One on One with Mac TA legend Tal Brody

"Coming to Israel was a challenge - I actually became more of a Zionist by living here."

December 6, 2006 22:30
One on One with Mac TA legend Tal Brody

tal brody 298.88. (photo credit: courtesy)

"We are on the map and we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything," said Maccabi Tel Aviv captain and shooting guard Tal Brody, when his team beat CSKA Moscow in 1977 - a victory that was by 11 points in basketball terms, but was immeasurable in terms of the patriotic spirit it aroused among the Israeli public. Nearly three decades later, that spirit may have dimmed somewhat. But Brody's famous statement - blurted out in American-accented Hebrew - has taken on a life of its own. In the realm of popular culture, it is a slogan/idiom that, like its author, has retained its American accent. Meeting Brody today, one is struck by his linguistical resemblance to late prime minister Golda Meir, about whom it was said that she had an American accent in Hebrew, and an Israeli accent in English. One is also taken aback by the 63-year-old's extremely youthful appearance, and the youthful enthusiasm with which he waxes poetic about Israel. Having just returned home after being taped on Sigal Shachmon's Channel 10 morning show, Mashehu Tov ("Something Good"), Brody, 187 cm., is still in makeup when he answers the door of his Herzliya Pituah house. Half-apologizing for not having had the chance to wash his face, he flashes a boyish grin and praises Shachmon for stressing the positive side of Israeli society. "There are so many beautiful people and stories out there," he says wistfully, "and it pains me to see us spend so much time on criticizing each other in a destructive, not constructive, way." Whether this attitude was a contributing factor in his being the first athlete to receive the Israel Prize (in 1979) is questionable. But his ongoing investment of time and energy in charitable organizations and community work certainly lends credence to his self-proclaimed attraction to challenges, among them having made aliya in the first place. "It was more than just a Zionist thing," he says, thoughtfully. "I actually became more of a Zionist by living here." Which makes sense, since how the boy who hailed from Trenton, New Jersey came to live in this country had to do with his up-and-coming career, while his subsequent settling down in the Holy Land involved more than the basketball court. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Brody was selected 13th in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by the Baltimore Bullets, and led the US team to a gold medal in the 1965 Maccabiah Games. His stellar performance prompted Maccabi Tel Aviv to offer him a job - and Moshe Dayan to ask him to stay in Israel. A year later, after finishing his master's degree in educational psychology, Brody returned to play for Maccabi, but again went back to the US to do his military service, during which he played for the US Army all-star team - something he would later repeat as a draftee in the Israel Air Force, organizing sports days for pilots. For the next decade, until 1980, Brody played for and became synonymous with Maccabi. Since then, his celebrity has taken on a different shape, as has his vocation. He is currently the head of an insurance company - which, he says, provides him with the financial stability and free time he needs to pursue his other endeavors, all of which are connected to using sports as a tool for - well - Zionism. "I'm out in the public," he says. "Whether it's the Bnei Herzliya youth basketball program for kids from age five-18; doing a program for AKIM or the Special Olympics; the Maccabi World Union; helping with the Maccabiah or with Ruah Israelit [Spirit of Israel], which raises money for kids at risk; I'm on the board of the Jewish Agency's Bayit Beyahad [Together at Home] project, which has a great turnout of Israeli families willing to mentor immigrant children." Whatever else has changed in his life, however, one thing seems to remain constant: Brody still attends all Maccabi games - albeit as a spectator. When you were a player, and Maccabi Tel Aviv put Israel "on the map," you and your teammates became such big celebrities that even people who didn't follow basketball knew who you were. Since then, most of the top players here are from Europe or America, aren't Jewish and don't stick around very long. Doesn't this phenomenon put somewhat of a damper on the patriotism involved in rooting for a national team? Not really. It's just the way things are done now. Because teams want to win, they try to buy the best players. The reason my teammates and I were so well-known was that we were a core group that played together for a long time. Today, the system is different. There's a lot of movement, with players going to other teams regularly. Doesn't that disrupt the chemistry between the players? I'm sure it has somewhat of an effect. But because the seasons are from August-September until April-May-June, depending on how good your team is, you have a lot of practices together. You have to work at it, because you're often playing with someone who was on an opposing team the season before. Are you still close with the core group of your teammates? Yes. We get together in the veteran games. What about in your personal lives? Did you socialize with each other and know each other's wives and children? Yes. But don't forget that in sports, you're often in competition with the members of your own team, too. You're working together, but everyone wants to be on the court playing. This is especially true when you're a star player, and you know that the guy sitting in back of you wants to play as much as you do. On the other hand, there's also respect, which sometimes overcomes feelings of envy and animosity. It's natural. Everybody wants to be out there - to be "The Man." But not everybody can be in that role. And then there's the media