In the summer of 1965, a lightning quick point guard out of the University of Illinois was selected 12th overall in the NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets (known today as the Washington Wizards).
Named Tal Brody, the Jewish New Jersey native impressed coaches early on in training camp. A roster spot and a career in the NBA beckoned.
Then, just when his boyhood dream was on the verge of being realized, a higher calling intervened — a phone call from the Holy Land.
With the blessing of Bullets management, Brody accepted an offer to compete in that summer’s 1965 Maccabiah Games (sometimes called the Jewish Olympics) to be held in Israel. In his first trip outside the U.S., Brody led Team USA to a gold medal.
Brody’s stellar play in that competition caught the attention of the Israeli basketball club Maccabi Tel Aviv. In an all-too-Israeli display of persuasion tactics, the club enlisted Moshe Dayan — the country’s iconic eye-patch-wearing general, politician and avid basketball fan — to convince Brody to stay and play for Maccabi for at least one season.
“For me it was a challenge. But I never thought I would be in Israel for more than one season,” said Brody, now 73, dressed in an athletic black tracksuit with matching jet-black hair.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Dani Menkin’s new documentary chronicles the improbable journey of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 European Cup victory, captained by Brody. Through the conduit of sports, “On the Map” presents a layered story of Israel and the Jewish people at the height of the Cold War when many were still recovering from the Munich Olympics massacre and the Yom Kippur War.
“Here comes a team that took the country of out of mourning, put smiles on people’s faces and made everyone proud,” Brody said.
After attending screenings in Boston, Chicago and New York, Brody was in Los Angeles Nov. 17 for a screening in Beverly Hills as part of the Israel Film Festival and another at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 19.
Brody’s plan to spend just one year in Israel was derailed once he recognized the off-the-court impact he could have in a Maccabi jersey — something the NBA insignia couldn’t offer. While traveling to play anywhere in the Eastern European bloc behind the Iron Curtain, Brody remembers the lift his team’s visit would provide to oppressed Jews there.
“After what I saw, the meaning of what was going on in Israel was greater than any desire I had to play in the NBA,” he said. “I saw what it meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Jews suffering from anti-Semitism. When our team came in, I saw how important it was for them. It affected me.”
By 1977, after 10 years with Maccabi, Brody had made the club respectable, but EuroLeague glory against the likes of Soviet Union powerhouse CSKA Moscow still eluded him. But that season had a different feel. A roster featuring four Jewish-American players following in Brody’s footsteps as well as the team’s two allowable foreign non-Jewish imports — Aulcie Perry, an African-American from Newark and Jim Boatwright, a Mormon from Idaho — had Tel Aviv abuzz every Thursday, the night EuroLeague games were held at the time.
“During that period of time, every Thursday we were the main show,” Brody said. “People didn’t plan bar mitzvahs, weddings or Knesset meetings on Thursdays.”
The film recalls that high-ranking government officials frequently attended Maccabi games. Dayan, who Brody called a “great friend” of the team, was often on court prior to tipoff shaking hands with Maccabi players. The interest shown by prominent Israeli figures like Dayan gave Brody and his teammates a sense of duty and mission.
“All of the players felt it,” Brody said. “It gave them importance, a sense of significance and added a confidence to the team. It gave us the kind of confidence that helped us to go up against the best teams in Europe.”
Still, prior to Brody’s arrival in 1965, Maccabi had yet to advance past the first round of the EuroLeague Championships. And in the decade that followed, they still hadn’t made a deep run into the later rounds.
That changed in 1977, despite being matched up against a Goliath of an opponent in the form of CSKA Moscow. The heavily favored Soviet team matched up against Maccabi in the 1977 semifinal.
With Israel an ally of the United States and the Soviet Union backing the Jewish state’s Arab enemies at the time, the Kremlin made a bold political statement, refusing to allow CSKA Moscow to travel to Tel Aviv and not allowing the Israeli team into the Soviet Union. As a result, the legendary game was played in the small, “neutral” town of Virton, Belgium.
“At the time, Jews weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union,” Brody said. “We really thought, all of a sudden, this victory would give hope to the Jewish people in the Soviet Union and everywhere behind the Iron
One section of the film interweaves footage of the storied game with members of the Israeli team watching it decades later, commenting on plays and critiquing one another, reliving the on-court action as if they didn’t know the outcome.
Interviews with NBA icon Bill Walton, a friend of Brody’s, and David Stern, the Jewish, longtime former commissioner of the NBA, add gravitas. Michael B. Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., dubbed the victory Israel’s “Miracle on Hardwood” in the film, comparing the event to Team USA’s 1980 victory over the Soviet Union in hockey, widely known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
Following the win, in a moment of candor fueled by the adrenaline of the moment, Brody famously remarked to a television crew at the game, “Israel is on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.” The film’s title is a nod to Brody’s bold declaration that quickly found its way into the pop culture zeitgeist of Israel and has remained there. Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin phoned Brody afterward and told him the statement brought tears to his eyes.
“It just came out of my heart,” Brody remarks in the film.
The team’s center, Perry, called it a “prophetic statement.”
Roughly 40 years later, Brody reflected on the broader reverberations of that final result against the Soviets.
“People saw that Israelis and Jews could play ball,” Brody said. “The fact that we could win against the Soviets was even greater for the spirit of these people affected by anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain.”
The power of sport is a prominent theme in the film — not just in the sense of sport’s inherent drama, but also in how it can enact social and political change. Natan Sharansky, a Jewish refusenik, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, is interviewed in the film and speaks about how events like Maccabi’s 91-79 victory over CSKA Moscow inspired and emboldened him and those like him living under oppressive regimes across Eastern Europe.
“Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg and our director Dani Menkin did a great job relating world events and intertwining the meaning of our basketball team to the country and Jews everywhere,” Brody said.
Tel Aviv has been home for Brody since he first arrived as a gangly college graduate. He officially retired from basketball in 1980, though he has since remained close to the game and its development in the Jewish state. In 1985, Brody helped build a basketball school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, which continues to provide training and clinics for thousands of kids every year. Brody
has also been on Maccabi’s board of directors for decades and helps arrange and promote his former club’s preseason games against NBA teams.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the former basketball player Israeli Goodwill Ambassador in 2010, he has been touring college campuses across North America speaking on the topic of pro-Israel advocacy. The man who’s still recognized
on the streets of Tel Aviv and whose American-accented Hebrew has been good naturedly mocked on “Eretz Nehederet” (Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live”) sees the film as another teaching tool for
reaching young people and educating them about Israel.
“I hope this allows audiences to see a face of Israel that they don’t normally see,” he said. “It’s not the Israel you see on the news media. All of a sudden people are seeing something that they don’t even realize is a part of our cultural life. This victory in 1977 was never forgotten. It’s a part of Israel’s history and Israel’s miracles.”
“On the Map” opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 25.