“Finally the Jewish teams are kicking ass.”
Can a sports team be the catalyst that not only unites a nation but also gives it a sense of the nation’s place in the world? On the Map asks us to consider the role the Israeli basketball team Macabbi Tel Aviv had in showing the world what Israel was capable of.
For those of us who think mainly of the NBA if we think of basketball at all, we may not recognize just how international the game has become. Popularity of the game grew rapidly in Europe after World War II and soon there was a European Championship that was dominated by Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. Israel could never make it past the first round. In the 1960s an American player, Tal Brody, passed up an NBA career (he was drafted #12 overall) to play for Macabbi Tel Aviv. Soon other American’s followed. In 1977 everything came together and the team made a run for the championship. The story of that season is told by the members of the team and others (including NBA star Bill Walton and former NBA Commission David Stern) along with archival footage of some of the games.
Some history is needed to understand the context of this team’s story. The world watched in horror as Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 1973 Israel faced the Yom Kippur War. A hijacked airliner led to the Entebbe raid in 1976. Forty years ago Israel was struggling with survival. When Macabbi Tel Aviv had a chance for a good showing in the championship, it became something other than war for the nation to rally around. That is not to say there weren’t political implications. When Macabbi was scheduled to play the Soviet Red Army team, the Soviets at first refused because they had no diplomatic relations with Israel. The game was finally played at a neutral site in a small town in Belgium. That game in particular is given attention not just because the Soviets were such a good team, but also because this was a period of Soviet oppression of Jews. The game took on a touch of geopolitical ramifications. It was after that game that Tal Brody said that it had put Israel “on the map”, not just in sports but in everything.
The American equivalent of this story is probably the US gold medal in ice hockey that took place just the year before this story (and also involved beating the Soviets). To be fair, Americans are used to being the best in sports. We take pride in being at or near the top in Olympic medals. Still, for a country that is struggling not just in sports but for its very survival, a victory such as Macabbi Tel Aviv provided can give a new sense of pride and new hope of what the future can hold. It is a reminder that sometimes sports are not just something we can watch and enjoy. Sometimes those games can speak to us emotionally and even spiritually.
Photos courtesy of Hey Jude Productions