to contend with: One day, they're building one guy up while putting another down and vice versa. So, that's another factor you have to deal with. Does envy ever make its way onto the court? Are there cases of players not passing the ball when they should, for example, in an effort to outshine other players - and then screwing up the play? Definitely. But it's the job of the coach to sort that thing out. I remember coaches I had in high school saying, "Don't forget, guys, the people you meet going up the ladder are the same ones you'll meet on your way down." Ultimately, it's a question of maturity. The more mature a player is, the better he can put this stuff into perspective. A mature player can handle all the attention better. He understands that he's got to take his celebrity in a good way, and always be respectful, particularly with kids. And with women? Is all that attention and celebrity a problem - with groupies, for example? Sometimes. But I would say that 99.9 percent of the players are aware of it and therefore cautious. Is behavior around women something talked about by the coaches? Oh yeah. But more with young players, early on. The younger you are, the more your hormones are working, and the less able you are not to take advantage of a situation. There have been more than a few players who, at a very young age, got a girl pregnant, and years ago, there used to be real pressure to marry a girl you got pregnant. And when you get into that situation in high school or college, it sort of destroys your career. So, a guy who wants to be a star is aware of all these pitfalls. It's the way he's coached. Without a good coach, he's more liable to have a problem. Which is different from an older player meeting his life partner; that's normal and healthy. Speaking of which, where did you meet your wife? We met at the Sonesta Hotel in Taba - during its last days before being transferred to Egypt. I went down there to judge a Hawaiian Tropic beauty contest; Tirtza was there with a girlfriend. We were both divorced. She was sitting on the other side of the stage. And everybody asked me why I wasn't looking at the girls on the stage. Well, it was because I was looking at Tirtza, who was a lot more interesting than the 16-year-old girls on the stage. We met for a cocktail after that. The next day, she disappeared. It turned out that she'd gone back to Tel Aviv. Her girlfriend didn't want to give me her number. But I remembered her saying that she worked for a company that supplied frozen foods to chain stores. So, when I got back home to Herzliya, I put sunglasses on and went down to the buyer for the chef at the Acadia Hotel and told him that I had a friend who was opening up a frozen food market and who was looking for a good company that sells frozen foods. And the guy gave me the number of Tirtza's company. So I called her and we went out. We were married on 3/3/93. We both have children from our first marriages, and now I have three grandchildren. You came to Israel mainly to play basketball. Unlike many players, you stayed, built a life here and are involved in all kinds of Zionist endeavors. Is this connected to your upbringing? I wouldn't say that my household was Zionist, but it was certainly traditionally Jewish. We kept kosher at home. We went to synagogue on the High Holy Days. But my father kept his [hardware] store open on Shabbat. Also, before coming to the US, my father spent three years in Israel, and my grandfather spent 10 years here. Anyway, I've always liked challenges. Coming to Israel was a challenge - more than just a Zionist thing. I actually became more of a Zionist by living here. But I was always proud of being Jewish, on and off the basketball court. Wasn't it unusual for an American-Jewish boy to become a professional athlete? Jokes abound on this topic, such as: the shortest book in the world being about Jews in sports; and the definition of bar mitzva being "the age at which a Jewish male realizes he's got a much better chance of owning a team than playing on one." The farther back you go, the more Jewish athletes there were - in boxing, in baseball, in basketball... that's been decreasing, especially over the last decade. We've been holding our own in swimming, but in the team sports, like basketball, there's been a decline. I'm on the Maccabi World Union that organizes the Maccabiah games, and we're looking at how we can return to our previous level. What caused this decline? I think it's because Jews are involved in so many things today - like the computer industry - so they're less involved in sports. Also, Jews no longer need sports to get them out of the ghetto. If you go look at Jewish history, you can see how sports was one of the ways Jews progressed, like [basketball's] Dolph Shayes and [baseball's] Sandy Koufax. You still have Jewish athletes, of course, but you don't find an abundance the way you used to, certainly not in basketball. What about the next generation in Israel? In your basketball program, Bnei Herzliya, do you see tendencies among kids from certain ethnic backgrounds to excel at basketball more than others? Yes. The kids from families who immigrated from Russia enter the basketball program a lot more easily than those whose families are from Ethiopia. It's a question of size, for one thing, and physical ability. But it's also got to do with mentality. In Russia, basketball is very popular. In Ethiopia, it's athletics - their athletes tend to be runners. Still, there are Ethiopian kids in our program. Let's talk about local basketball from a spectator point of view. I heard that fans in this country are so loyal to their teams that they wish others ill - that Hapoel fans even rooted against Maccabi Tel Aviv when it played against Moscow. Do you think that's odd? It's not odd; it's sickening. I rooted for Hapoel Jerusalem when it played in the European Cup. In fact, I was watching that game [backstage] while waiting to go on a TV program, and when