By Taylor Rosen/Cleveland Jewish News/JNS.org
The people who sat in seats one and two of row 12, section 120 at Quicken Loans Arena during Game 3 of the NBA Finals on June 9 weren’t your ordinary Cleveland Cavaliers fans.
Tomer Hulli and his father, Eli, made the trip from Israel to attend games 3 and 4 in Cleveland. Tomer, who lives in Tzur Moshe, a 25-minute drive north of Tel Aviv, has been playing basketball since he was 5. Hulli said he didn’t plan this trip, but once the Cavaliers advanced to the finals, he decided he was all in.
“A day after the Cavs made it to the finals I decided to come,” said Hulli, who lives just five minutes from Cavaliers head coach David Blatt’s home in Israel. “I paid $850 for tickets to Game 3 in the lower section and $600 for tickets to Game 4 in the upper deck.”
Hulli said he purchased the tickets on vividtickets.com on the night after the Cavaliers defeated the Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the NBA Finals.
“The tickets are expensive, but you only live once,” said Hulli, who claims he’s a fan of the game, not just of the Cavaliers.
This isn’t the first time Hulli and his father have traveled to the United States.
“I’ve made about 10 trips to America,” said Hulli, who last visited in 2014, when he caught two NBA games in New York and Brooklyn. “We have a big family in Cleveland and also family in New York,” he said.
Hulli said many people in Israel have been waking up at the crack of dawn to watch Blatt lead the Cavaliers.
“Only the real sports fans wake up at four in the morning,” said Hulli, who frequently wakes up at that hour to watch the Cavaliers. “For Finals I believe nearly everybody will wake up.”
Hulli said Blatt’s Cavaliers have the support of all of Israel, and the Cavaliers are a topic on nearly every Israeli ‘s lips.
“Blatt and the Cavs are a huge deal here,” said Hulli, who plans to shop for his wife and kids during his down time in Cleveland. “The people of Israel love basketball. Blatt and Cleveland are all over the news in Israel. We are very proud that an Israeli coach is one of the best in the world.”
Despite that, Hulli said that if the Cavaliers win the NBA championship, the celebration in Israel wouldn’t compare to the one in Cleveland.
“For us coach Blatt is Israeli,” said Hulli, who believes the NBA Finals is the biggest stage in sports. “We hope he will help the team win. People in the USA must understand that there is basketball in other parts of the world and it’s not just the NBA. I see some coaches in the NBA who just stand and do nothing. That is not coach Blatt. Coach Blatt will teach them a lot.”
Hulli said he doesn’t know Blatt, and Blatt doesn’t know he’s attending the games in Cleveland. But he’s sure Blatt would welcome any Israelis into Quicken Loans Arena with open arms.
Hulli had a basketball career in Israel. He started playing professionally at age 18.
“Basketball is my life,” said Hulli, who lives in Tzur Moshe with his wife, Inbal, and three kids, Zoe, Romi, and Yanai. “I coach 200 kids here in two different clubs. I couldn’t survive without basketball because of how great of a game it is.
“I played 13 seasons professionally in two different divisions here,” said Hulli, adding his professional career came to an end when he discovered one of his daughters had a medical problem. “I’ve been a part of three teams that were promoted to Division One. Haifa, Netanya, and Lev Hasharon were the teams I enjoyed playing for the most.”
Hulli stated that European basketball is very different from NBA ball. There are more teams, which means more competition, and the crowds can be much more aggressive.
“European basketball is a big part of my life,” said Hulli. “I know most of the players and all of the coaches. I just love the way the game is played here.”
Hulli and his father were among the 20,562 roaring fans at Quicken Loans Arena on June 9 as the Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 96-91 to take a 2-to-1 lead in the best of seven series. Hulli was even interviewed by an Israeli television station before the tip-off.
Hulli envisions the Cavaliers ending Cleveland’s 51-year title drought by defeating the Warriors on the road in a pivotal and dramatic Game 7. By June 15, the Cavaliers trailed the Warriors 3-to-2 and faced the possibility of elimination in Game 6. But Hulli’s prediction remained a possibility.
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