Upon arriving in Israel nearly six years ago, having just signed a deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Joe Ingles didn’t know much about his new home.
In an introductory video for his new club, Ingles, along with fellow Maccabi new signing Tyrese Rice, was quizzed about Tel Aviv landmarks, population, the name of his team’s president, and more. Ingles was stumped on most of it, wildly guessing on others. But there was one question he knew the answer to right away: who was his team’s captain?
“Shawn James!,” Ingles proudly yelled.
It was the start of a friendship, one that became a brotherhood through one remarkable season and one unforeseeable reunion in Salt Lake City, where Ingles is now a standout for the Jazz and James works as a Salt Lake City Stars basketball operations assistant.
James was among the first to welcome Ingles to Tel Aviv. The 6-foot-10 Guyanese-American center had quickly become a fan favorite in Maccabi since signing in 2011 thanks to his league-leading block totals and baskets at the rim — Ingles would later call him the Rudy Gobert of his squad. James had been there for an eventful two seasons, and had done enough in his time with the club to be named team captain: the first non-Israeli captain in team history.
“I was in Maccabi by myself for a bit, because Renee was still playing. [James] and his wife half-adopted me,” Ingles said. “We all lived in like a couple of buildings right next to each other so I’d go to his house all the time.”
Maccabi was a solid team, but weren’t quite as successful as Ingles’ former team, FC Barcelona. While the team was coached by David Blatt, who could go on to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers the following year, the roster wasn’t as talented as the rest of Europe’s best. Beyond James, Maccabi relied on solid-but-unspectacular Americans: Rice, who had played for the Jazz summer league team after going undrafted following a star career at Boston College; Ricky Hickman, who played a secondary role at UNC Greensboro; Devin Smith, who had led the Virginia Cavaliers to a 14-15 record and the 33-year-old David Blu, who had scored 12 points per game at USC before beginning a notable international career.
“A couple of guys had been there, but the team wasn’t great,” Ingles acknowledged.
A season to remember
The 2013-14 season didn’t start auspiciously. Maccabi lost to teams that they should have beaten in the relatively-weak Israeli league. The team did have a better start in EuroLeague, but just as they started rolling, James ruptured a disk in his back, requiring surgery. Losses followed.
But the team snuck into the EuroLeague playoffs anyway, with a mountain to climb. In the quarterfinals, they faced off in a best-of-five series against the team that hosted the tournament, Armani Milano in Italy. They won that series in four games to qualify for the EuroLeague Final Four.
At this point, Maccabi were again massive underdogs. Ingles’ former club in Barcelona were a threat, but the two biggest clubs were CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid. CSKA Moscow had beaten Maccabi by a lopsided score of 100-65 earlier in the season, were the club with the largest payroll in the league, and had perhaps the best European point guard in history in Milos Teodosic. The team was coached by Ettore Messina, the San Antonio Spurs assistant; Jazz head coach Quin Snyder had been Messina’s assistant the previous year. CSKA were 3-1 favorites to win the semifinal.
It looked to be going to script, too, with CSKA taking a 55-40 lead late in the 3rd quarter. But Maccabi, on the back of Rice, made a late comeback, including a game-winning layup with 5 seconds left.
Their opponent in the final was Real Madrid. Madrid were even larger favorites to win this matchup, 6-1 by the oddsmakers. That’s because their talent was overwhelming: they had the Bucks’ Nikola Mirotic, and big European stars Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez. They even had Utah State star Jaycee Carroll and Mavericks center Salah Mejri off the bench.
Somehow, Maccabi pushed Real Madrid to overtime, again battling back when it was needed most. Somehow, Maccabi ran away with it in the extra period, again on the back of Rice. Somehow, Maccabi Tel Aviv were champions of Europe.
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, when Blatt was asked if he felt if the sky was the limit for his championship team, the coach said “In this storm of a season, Maccabi long ago touched the sky and reached the moon."
Re-connecting in Salt Lake City
As odds-defying as Maccabi’s run was in 2014, you can argue that the five years since have been an even larger surprise for those involved. Consider the fact that, in Maccabi’s Final Four run, they had only one player who ever found his way to the NBA: Ingles.
Ingles scored two points in the semi-final, and was held scoreless in the final. He played only 15 minutes against CSKA Moscow, and seven minutes against Real Madrid. His name wasn’t featured in articles about the tournament, nor was his star at its brightest.
The rest of Ingles’ story is frequently-told: Thanks to the L.A. Clippers, Ingles got a chance in an NBA preseason anyway. He impressed Clippers coach Doc Rivers, but was waived as the team needed a guard. Snyder, familiar with Ingles from his time at CSKA Moscow, thought he could help the Jazz. Ingles began as a bit piece, but worked his way up to regular starter, eventually earning a $52 million contract from Utah. Now, he’s top-10 in his position in the NBA; this after not starting the majority of the games in his final European season.
While Ingles’ career was exploding, James’ was collapsing. He failed to recover completely from his back surgery, leading to his release from Maccabi after the miracle season. He signed a deal with Armani Milano, but struggled there as well. He played a few more seasons with other teams in Europe and Puerto Rico, but wanted to stay in the business of the game he loves.
“I knew that if an opportunity overseas didn’t present itself, that I didn’t want to sit at home,” James said. “Joe always spoke highly of the Jazz.”
James had other connections to the Jazz organization, too. He played with Nathan Peavy — a Salt Lake City Stars assistant coach — in his season in Puerto Rico, and had a friend who had played with Stars coach Martin Schiller when Schiller coached in Austria. When James called, the Jazz organization answered.
After an interview process, and glowing words from Ingles, Peavy, and others, James was hired as a basketball operations assistant for the Stars before the season. It gives James an opportunity to find his way on this side of the game, a chance to try his hand at player development work, coaching, and scouting.
James moved to Salt Lake City. Seven thousand miles away and five years removed from Maccabi Tel Aviv, Ingles had the chance to return the favor from years before. He welcomed James to his adopted home in Utah, thrilled to be working in the same place once again.
“I’ve made some brothers from that team, brothers you know that are going to last a lifetime," James said.
JAZZ VS. GRIZZLIES
At FedEx Forum
Tipoff • Friday, 6:00 p.m.
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 37-27; Grizzlies 26-40
Last meeting • Jazz, 96-88 (Nov 12)
About the Jazz • Ekpe Udoh (back spasms) and Ricky Rubio (hip tightness) are listed as doubtful for the game... Dante Exum (ankle bone bruise) is out... Dante Exum’s ankle will be re-evaluated on Friday... Raul Neto, after missing Wednesday’s game against New Orleans, is not on the injury report... On Wednesday, two Jazz players had 10+ assists (Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio) in the same game for the first time since 2008
About the Grizzlies • Kyle Anderson (right shoulder soreness), Dillon Brooks (toe), and Jaren Jackson Jr. (quadriceps soreness) are all out for the game against Utah with injury. Avery Bradley (ankle soreness) and Justin Holiday (neck soreness) are listed as probable ... Memphis is coming off a 120-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. ... Mike Conley scored a career-high 40 points in the win. ... Grizzlies are 30th in the league in offense with a 104.5 offensive rating... Grizzlies play the slowest pace in the league, only 96.2 possessions per game