they called my name and told me I had to go on the air, I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, the game's almost over." Then, when Hapoel Jerusalem won second place, I cheered. I was proud of them as my country's team, even though at that time, they were real competition for Maccabi. There are fans like the ones you described. But the majority aren't like that. And the players themselves certainly aren't like that. The players don't identify with that kind of behavior. They think it's ridiculous. Is there a way to counteract it? Yes, through the clubs themselves. I know that we do it with Maccabi. There are always certain people [fans] who just lose it, you know. They're not coming from a sports background. They don't realize that the mentality of a sportsman is not like that. Sportsmen win some and lose some, but they have respect [for each other]. You mean, they compete with each other, but are not at war. When you're on that court, you're at war. Nobody likes to lose. But, for example, if you look at the game we played against the Soviet Union [the semi-final win over CSKA Moscow - the game that had symbolic significance for Israelis, who felt they'd gotten a kind of sweet revenge against the Soviets. It was after this game that Brody made his famous "We are on the map" statement.]... all those years prior to it, the Russians didn't even want to play us - they were [politically] against Israel and supported all our enemies. [Because the Russian team refused to come to Israel or host the Israeli team in Moscow, the game was played in Virton, Belgium.] But after our victory, there was a dinner for all of us, and we talked. Their loss didn't make them hate us; it gained us their respect. After that, their veterans came to Israel, and we went to Russia. To this day, we've had a nice relationship with the players from CSKA. Who is your favorite basketball player of all time? I'm a guard, so from among the guards, I would say Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. But, among the others, [center] Wilt Chamberlain. The all-time best I'd have to say is Michael Jordan, in terms of his overall abilities and versatility. Is there a player in Israel who blows you away - someone you think is going to become a real star? I think you have some good talent today in Israel. Lior Eliyahu has the best potential of all the Israelis of getting into the NBA. [Eliyahu is a forward who was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 44th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, and was later traded to the Houston Rockets. But he signed a contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and is currently finishing his IDF service.] He has to work on his shooting from the outside a little bit, and on building up his physical strength, but he has flexibility and mobility. He's got an excellent chance. In general, Israelis are getting better and better, because there are basketball schools here now. It's become a real national sport. As much as soccer? More. Well, maybe not more in terms of the spectator public, but in terms of participant success. Our basketball coaches are in demand all over Europe, and our basketball players are also in demand there. This wasn't true in the past. If our game weren't progressing, why would they be bidding for our coaches and players? The respect from the rest of the world looking at Israeli basketball has been greater than it has in soccer. Is it better or worse for national sports when there's a greater variety? Would you be happy if baseball took off in this country, for example? I think that anything that gives people, especially youth, something to hook onto is great. Not everybody loves basketball or soccer. And we do have a lot of immigrants coming to Israel, including from the United States. The [baseball] mentality is there. It could catch on. But for it to be really successful [in Israel], Europe would somehow have to be more baseball-oriented. Then there could be international competitions which Israelis could rally around. That's what happened with basketball. Even though it existed here, it wasn't until we were successful competing against good European teams that people who hadn't taken an interest in the sport beforehand began to pay attention to it. If it remains a sport that only has competitions between, say, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it will be more problematic, since native-born Israelis don't have baseball as part of their mentality. And it's not clear how many schools are going to be able to put in fields. Maccabi has been criticized, both by the media and by other clubs, for many problems on the local basketball scene, chief among them its automatic dominance, due to its large budget. What's your take on this? I don't think that today, the level of play is a function of budget. Take Bnei Hasharon, for example, whose budget is lower than that of Jerusalem and about the same as that of the other teams. But still, its level is not much different from that of Maccabi Tel Aviv. And that's not the only team that's going to give Maccabi a run for its money. The caliber of players on those teams means that Maccabi's going to have to play really well in order to win - not just walk through the games. The newspapers may criticize Maccabi Tel Aviv, but they have to keep in mind that today, the Europeans need Maccabi Tel Aviv as much as Israel needs Europe, in order to keep the interest-level for basketball high in Europe. Without Maccabi Tel Aviv in the European finals, you can't fill an 8,000-seat stadium. Maccabi is definitely now a big part of the Euroleague. The way the Euroleague works, we also finance the other teams, because we're able to bring in so much [revenue] from TV commercials. As far as Maccabi Tel Aviv's always being one step ahead of the others [is concerned]: Still, they lost a game in Herzliya. Nobody is undefeatable.

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