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With Amar’e Stoudemire, Jerusalem looks to overtake Tel Aviv as Israel’s basketball capital

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Amar’e Stoudemire towers over Israeli President Shimon Peres during a recent meeting at the president’s Jerusalem residence. [Flash90 photo]
Amar’e Stoudemire meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the president’s Jerusalem residence. FLASH90 PHOTO

JERUSALEM – Hapoel Jerusalem basketball fans know that when the owner of their team tweets a smiley face, the signing of a new player is about to be announced.

The day before Amar’e Stoudemire made the surprise announcement that he would be leaving the National Basketball Association  to play for Hapoel Jerusalem, Ori Allon tweeted a video of an active volcano that appears to be smiling. Rap music plays in the background: “Nothing can stop me. I’m all the way up.”

The signing of Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star and the biggest name to ever play for the Israeli Basketball Premier League, instantly makes Hapoel Jerusalem the team to beat. If Stoudemire fulfills his promise, it could also mean that Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv and its powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv team, will soon be the face of Israeli basketball worldwide.

“Amar’e Stoudemire can be the guy who overturns the pecking order of Israeli basketball,” Eran Soroka, an NBA analyst for Sport5 television channel and chief editor at the Nana10 news website, told JTA. “The increased competitiveness and exposure will make Hapoel Jerusalem, not Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s team for the first time in decades. Stoudemire just has to perform.”

Stoudemire, who claims “Hebrew roots,” has a Star of David tattoo and has visited Israel numerous times, told reporters at his basketball camp for Jewish and Arab kids in Jerusalem on Monday that he had turned down offers from at least three NBA teams. He said he felt his best chance to win his first championship was in Israel and called Jerusalem his “favorite city in the world.” Stoudemire and his wife, Alexis, are shopping for a home and looking at schools for their four children.

“To be able to continue to play the game of basketball in Jerusalem is an opportunity that can only happen once in someone’s lifetime and, for me and my family, we want to take advantage of this opportunity while I still have good health,” he said. “The most important thing for me right now is to try and create a winning atmosphere around Hapoel Jerusalem.”

In 14 seasons in the NBA, during which he battled injuries, Stoudemire averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He was drafted in the first round by the Phoenix Suns and later played for the New York Knicks for several years before finishing his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. At 33 years old, the 6-foot-10 forward is thought to have some basketball left in him.

The signing of Stoudemire will bring increased attention to the team and the league, but it won’t have a “dramatic” financial impact, according to a source in the Hapoel organization who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters. The key will be success on the court, he said.

“When we travel abroad, I assume the local media is going to be much more interested than it used to be,” the source said. “At the end of the day, if we win basketball games and we win titles and were able to create on-the-court success behind Stoudemire, then the signing will have been a good move.”

Though the source said Hapoel Jerusalem is not trying to “dethrone” Maccabi Tel Aviv, he acknowledged the team wants what its competitor has.

Maccabi Tel Aviv has been the undisputed king of Israeli basketball for decades. Between 1970 and 2008, it won all but one Israeli Basketball Premier League championship, and has won four of eight since. Maccabi Tel Aviv is the only Israeli team nowadays that plays in the EuroLeague, Europe’s top basketball division — which it has won six times, including three times between 2001 and 2005. David Blatt guided Maccabi to an improbable league title in 2014 before becoming the first coach to leap from the EuroLeague to an NBA head coaching position, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, later in the year.