Former NJ resident Jeffrey Rosen, right, with Avi Ashkenazi, coach of the Haifa Heat, sees himself in the hands-on, Mark Cuban mold.
Photo by Max Kleinman
August 7, 2008
Jeff Rosen had spent more than 30 years with RoseArt, his family’s toy and stationery business in Livingston, when he decided it was time for a change. After the company was sold in 2005, he upgraded his definition of “toys” and created Triangle Financial Services, a sports and entertainment investment firm based in Aventura, Fla.
Seeking to combine his love for Israel and Judaism with his love of sports, Rosen looked for opportunities in the Jewish state. He was an early investor in the Israel Baseball League and in 2007 purchased the Maccabi Haifa Heat Basketball Club. The team has already made impressive strides; in May, they moved up from the second tier to the premier league by upsetting Barak Natanya, 73-69, in the second division semifinals.
Following two days of tryouts for the Heat’s 2008-09 season, Rosen spoke with NJ Jewish News about his latest acquisition and the meaning of playing in Israel.
The key signing to come out of the auditions — held July 27-28 at the University Center Arena at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale — was six-foot, three-inch guard Tamir Goodman. Dubbed “the Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated while he was still in high school — the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, where he averaged over 30 points a game in his junior and senior years — Goodman garnered national attention as a star player and was named the 25th-best high school player in the country. He turned down a full scholarship at the University of Maryland because, as an Orthodox Jew, he would not play on Shabbat.
“We’re very excited about him,” said Rosen. “He’s quite the gentleman and a gentle soul. He loves the sport; it’s in every DNA part of his body.” Goodman, 26, has played professionally in Israel and the United States.
Eight Jewish hoopsters tried out for Heat; Rosen expects higher turnouts at future events. Playing in Israel offers a “double opportunity” for the Jewish athlete, he said. “It’s not only a chance to play a professional sport — which we all know is an infatuation for many of us — but now you get to express your Zionism [and] discover another aspect of your Judaism.”
Despite the buzz, Rosen doesn’t see a time in the near future when basketball will replace soccer as Israel’s favorite sport. The larger venues — with average seating capacities of 10,000-20,000 — obviously bring the game to more people. Soccer also garners the lion’s share of media attention. “Basketball stories generally come in second, followed by whatever the flavor of the week is.”
The Heat’s Romema Arena holds about 3,400 and is among the largest in Israel. Rosen wants to add a few hundred more seats behind the baskets. He also wants to implement aspects of basketball marketing. “I think Israel is ripe for…aggressive and innovative efforts.” Rosen acknowledged that NBA and NCAA Division One games can have a circus-like atmosphere, “I’d like to strike a balance between fan appreciation and activity and making it more of a fun affair so we can attract more children and maybe more females.” Soccer and basketball have traditionally been male-dominated areas, he pointed out.
“Israel is still dealing with that old ‘rough and tough hombre’ who goes to the games. So we have to make it more entertaining without losing the fieriness. That was a big draw for me: the innate and natural passion of those fans who can really rock it and sock it.”
Hardball and hoops
Rosen came to the hardwood via the diamond, as an early investor in the Israel Baseball League. The IBL debuted in 2007 but was plagued by financial problems that forced at least a temporary suspension of operations. Rosen still believes in the potential for hardball in the Holy Land. “In my crystal ball, I see my participation and yearning to be still fertile, still engaged there. I don’t know the outcome, but I hope to be part of whatever manifests itself in the future.”
He discovered Israeli basketball while on a fact-finding visit for the IBL in 2006. After witnessing the difficulties and challenges associated with starting up the IBL, he said, he realized that he was the type of “take-charge” businessman who could prove effective. “I thought, how can I get involved with Israel commercially in sports...and take charge and bear the fruits?”
During a visit to the Wingate Sports Complex in Netanya, he took in a basketball game and was caught up by the electricity of the crowd. “I saw the adoration from the fans…and I got the bug that this would be something that could work for me.”
The following summer he purchased the Haifa club. “It happened pretty quickly. We jumped on an opportunity when opportunity knocked.”
Rosen described his approach as hands-on, along the lines of Mark Cuban, the Jewish owner of the Phoenix Suns. “My coaches are trying to push me away right now,” he said jokingly. “If I can be just a little bit like Mark, and maybe a little successful like Mark…I’d be very delighted.
“I like the coaches to make the decisions, but at the same time I like to hear what they’re thinking about and why, so I’ll challenge them. They’ll do the working; they’ll do the ‘lifting.’ I’m not a coach; I can’t do that. But I want to know what’s going on. I’d call myself very engaged, but hopefully not overbearing.”
Like Cuban, Rosen said, he enjoys sitting in the stands and being accessible to the team’s supporters. “I feel like I’m a fan first. I’m sitting there cheering, jumping out of my chair, and having a good time and yelling when we’re losing.”
Rosen was born in Brooklyn and lived in Queens before his family moved to New Jersey, where he lived in a number of towns, including Roseland and West Orange. He fenced at West Essex High School in North Caldwell, mainly to avoid dealing with the high school’s wrestling coach, who wanted the lightweight Rosen in the team’s 99-pound category. “There was no way I was going to work out like those maniacs. I had to escape wrestling and keep my dignity, so I found fencing and wound up enjoying it.”
Rosen said he doesn’t know why an Israeli national basketball team has not progressed to the Olympic level. At least a couple of players in Israel could make it in the NBA now, he said, especially with the ascendancy of so many from the European ranks. Many former professionals and college players seek positions with foreign teams to keep active and on the radar of the scouts. “The NBA remains premier, but the gap between European and American players has shrunk quite a bit, and the caliber of basketball in Europe and Israel is very high.”