30 years later, Israels hoops hero still on the map

On Thursday nights in Tel Aviv, newspapers blew through the streets and dust swirled around the parked cars’ worn tires. In the distance, you could hear it: A muffled, synchronized roar emanating from thousands of throats huddled around hundreds of glowing TVs.

Televisions became prevalent in Israel in the mid-1960s. You could spin the dial all you wanted, but there was only one option: Israeli Channel One. Thursday nights meant basketball.

And basketball was Tal Brody.

If you stepped into an elevator with Brody — and maybe you even did that last week when Brody was in the Bay Area to speak at Brandeis Hillel Day School’s May 31 board dinner — you probably wouldn’t give him a second glance.

He stands a shade under 6-foot-2 with notably good posture. At 63, he still looks trim enough to ambush men a third his age in a pickup game at the Y. He has pronounced cheekbones and eyes that become slits when he smiles — which is often — recalling this victory or that over various European teams with nine-syllable names stocked with six straight consonants.

But if you’re an Israeli of a certain age, you’ll recognize Brody because you grew up with him as a flickering image on Channel One. And before you know it, the words “We’re on the map!” will be coming out of your mouth. And then you’ll smile, and so does he, because it’s a memory that never gets old.

“I knew we were going up against the odds,” he says with the East Coast cadence that reveals his youth in Trenton, N.J. (Brody still says “beauty-full” and, presumably, “laundry-matt.”).

“But to play the Russians, that’s something you have to get up for. I don’t think a lot of people thought we had a chance. Most people thought we should just keep it respectable, not lose by 100 points or something like that.”

It was 1977 and the Soviet Union’s relationship with Israel put the cold in “Cold War.” The Soviets were staunch allies and suppliers of Israel’s Arab enemies and CSKA Moscow — the Red Army’s professional squad that had its pick of the best ballplayers in Russia as well as its basketball-rich republics — obstinately refused to take on Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Jewish state.

The Soviets decided that the European Cup semifinal game would be held in Virton, Belgium, a small, sleepy town a bounce-pass away from Luxembourg. By holding the international clash in a Belgian backwater, the Russians hoped people would ignore the game.

But that’s not what happened.

The contest took on ramifications far outweighing who could put more balls through a steel cylinder. Israelis who couldn’t tell a basketball from a matzah ball were suddenly diehard Maccabi fans.

“The moment I knew we would win was before the game when both teams lined up to go into the gymnasium,” recalls Brody, his smile growing larger.

As Maccabi Tel Aviv’s captain, he had the honor of carrying the Israeli flag. Sergei Belov, then and now the consensus pick for the greatest European player of all-time, carried the Soviet flag. Belov also was one of seven players on CSKA Moscow who played on the 1972 Gold Medal team that dealt the Americans their first loss in international play.

“We started walking into the gym and we were greeted with Israeli flags and everyone was singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and chanting ‘Am Yisrael chai.’ And the Russians were shocked. They didn’t want this game to be noticed. They didn’t want to play in Israel, but now they thought they were in Israel.”

It wasn’t even close. Maccabi trounced CSKA Moscow, 91- 79, and pandemonium broke out on city streets across the Jewish state.

As his teammates piled on top of him, someone thrust microphone in Brody’s face and he came out with it: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything.”

Not long afterward, Maccabi deflected Italian powerhouse Mobilgirgi Varese in Belgrade, 78-77. The team was greeted by 150,000 fans at Tel Aviv’s municipal square.

What a journey it had been for Brody. After a superlative career at the University of Illinois, he was selected 15th in the NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets. But there were only nine teams in the National Basketball Association at that time, and he figured his chances at sticking would be better in Israel. When he first suited up for Maccabi, the team played its games outdoors — in sub-freezing temperatures during road games in Jerusalem — and he often had to gauge the wind when he pulled up for a jumper at the top of the key.

These days, Brody is a pension and insurance adviser with a hand in dozens of youth basketball programs and charitable endeavors. He probably could have had a good career here in the United States; Jewish American kids might even be wearing his jersey today.

But playing in Israel meant something to Brody. It meant something when Maccabi traveled behind the Iron Curtain and throttled pro teams in nations where Jews were not allowed to pray. It meant something when Bulgarian or Czechoslovakian Jews quietly congratulated them and asked for a coin or trinket, anything from Israel — a tangible connection to the Jewish state.

Three decades later, Brody can be forgiven for using the term “we” to refer to Maccabi Tel Aviv (he’s on the team’s board of directors). He remembers the time “we” took the Euroleague title in 1981. He remembers 8,000 Israelis invading Paris for the 2001 final, when French Jews cruised up and down the Champs Elysées euphorically waving Israeli flags after Maccabi won again. In 2004, Maccabi was crowned once more in the first final ever held in Israel and, a year later, won in Moscow as Vladimir Putin paced in his luxury box.

“When I came to Israel, we were playing outdoor basketball in the dust storms, the rainstorms, the cold. To see where we came from, to see such a thing, that is beautiful for me.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.