“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Oded Kattash – The King of Israel
Life was unfair to the sporting career of Oded Kattash. Due to serious knee injuries, he had to retire at age 26. Despite such a short career, he had great accomplishments. He left his imprint forever not only on Israeli basketball but also in Europe. He was the best scorer at the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona and a European club champion with Panathinaikos in 2000.
Kattash, who was born on October 10, 1974, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, started his career with Maccabi Tel Aviv. At the 1991 U16 European Championship in Greece, where some important players of the future – like Andrea Meneghin of Italy, Ibrahim Kutluay of Turkey, Fragiskos Alvertis of Greece and Jose Antunez of Spain – started to shine, Oded Kattash and his 11.6 points per game were not the highlight of the Israeli team. But his 25 points against Bulgaria and 21 against Czechoslovakia caught the eye of many. Gur Shelef was the top scorer on that Israel team, with 15.7 points, but Kattash showed enough talent to foretell a bright future. The following year, at the 1992 U18 European Championship in Hungary, his numbers dipped (8.7 ppg.) but he stood out against Spain with 20 points. Kattash debuted at the senior level while on loan from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Maccabi Ramat Gan. At the U22 World Cup in Spain in 1993, he left no doubts. The young shooting guard, who could easily play point guard, ended up as the fourth-best scorer of the tourney with 16.7 points per game. He was behind the untouchable Moon Kyung-Eun of Korea (29.4 ppg.), Rogerio Klafke of Brazil (19.8) and Oscar Racca of Argentina (18.9), but in front of Marcelo Nicola of Argentina (16.6), Yann Bonato of France (16.3) and Gregor Fucka of Italy (15.3).
Kattash played the following season, 1994-95, again on loan, this time at Hapoel Galil Elyon, and proved himself as one of the Israeli League’s top young players. In 1995, Kattash was back to Maccabi and his real rise to glory began. Those were tough years for the popular Tel Aviv team, as it was far from reaching the final stages in the EuroLeague. Little by little, however, Kattash started earning the fans’ admiration.
Too good for Maccabi
My friend Yarone Arbel, a direct witness of the growth of Kattash, remembers those years:
“When Mickey Berkowitz was the hero of Yad Eliyahu, the fans had a song for him. In Jewish tradition, there’s a very famous song for King David. The fans changed the lyrics from David to Mickey and sang to him that he was The King of Israel. Nobody else had that honor until Oded showed up. Oded was the new king. He was the face of a team that wasn’t very good. Those were dark years for Maccabi. The mid-1990s is a period when Maccabi never managed to make the Final Four and didn’t even make the quarterfinals. Year after year, they lost in the eighth-finals. They were years when Yad Eliyahu wasn’t sold out every night, except the die-hard fans who always showed up and loved that team because of Oded and [Doron] Sheffer and [Nadav] Henefeld. But Kattash was … the king,” Arbel remembered. “Maccabi didn’t have the money to fight the elite of Europe. In those years, the Greeks and Italians and Turks were spending huge money that Maccabi didn’t have. Maccabi president Shimon Mizrahi said after one home loss on TV that Maccabi can’t fight with those teams in the current situation. It was clear: Oded was ‘too good’ for Maccabi.”
At the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona, Israel fell in the eighth-finals against Russia, 87-69, but Kattash ended up as the top scorer with 22.0 points, ahead of Ainars Bagatskis of Latvia (21.8 ppg.), Nenad Markovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (21.4) and Arturas Karnisovas of Lithuania (20.7). Kattash was hardly off the floor, as he averaged 38.4 minutes of play. After three great years in Maccabi, Kattash was on the agenda of the big clubs of Europe and also several NBA teams tried to sign him. The New York Knicks were fastest and, in the summer of 1998, Kattash was about to become the first Israeli ever in the NBA. However, the NBA season did not open on time due to the lockout, no signings were allowed, and there was even talk of the season being canceled. Kattash grew tired of waiting and returned to Maccabi. He finished the season with averages of 16.1 points, 5 assists and 2.3 rebounds. His next stop would be Athens, where Panathinaikos signed him along with new coach Zeljko Obradovic.
The Greens started the 1999-2000 season strong. They finished first in the group stage with a 9-1 record, the only loss coming at home to ALBA Berlin, 72-70. In the second phase, Panathinaikos also ended up on top (13-3 overall). In the eighth-finals, the Greens eliminated Buducnost 2-1 and got rid of Cibona in the quarterfinals, 2-0. The first goal was accomplished: the team was on its way to the Final Four in Thessaloniki. It wasn’t home, but almost.
In the semifinal against Efes Pilsen, Panathinaikos won 81-71, but Kattash probably played his worst game of the season. He only scored 5 points with awful shooting percentages: 0 of 3 two-pointers, 1 of 4 threes and 2 of 2 free throws plus 2 rebounds and 3 assists. However, Obradovic kept him on the court for 21 minutes. Dejan Bodiroga (22 points) and Zeljko Rebraca (15) saved the day for Panathinaikos that night. Maccabi Tel Aviv was waiting in the title game.
