How a basketball game put Israel on the international stage
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that sports, while fun and a good source of exercise, is little more than a hobby, a healthy distraction. A miniscule percentage of athletes have even a slight chance of making it to the pros, so we play down its significance and live vicariously through LeBron James, Mike Trout, and Tom Brady and go about our everyday lives.
From time to time we need to remind ourselves that sports can be more meaningful than the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup, such as when Trenton’s own Tal Brody led the Maccabi Tel Aviv men’s basketball team, a ragtag squad of supposedly not-ready-for-prime-time players, to the 1977 European league championship. On the surface, it may have seemed like just another basketball game, but in actuality it was so much more: the moment when the world realized that Israel was no longer a fledgling startup nation, but a country with staying power and a potential for greatness.
For those too young to remember, it’s difficult to imagine something as seemingly mundane as a sporting competition taking on diplomatic significance, which is why Dani Menkin wrote, produced, and directed “On The Map,” a film that manages to capture the drama and emotion of that magical season.
The film’s name comes from the mouth of local-boy-makes-good Brody. In a post-game interview after Maccabi somehow pulled off its first miracle against Euro-league superpower CSKA Moscow, Brody said, off-the-cuff but oh-so appropriately, “We are on the map. And we will stay on the map — not only in sports, but in everything.”
“On The Map,” released in 2016, made its central Jersey premier at West Windsor High School South on May 21 at a community event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks to raise money for scholarships for local teens attending educational and cultural programs in Israel. Both Brody and Menkin attended and hung around until after the showing to answer questions from the audience, as well as to sign autographs and pose for selfies.
Here’s a synopsis: Brody, who was chosen 12th in the 1965 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets but elected to play for Maccabi instead — he was persuaded by Israel’s legendary general, Moshe Dayan — led a team of Israeli and foreign-born players through the European league playoffs in 1977. Though the Tel Aviv-based team faltered early in the season, its members meshed as the season wore on until they found themselves in the semi-finals, matched up against a Soviet team that initially refused to play the Israelis. Eventually the Soviets relented, but the game was played in Virton, a small town in Belgium, because the Soviet Union would not allow the Israelis to enter their country. Even though the Red Army team was heavily favored, Maccabi pulled off a 91-79 upset. In the finals, the Israelis once again emerged victorious, beating Italy’s Mobilgirgi Varese, which had already beaten Maccabi twice that same season.
Most of the film focused on the win against CSKA Moscow, which only agreed to face the Israelis because a Soviet victory seemed assured.
“Nobody thought that we would have a chance,” Brody told audience after the premier. “The Russians had beaten the United States’s basketball team in the 1972 Olympics, so their confidence was high. “If they beat the United States team, what do they got to worry about to play Israel?”
The film is told through recollections of former Maccabi players and others, including NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton and former commissioner David Stern, and is littered with interesting facts related to, but not necessarily pertinent to, the games of the 1977 season: Maccabi’s center, Aulcie Perry, an African-American born in Newark, fell so much in love with Israeli culture that he converted to Judaism; Brody’s father suffered a heart attack before the final against Mobilgirgi Varese and Brody stayed with him at Trenton’s Mercer hospital and the star player narrowly made it back in time; and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, besieged by scandal, resigned during the championship matchup but was compelled to wait until after the game to make his announcement.
During a question-and-answer section, Brody shared stories of his early years playing ball in New Jersey. He talked about one game he played for Trenton Central High School against a school in Edison that posed a unique challenge for the head coach, who couldn’t find any players on his bench that could play poorly enough to keep the score respectable so as not to embarrass the other team (Brody said he thought the final score was 110 to 23). Also, Brody’s surroundings influenced his game. After playing so often at the Jewish Community Center on Stockton street he said had to fix his outside shot.
“You would shoot the ball and you would hit the ceiling before you hit the basket,” he said.
But those quirks probably helped prepare him for basketball in Israel. Playing on outdoor courts, his first game was rained out. There was a sandstorm during another, and in the winter the games were so cold that some players wore gloves.
Both Menkin and the federation hope the film will give Israel some good PR.
“We want to travel and get this film to as many communities as possible to show good sides of Israel and teach young generations a little more about our country,” said Menkin.
“We are so excited for the turnout today including many teens,” said Mark Merkovitz, executive director of the Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. “The showing today is the first program of a year-long federation ‘Positive Israel’ initiative, consisting of educational and cultural programs that emphasize the positive side of Israel.”
Brody, an official ambassador of goodwill for Israel, said he is always asked whether, had salaries for NBA players in 1966 been similar to today’s levels — rather than the less-than $13,000 he would have been paid in the United States — would he still have played for Israel?
“If I didn’t know what I’m going to be missing in the 50 beautiful years that I’ve been in Israel, for sure I would take that money,” he said after the screening. “But if you would ask me, knowing that I would have to give up those 50 beautiful years, all this excitement, everything around the culture life, the social life, the seeing how basketball influenced a whole country’s spirit, morale in tough periods of time…If I had to give all this up, no, I would still take that same path and go to Israel.”