If you were an Israeli in the 1970s, you felt that your back wore a target. Palestinian terrorists took 11 Olympic athletes and coaches hostage in Munich in 1972, eventually killing all of them. The following year, Arab states attacked during Yom Kippur. In 1976, terrorists hijacked an Air France plane carrying dozens of Israelis. (All captives were rescued.)
One might have expected Israel to start shooting first at some point, and it did in 1977. The surprise was that it shot basketballs.
Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Championship for the first time with three Israelis and a handful of American imports, shocking the Soviets. “We are on the map!” proclaimed captain Tal Brody. “And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything.” The message was clear: The state of Israel would survive.
Never miss a local story.
His quote gives the documentary “On the Map” its title, and he’ll present it Feb. 12 at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival. The Trenton, N.J., native gets credit for turning a pastime into a sport second only to soccer in Israel. He played from 1966 to 1980 in his adopted country and, like other icons from the 1977 team, has achieved near-legendary status.
“If they walked down the street 40 years later, these players would absolutely be recognized. (Guard) Miki Berkovich, who was like Israel’s Michael Jordan...(Center) Aulcie Perry, who has become like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Israel...Those guys people know today,” says director Dani Menkin.
To the 6-year-old Menkin, the win simply meant a joyful triumph. To Israel, and maybe to a world caught up in the Cold War between East and West, it had huge implications.
“When Maccabi Tel Aviv played, they were playing for their country, not just their club. Against the (Soviet) team, seven of whom played in the 1972 Olympics and beat the U.S., you say, ‘Maybe we will lose with honor.’ To stand up to this team, which refused at first even to play the Israelis, and beat them made this bigger than just sports.” (The Soviets would not come to Israel nor let the Israelis come to them, so the game was played in the Belgian town of Virton.)
Most of the Americans were Jews, though two were not. Brody had turned down the Baltimore Bullets; the others fell short of the NBA.
“For Brody, playing in Israel was more important than the NBA,” says Menkin. “They did not make the kind of money players make today, so all of them had second jobs. It was more of a pure sport then.
“They were taken into (fans’) hearts from the beginning. They all married Israelis, and Perry converted to Judaism. They understood they were part of something greater than basketball.”
So did folks asked to participate in this film. Veteran producers Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) and Roberta Grossman raised money, mainly from American Jews.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a teammate of Brody’s on the 1970 U.S. men’s national basketball team, sat for interviews. So did the Maccabi players, who watched a tape of 1977 games and commented as if those were live.
Menkin, who started as a sports reporter for Israel’s equivalent to ESPN, has had a busy career as a director of features and documentaries over the last decade. But the golden team seems to be taking over his life: He’s preparing a documentary about Perry, who spent five years in prison (1987-92) for importing heroin.
“If you ask about one guy who made a difference on that team, it’s him,” says Menkin. “Suddenly you could not take rebounds away so easily from the Israelis, and he had a beautiful soft shot from outside.
“Aulcie’s life has rebounded. He coaches the youth of Maccabi Tel Aviv, he’s inspirational for many people. He has a steady girlfriend, so there’s also a love story. And the African-American story, about somebody you don’t think will end up in Israel at all, and then he converts....There’s still a lot to tell.”
Charlotte Jewish Film Festival
The 13th annual festival takes place Feb. 11-March 5 at Temple Israel, 4901 Providence Road; Regal Ballantyne Village Cinemas, 14815 Ballantyne Village Way; and Our Town Cinemas, 227 Griffith St., Davidson.
It opens with “The Women’s Balcony,” in which an accident during a bar mitzvah celebration leads to a gender rift in a devout Orthodox community in Jerusalem. It closes with “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” in which chef Michael Solomonov surveys numerous types of foods – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Palestinian – to see if there’s such a thing as an Israeli cuisine. In between come 11 features.