Zeljko Obradovic has told me many times: “On the eve of the final, Oded told me ‘Coach, I did not play well against Efes, but the final will be my game. I know them very well and I know they cannot stop me. We will win. For sure.’ I have never seen a player so convinced that victory could not slip away from him.”
I was in Thessaloniki and I remember the final well. Maccabi was winning 36-29 before the break, but a 7-0 run by the Greens allowed them to tie the score at intermission, 36-36. A great start to the second half by Panathinaikos, led by Antonis Fotsis and Kattash, allowed them to build an 11-point margin, 57-46. In money time, when Maccabi pulled within 3 points, one of their own, Kattash, broke the game open in favor of Panathinaikos. He replied with a three-pointer to give his team some air, and then he made 4 of 6 free throws. He finished the game with 17 points (0 of 1 twos, 2 of 3 threes and 11 of 14 free throws). His famous penetrations could only be stopped with fouls by Maccabi’s players, and Kattash had a good night from the stripe.
What I did not remember, because I had not seen it, was what Yarone Arbel relates: “The scenes from the ceremony were amazing. The TV caught him right after the buzzer. All he said to the camera was ‘It’s the happiest and the saddest day of my basketball career.’ All the Maccabi fans were hugging him. He didn’t really know how to celebrate. He looked so confused.”
The following day, Yarone was also a privileged witness to a scene in the Thessaloniki airport: “I was lucky to be there. Panathinaikos arrived at the Thessaloniki airport to take the flight back to Athens. In the airport were already thousands of Maccabi fans waiting for their charter flight back to Israel. Panathinaikos thought that Oded was in danger. They thought the fans would attack him. At first, they didn’t leave the bus. They called for heavy security. When Oded understood what was going on, he told Panathinaikos not to worry, that the fans wouldn’t harm him. When he entered the airport all Maccabi fans started to celebrate with him. They took him on their shoulders, danced with him and with the cup as if they had won it.
“Back then for Maccabi fans to be in the Final Four was amazing, so it wasn’t such a bad feeling to lose the cup – as much as losing isn’t that bad for Maccabi – since their king won it. It was an amazing scene. Kattash on their shoulders carried around the airport in celebrations of yellow and blue. I was standing next to two Panathinaikos players. One of them was Greek and he told the other player, ‘This is amazing. If it was the other way and I’d won the EuroLeague for Maccabi over Panathinaikos, the Panathinaikos fans would have killed me.'”
Kattash himself, in an interview for Euroleague.net dedicated to all the Final Fours, explained his feelings in Thessaloniki: “So many things … Everything around me was so confusing. It was like being part of a movie. Emotionally, those days were extremely hard to take. I was very excited because on one hand, I got to the European final for the first time in my life. That’s the kind of moment you dream about. On the other hand, I had to play against Maccabi.
“I knew how important this game was to Maccabi fans and to the guys of Panathinaikos. I felt very lonely. I couldn’t get connected to Panathinaikos fans because they were afraid I might give the game to Maccabi. They were not sure I would be able to play good enough under these circumstances. Also, I could not be seen with Maccabi fans, since I was their enemy at least for one night.”
Unfortunately, that great game was Kattash’s last one in the EuroLeague. In 32 Greek League games that season, 24 in the regular season and eight in the playoffs, before getting injured, he averaged 9.1 points, 3 assists and 1.7 rebounds. An awful knee injury during the playoffs caused him to miss the entire following season. He underwent surgery several times, but there was no way to fix it. A brilliant career was stopped suddenly, at 26 years old. He was a guard that could be a playmaker, with a great shot and excellent penetration, his two main weapons. His favorite play was the one-on-one, dribbling and penetration. The opponents knew how he played, but most of the time they could do nothing against him because he was faster, smarter and more talented. Also, it was unpredictable as to whether he would penetrate or use his excellent shot.
“He was a player with loads of self-confidence,” remembers Obradovic. “A born winner.”
Kattash could not continue his career as a player but, fortunately, basketball didn’t lose him. He continued as a coach and did well. He led Hapoel Galil Elyon to a second-place Israeli League finish in his first season, 2004-05. He spent three seasons there and, shortly after losing to Maccabi in the 2007 semifinals, his former club hired him as head coach. Sadly, for both sides, the marriage did not end well and after a string of poor results, Kattash resigned midway through the season. But he returned the following season to Hapoel Galil Elyon, with whom he won the 2010 Israeli League by defeating Maccabi in the final. His subsequent club teams were also called Hapoel –Jerusalem, Eilat and Tel Aviv – and he has also been named the Israeli national team head coach.
However, for the Maccabi Tel Aviv fans, he remains “The King of Israel”.