Reliving a 1977 hoops victory that put Israel On the Map

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Tal Brody, a transplanted American who sacrificed an NBA career to play basketball half a world away, had just led Maccabi Tel Aviv to a stunning upset that many Israelis still regard as their nation’s greatest sports achievement. As flag-waving fans danced the hora around him, Brody told a TV interviewer in heavily accented Hebrew: “We are on the map, not only in sports but in everything.”

That 1977 scene is at the heart of “On the Map,” a documentary by Israeli director Dani Menkin that will be making its world premiere on July 23, the Palo Alto opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Menkin is scheduled to be in attendance at the Palo Alto screening and at the July 24 screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Tal Brody (right) and a teammate celebrate Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win at the 1977 European championship finals. photo/courtesy sfjff

The film shows once again that a sports victory can reverberate far beyond the playing field — in this case, an Israeli team’s defeat of a highly favored Soviet club, in the semifinals of the 1977 European basketball championships, led to a sense of empowerment and pride in the Israeli public.

But the movie falls short in its bid to assert that the triumph was akin to the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. defeat of the heavily favored Soviets in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“On the Map” tells its story well with archival footage and excellent interviews with everyone from NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton to refusenik Natan Sharansky, who said memories of the victory helped sustain him emotionally during his nine years in Soviet prisons.

Yet even at a mere 78 minutes, it drags at points and could have been edited more tightly. Some of the interviews, especially with TV commentators from that time, are redundant and some footage is repeated.

The film is really a story about Brody, now 72, who was born in New Jersey and starred as a 6-foot-2 point guard at the University of Illinois. Drafted No. 12 overall in 1965 by the Baltimore Bullets, he chose instead to go to Tel Aviv after receiving a note from Moshe Dayan — who, like fellow Israeli political and military leader Yitzhak Rabin, was a big basketball fan.

“Tal turned down everything from the very beginning to be part of something that was bigger than just his own life,” Walton, who played on a U.S. national team with Brody, says in the movie.

The film evolves into a tale about Maccabi Tel Aviv and its unlikely run to the European championship in 1977, focusing on the 91-79 semifinal win against the Soviet Red Army team in Belgium after the Soviets refused to play in Israel or host the Tel Aviv team. Maccabi went on to win the title two months later by one point against an Italian team that had easily defeated the Israelis twice earlier that season.

Menkin does a good job of putting the championship in historical context by pointing out Israelis were still recovering emotionally from the trauma of the 1972 massacre of the nation’s athletes at the Munich Olympics and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He also points out that Rabin had to delay announcing his resignation as prime minister — due to a scandal involving an illegal U.S. bank account — by a few hours to avoid a conflict with TV coverage of the final and the ensuing celebration.

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States., says in an interview in the film that the “Miracle on Hardwood” was comparable to the “Miracle on Ice,” and promotional materials for the movie make the same claim.

Though there are parallels — both teams upset Soviet squads in a semifinal and went on to claim the championship — the comparison is a stretch. While the U.S. hockey team consisted of college kids and amateurs, the Maccabi players were professionals, and most of the stars American.

Plus, it was not a true David-and-Goliath tale. Maccabi Tel Aviv is no slouch, having won the Euroleague title six times and finishing as the runner-up nine times.

“On the Map” is an interesting story for basketball fans, and will provide fond memories for people who lived in Israel during the 1970s. But to Americans who are fed a steady diet of movies about remarkable and unexpected victories — everything from “Hoosiers” to “Seabiscuit” — this movie may not be all that memorable.

“On the Map,” 6:15 p.m. July 23 at CineArts, Palo Alto; 6:30 p.m. July 24, Castro Theatre, S.F.; 4:40 p.m. Aug. 7, Piedmont Theatre, Oakland. (Not rated, 78 minutes)

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.