Goodman, a star player from Pikesville. Goodman plays for one of Maccabi's farm teams and is watching this year's tournament from the sidelines.
The games are being held under security deemed extraordinary even by strict Israeli standards. Players are staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton, a high-rise beachfront hotel, and are being driven to practices and games in escorted convoys usually reserved for visiting state dignitaries.