The final score — Memphis Grizzlies 116, Maccabi Haifa 70 — would normally be considered a blowout, with a team in last year’s NBA Western Conference finals simply overpowering their shorter and less talented Israeli opponents. Memphis All-Stars Mark Gasol and Zach Randolph each played more than played 30 minutes in this easy win, which was competitive only through the middle of the first half.
But the end result was really beside the point. There was no expectation that Maccabi Haifa would win their exhibition contests against the Phoenix Suns and the Detroit Pistons either. These games gave the Israeli Basketball League team exposure and valuable playing experience against top flight franchises. Equally as important, Maccabi Haifa is really an effective vehicle to tell about Israel and instill pride within the Jewish community in which they play and foster hasbara. That’s one of the reasons why Opher Aviran, Consul General of Israel to the Southeastern United States, attended the game.
FedEx Arena, the Grizzlies’ home base, had an announced crowd of 11, 532 which heard performances of “Hatikvah” by a young woman from the Memphis Jewish community and “The Star-Spangled Banner” by four cantors. A team of youngsters from the Memphis Jewish Community Center played on the court during half time to the delight of the crowd (and the players’ parents). And the Israeli pros were embraced by members of the Jewish community with great pride.
When Jeffrey Rosen, the team’s New Jersey-bred owner, was asked by a cynical Israeli reporter about why he was still involved in the Israeli Basketball League, he replied that “growing up, the sports hero who instilled tremendous pride in my Jewish identify was Sandy Koufax.” Then, turning to Ido Kozikaro — the team’s six-foot, eight-inch center who was surrounded by young children — he said “and to them, he’s their modern Jewish hero.”
Maccabi Haifa is multiethnic group with indigenous Israeli players and others coming from Nigeria, Venezuela, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The team camaraderie before, during, and after the game — when I had the pleasure of dining with them — was exemplary.
In addition, substantial dollars were raised from these exhibition games for the Haifa Hoops for Children Program, which is the Maccabi Haifa’s philanthropy to help disadvantaged youth in the Haifa area by holding basketball clinics and providing tickets for games, which helps build their self-esteem. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest is the philanthropic arm for Haifa Hoops for Kids.
A year ago, San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee, an Asian American, spoke at a Maccabi Haifa event at which he reveled in Israeli’s ethnic diversity. These are not just basketball games; they bring a taste of Israel to thousands of fans. During the game, I was approached by a number of people asking me about where Haifa is, what does Israel look like, and other important questions. When they learned that Haifa is a major port and houses U.S. naval ships, they were extremely impressed. Any image of Israel as being racist was quickly dispelled by the faces of the Maccabi Haifa. So at the end of the day, the Maccabi Haifa team and Israel really won the game, judged by the goodwill generated for the Jewish state.