HAIFA, Israel – When Maccabi Haifa takes the floor for the Israeli national championship Thursday night, the guy on the bench will be none other than Brad Greenberg — the former U.S. college and NBA coach whose career was derailed by a recruiting scandal.
Greenberg's bet that he could resurrect his career here is paying big dividends.
He has led the Maccabi Haifa club to a historic turnaround, inheriting a team that finished dead last a year ago and taking it to the title game against perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. Along the way, he has emerged as a local hero and positioned himself for a possible return to the NBA.
"We've awakened Haifa to basketball again, which is a wonderful feeling," Greenberg said in an interview. "This is much better for me than what I was doing. Much better."
The 59-year-old Greenberg was once part of the American coaching fraternity. He held assistant coaching jobs with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers, and also served as the Philadelphia 76ers general manager, before turning to college basketball. He led Radford University in southwestern Virginia to a 2009 conference title and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
But his success at Radford turned into scandal when the school was accused of major recruiting violations. The NCAA's investigation found a "concerted effort to cover up violations" under several coaches, including Greenberg. Radford suspended him for the final four games of the 2010-11 season, and he resigned shortly thereafter.
Two years later, Greenberg's remorse is limited. He said he regrets not cooperating with the NCAA, but his own actions are a different matter. In addition to aiding in the cover up, Greenberg's violations included giving impermissible travel and team benefits to an ineligible player.
"Yeah, I put a kid on a bus because I didn't want him by himself during the holiday when no one else was on campus," he said. "I mean, they were violations, but they're not the kind of violations I feel bad about committing now."
The NCAA slapped Greenberg with a five-year show-cause order, a punishment that makes it extremely difficult to land another college coaching job. With the NBA under a lockout when he resigned, Greenberg found an unusual opportunity: coaching the Venezuelan national team.
After a year in Venezuela, Greenberg reached out to American multimillionaire Jeffrey Rosen about a move to Israel.
Rosen purchased the team in 2007 while it was stuck in Israel's second division, essentially a minor league. Rosen guaranteed Haifa would return to the top league in his first year, and the club delivered. But after two years of playoff basketball in 2009 and 2010, including a title game appearance, Haifa fell back to the bottom of the standings.
Greenberg, who is Jewish, had long considered coaching in Israel. His close friend, Howie Lassoff, was a Maccabi Tel Aviv star for more than a decade, and Haifa's fortunes gave him an opening.
He got in touch with Rosen, who saw the chance to bring in an experienced coach. "I recall one night receiving his resume at dinner and my jaw dropped," Rosen wrote in an email. The two men met last summer after the Venezuelan season wrapped up, and Greenberg was quickly hired.
"When I got here, there was an awful lot of skeptical media," Greenberg said. "The joke was, you know, 'He won't need the umbrella for the rainy season in Haifa, he'll be gone before then.'"
But Greenberg has lasted the full season — and justified the hype. Haifa finished second behind Maccabi Tel Aviv during the regular season, and swept Hapoel Gilboa Galil in the quarterfinals. The club then beat Eilat 71-68 on Sunday in the deciding Game 5 of the semifinal series before an ecstatic home crowd of around 4,500, the largest of the year.
Just days earlier, the Green Apes, a hardcore group of fans known for their rowdy behavior, had boycotted the team after an incident during Game 2 when they lit off a flare in Eilat and police intervened. After that game, Greenberg called out the group in the postgame news conference.
The Green Apes were back on Sunday night with their drums and R-rated chants, while the crowd joined their songs and filled the arena with shrieking whistles during Eilat possessions. After the game, Greenberg shook hands with one rowdy fan.
When Greenberg looks ahead, he does not see a future in college basketball. Coaching in Israel has been a far better personal and professional time than the grind of recruiting, long road trips and packed schedules inherent in the college game.
"We're playing Maccabi Tel Aviv for the State Cup championship ... and (President) Shimon Peres is shaking my hand before the game, versus going to a weekend doubleheader at Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian? I mean, give me a break," he said.
Regardless of the outcome of Thursday's single-game championship, Greenberg's future is uncertain. His performance has generated widespread speculation that he will try to return to the NBA.
He will fly back to Virginia later this month to marry his fiance, and then return to Israel to coach the national team at this summer's Maccabiah Games, a sort of Olympics for Jewish athletes from around the world. Beyond that, there are only hints of where he'll be next year.
Following the Game 5 win, Greenberg gave no indication as to his plans. "We've got the chance to be together for one more game," he said. "Hopefully we'll be able to do something special with it."
Though his team is the underdog Thursday, Greenberg will have one advantage. In a lucky coincidence, this year's championship game was scheduled long ago to take place in Haifa, giving him a home-court advantage. It is the first time the championship has ever been held outside of Tel Aviv.
Accustomed to playing for the title in front of their fans, Maccabi Tel Aviv will reverse roles, traveling north to face Haifa in its home arena. And for perhaps the last time in Israel, Brad Greenberg will be ready.