Matan Adelson’s hoop dreams for Hapoel Jerusalem

With international plans on hold due to the war, Adelson told Jewish Insider that Oct. 7 forced him to turn his attention inward and allowed him to really get to know Hapoel's unique fan base

On a recent Friday afternoon, a few hours before the start of Shabbat, thousands of Jerusalemites made their way through the oppressive summer heat – and standstill traffic – to the city’s Pais Mivtachim Arena for a pivotal semifinal game between Hapoel Jerusalem and the Israeli Basketball Super League’s flagship team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. 

A few hours from the arena to the north and south, IDF soldiers continued to battle Islamic terror groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, but inside, Hapoel fans cheered, chanted and sang passionately as their beloved team battled up and down the court.

Even though Hapoel struggled to keep pace with Maccabi, the atmosphere in the fan’s stand was electric, with fans cheering wildly as the Jerusalem team mounted a second-half comeback before coming up short before the final buzzer.

It was this unwavering support and thrilling environment, with the fans in red keeping up their chanting for the whole game, that drew Matan Adelson – youngest son of Miriam and Sheldon Adelson – to buy out the team’s previous owners a year ago and take on the unique challenge of turning Hapoel, which has all the charm of a community team, into the face of Israeli basketball and, he hopes, an international brand.

Adelson, who moved to Israel three years ago, is no stranger to the world of professional basketball. As he tells it, he’s been in love with the game since he was a child and his lifelong dream, he explained to Jewish Insider in a rare interview, has been to own his own basketball team.

As well as Hapoel, the Adelson family, now headed by Miriam, acquired the majority stake in the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks last November, in an agreement worth some $3.5 billion. 

“My goal from when I was a very little kid was to buy an NBA team one day, specifically the Lakers,” Adelson, 25, told JI. “But when I turned 18, my dad sat me down and said, ‘If you ever have the chance to buy the Lakers, don’t do it.’”

When the younger Adelson asked why, his father replied: “Because the Lakers will always be the Lakers, they’re always going to be in the biggest market with the most championships and the sexiest brand, and you’ll have very little room to create value with the Lakers.”

“He told me to ‘buy a team that’s down here and build it up to here,’” Adelson continued, lowering his hand and then raising it up. “By creating value, you’re going to learn a lot and you’re going to be very personally fulfilled.”

Fast-forward a few years, when the opportunity to buy Hapoel Jerusalem came across his desk. Adelson, who also invests in startups, said he realized the purchase could be the “opportunity to create the value that my dad was ultimately referring to.”

“That, coupled with my strong sense of Zionism and the fact that I live here, and I love this country and I’m a very proud Jew, everything kind of came together in one,” Adelson added.

When Adelson announced his takeover of the iconic Jerusalem team in a press conference last June, he laid out his vision for Hapoel, saying that “Jerusalem deserves a basketball team that reflects just how magnificent it is.”

Among the goals outlined, Adelson said he hoped to boost the team’s brand internationally, including entering it into the Euroleague alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv, bringing the Basketball Champions League’s finals to Israel, as well as setting up exhibition games with international teams, including those in the NBA.

Additionally, he said he wanted to recruit new talent to the team from both Israel and abroad, as well as bolster its management and training infrastructure, and streamline the fan experience in and outside of its home arena.

“My aim is to bring talent with professional sports management experience from the United States, individuals who can cultivate a best practice and Western mindset for Hapoel,” Adelson, who studied sports management as part of his economics degree at Stanford University, said at the press conference.

Matan Adelson

Adelson’s dreams for Hapoel Jerusalem did not seem outlandish for a team that last month won the Israeli State Cup and finished the season in fourth place, but he could not have foreseen the broader events that would soon turn the country upside down when Hamas terrorists attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, sparking a full-blown war in Gaza and intense fighting in the north.

“I wouldn’t say my vision has changed [since last year], but I would say my way has changed and my process has changed,” he said, referring to the impact the war has had on his plans and on Israeli sports in general.

“My goal [for Hapoel] is still for it to become the face of Israeli basketball and the team of the Jewish people,” Adelson stated.

On an international level, however, fulfilling his vision has been tricky. 

Plans to bring the Basketball Champions League’s final tournament to Israel did not happen, despite advanced negotiations, he said, and bringing star players from abroad has been challenging because of fears over the war.

However, Adelson remains hopeful. He told JI that there are talks with a number of NBA teams about playing Hapoel in preseason games in the future, although that is not likely to happen until the 2025-26 season.

With international plans on hold for now, Adelson said the war has forced him to turn his attention inward and allowed him to really get to know Hapoel and its unique fan base.

“I thought, when I bought the team, that I understood it but very quickly I realized that I didn’t understand how important this team is for this community,” he said. “I’m learning more and more every day, especially because so many of our fans have been personally affected by the war.”

Adelson counted at least 20 diehard Hapoel fans who were killed on or since Oct. 7 and two who were taken hostage. Ofir Engel, who was released during the cease-fire last November, and Hersh Goldberg-Polin, have been consistently highlighted by the team and the fans. 

Last month, Engel, 18, joined the players in lifting the trophy after their win in the Israeli State Cup, while Goldberg-Polin’s image now adorns some of the team’s merchandise and a full-size banner calling for him to be brought home hangs in the stands.

“At the beginning of the war, I attended a few funerals and shivas; it has been a powerful experience,” recounted Adelson, who also spent time with Goldberg-Polin’s parents, Rachel and Jonathan.

“I asked all those I met what Hapoel means to you, and they all responded that it was like family,” he said. “While it’s very cliche to say, ‘my sports team is my family,’ it is very apparent that this is actually what Hapoel is – it means so much for so many people.”

“I know that sports, in the grand scheme of things right now, doesn’t mean much, we still have hostages in Gaza and we’re still fighting a war on several fronts, but when you see how impactful the game is for those people who are really grieving and really suffering, you realize that this is their only route to happiness right now, they are escaping from reality,” he said.

Matan Adelson

Even as Adelson deals with the challenges brought on by the war, he said that he is preparing to spend the off-season working on plans to strengthen the club, building up its fan base by reaching out to the local community and moving forward with the search for a location to build a state-of-the art training facility for the team in Jerusalem.

Only with these improvements at home, he said, will he be able to turn Hapoel into an international brand, playing against foreign teams. And, Adelson told JI, he is not deterred by the rise in antisemitism and anti-Israel activity in the U.S. or too worried that global politics might seep into the game.

“I believe that the NBA was the first professional sports league to put out a statement in support of Israel right after Oct.7,” Adelson said, pointing out that the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, is Jewish as well as many of the team’s owners, and that the league has made several trips to Israel.

In a general sense, he said that organized sports had done a “good job of keeping politics outside of the arena or outside the stadium.”

“If you ask me, I think the beauty of sports is the ability for me as a fan to be sitting in an arena next to hundreds of people that I don’t know and no matter what happens, we cheer together or we’re sad together because our team wins or loses,” Adelson said. “It is that connection, that we’re all rooting for the same cause, that is the beauty of sports.”

Asked about recent anti-Israel actions by one of his Dallas Mavericks players, Kyrie Irving, Adelson said that while “players can say whatever they want or believe, just like the average citizen … I personally think there should be no place in sports for politics.”

“That doesn’t mean that athletes can’t have their own opinions, or can’t share their own opinions,” he emphasized. “But I do think leagues and teams should do everything they can to stay as quiet as they can on political issues.”

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