If the National Basketball Association (NBA) ever expands into Europe, Israel would be among the first countries stepping up for admission, says “Mr. Basketball,” Tal Brody, who remains a national hero for his prowess on the court decades ago.
Brody captained the Maccabi Tel Aviv team that won Israel’s first European Cup championship in 1977, upsetting the heavily favoured Soviet Red Army team at the height of the Cold War.
Since then, he has been pivotal in turning Israel, which was overwhelmingly a soccer-loving nation, into one mad about basketball. Its national team today is a contender on the international circuit.
Brody, 72, is now a goodwill ambassador for Israel, and recently made a whirlwind 24-hour visit to Montreal.
He was the special guest at a benefit evening for Kollel Torah MiTzion Montreal (KTM) where the 2015 Israeli documentary by Dani Menken, 77:78 On the Map, about that David vs. Goliath matchup, made its local premiere.
The title comes from Brody’s jubilant declaration after that win: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything!”
Brody has lost none of his enthusiasm, especially his belief that sports can promote peace in the Middle East and contribute to a better understanding of Israel in the world.
He demonstrated that at a gathering the following morning at the residence of Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman, in association with KTM and Maccabi Canada. Nevo Kulman introduced Brody as “the icon of a generation.”
Brody is confident Israel is good enough to make it in the world’s premiere professional basketball league. The Israelis have been playing exhibition games against NBA teams since the 1980s.
In 2005, Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the Toronto Raptors becoming the first Israeli or European team to defeat an NBA team on its home turf, he pointed out.
Born in Trenton, N.J., Brody noted that he began playing basketball at the local JCC. After an all-star college career, he was drafted by the NBA Baltimore Bullets in 1965 – 12th overall – but passed up what would likely have been a very lucrative and more famous life to play in Israel.
He had been a standout with the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel that year, and was approached by Maccabi Tel Aviv to join. Even government officials, including Moshe Dayan, persuaded him to sign on because they wanted to make the sport more popular in Israel and improve the country’s mediocre standing in European play.
Broday has no regrets.
Brody, a relatively dimunitive 6-foot-1-1/2, played with Maccabi Tel Aviv from 1966 to 1980. In the early years, he recalled games were played outside and were often cancelled due to rain or sandstorms. In Jerusalem, in the winter, players often wore gloves and training suits to ward off the cold.
Today, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s home is a modern 11,000-seat arena.
“Sports are a great peace maker and good for hasbarah. Sports open doors all over the world,” Brody said.
“When people see that Israel has Christian basketball players, including African-Americans, they relate more to that than the other things they hear. They see that Israel is a normal country.”
Brody thinks it’s fair to call Israel “the sports capital of the Middle East” today. Not only is it excelling in basketball, but also tennis, rhythmic gymnastics, swimming and even golf, he said.
“And baseball and rugby are starting. The next Maccabiah Games, in 2017, will have ice hockey.”