Maccabi Tel Aviv BC is mainly known in the U.S. as the team David Blatt took to a Euroleague Championship before he landed in Cleveland as head coach of the Cavaliers, his first job in the NBA, from which he was fired in January. Jewish-American fans of the NBA may also possibly recall that Omri Casspi grew up with the Israeli club before being drafted in 2009 by the Sacramento Kings. But to know the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team only through the lens of Blatt and Casspi is a bit of a shame. In fact, in Israel, locals usually refer to the squad simply as “Maccabi”—it’s the only Maccabi club worth mentioning.
To fully understand the unique position Maccabi has within Israeli culture, one must understand the blowing winds of the time. During the Cold War, the Middle East was a proxy battleground between America and the Soviet Union; Israel was on the opposite side of the USSR, which was aligned with Arab nations. Then, in 1977, worlds collided: the mighty Soviet basketball team, CSKA, was matched up against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the EuroCup Semifinals at a time when the countries had no diplomatic ties.
This match-up, highlighted by an unforgettable quote from Maccabi star Tal Brody, and the entire 1976-7 Maccabi Tel Aviv season, is the subject of On The Map, a documentary from Dani Menkin, an Israeli filmmaker, that’s currently in production. Among the film’s interviewees are Brody, who was later drafted to the NBA (he never played), my father Bob Griffin, and NCAA and NBA great Bill Walton, who played with Brody on Team USA at the 1970 FIBA World Championship.
The teams agreed to play on neutral ground, in Virton, Belgium. The Israeli papers hyped up the match—”The Fight Between David and Goliath,” read one headline, referring to the powerhouse Red Army team, which had won the FIBA Euro Cup Championship in 1961, 1963, 1969 and 1971. On February 17, 1977, all of Israel tuned in to watch Maccabi.
Maccabi was led by Brody (“Mr. Basketball,” as he is sometimes called) and Griffin, the team’s point guard. Even though the Soviets were favored to win, Maccabi tried to get into a winning mindset by watching tape of CSKA’s last game in the locker room before the game. Head coach Ralph Klein reportedly told his players, “We are fighting for our country as well as for thousands of Jews who cannot immigrate to Israel because of Soviet policy. Let’s beat the Soviet bear.”
And when Maccabi walked onto hardwood, they began to believe even more.
Upon entering the small Belgian gym, Brody said the Soviet players seemed surprised. “I saw the faces of these guys,” said Brody, a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. “They were shell shocked. It was like we were at the Yad (Maccabi’s arena in Israel). [There were] Israeli flags all over. People were singing ‘Am Israel Chai.’ The adrenaline picked us up.”
Nobody beats Real in Madrid.”
After Maccabi ran up a 12-3 advantage early on, the crowd became even more enamored by the underdogs from Tel Aviv. Even as the mighty Red Army team came back to take a 26-24 lead, Sergie Belov, CSKA’s star, recalled to Brody years later at an NBA All-Star game, that “only the KGB was rooting for us that night.”
By halftime, Maccabi had the lead again, 41-38. In the second half, they didn’t look back and held their edge against the Goliaths. The final score: Maccabi 91, CSKA 79.
After the game Brody, the messiah of Israeli basketball, and recent Naismith Hall of Fame Nominee, was interviewed. His short quote is now ingrained in the collective memory of every Israeli since it was uttered in 1977. “We are on the map!” Brody said, electrically. “And we are staying on the map–not only in sports, but in everything.”
Maccabi would eventually win the 1977 Euro Cup, defeating Mobilgirgi Varèse by one point. But it was the win against the Russians that was most important. You see, this game was about so much more than basketball. The Maccabi win over the Russians provided a fresh air of hope for the people of Israel who were still healing from the Yom Kippur War. The young nation, comprised of Jewish-Arab refugees, Holocaust survivors, and European immigrants, and so many more, was fighting for its right to exist, legitimately, as it had for decades. When Brody celebrated, the nation of Israel celebrated on the streets. Losing was no longer an option for Israel.
When my family returned to Israel in the late ’80s, I couldn’t speak Hebrew. I focused on learning how to ask the important questions, like locating bathrooms, and getting rid of my horrible accent so the other kids at school would stop bullying me. And I couldn’t understand why adults kept asking me about my last name.
One day, I found an old box full of Hebrew newspaper clippings from the 1970s that were filled with important headlines, such as those announcing Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation and Moshe Dayan’s rise to Foreign Minister. I felt like I had discovered a private archive of Israeli culture just for me, intended to help me adapt and make sense of my alien surroundings.
Within that box and printed among those same yellowed pages, were headlines about a specific national focus that would influence me perhaps most of all: Israeli basketball club Maccabi Tel Aviv. At the time I had spent a majority of my entire childhood in America (I grew up a Boston Celtics fan), yet I had absolutely no idea about the impact the basketball club had had on Israeli culture.
Inside that box was another treasure. As I sifted through it, everything started to click as the piles of dusty paper accumulated on the floor around me. At ten years old, I knew my father was an academic and researcher, and that he was a huge basketball fan, so it made sense to me that he would save these historic artifacts. But as I read articles about Tel Aviv Maccabi, I wasn’t prepared to learn that my father had actually played for the team, and was a part of the 1977 championship that would forever change Israel’s national identity, and shape Israeli and European basketball for decades to come.
It has also impacted my identity because I know that Maccabi’s win—and Israel—runs through my blood.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Tal Brody played in the NBA. He was drafted 12th overall in the 1965 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets, now known as the Washington Wizards, but he did not play a game in the NBA—regular season or playoffs—opting instead to play professional basketball in Israel.
Becky Griffin is a native Israeli Columnist, Broadcast Journalist, and Digital Media Consultant based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @dorothyofisrael.