Arik Henig and Michael Jordan in 1984.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For all the talk about Omri Casspi being the first Israeli player in the NBA and David Blatt being the first Israeli coach on the biggest stage world basketball has to offer, there was another Israeli who was a major player long before them.
Arik Henig celebrated 30 years of cooperation with the NBA last year, a landmark he marked on the occasion of outgoing commissioner David Stern being replaced by Adam Silver.
“When Adam took over from David, Stern told him: ‘I’m giving you a present, it is Arik Henig,’” was how Henig described the scene at the commissioner’s office.
Henig is the man in charge of introducing the NBA to local sports fans for the last three decades as the association’s Israeli representative.
He has been involved in many other projects, producing a handful of successful TV documentaries, including Everything is Personal, about the complex relationship between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and aired annually on the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination; The Pioneer, about Israeli NBA star Omri Casspi; The Holy Cup, about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s journey to the Final Four in Thessaloniki in 2007 and adapting and serving as executive producer for the popular Keshet/Channel 2 reality game show Monit Hakesef (Cash Cab).
Henig will publish a book about his 30 years in the NBA in the coming months, an adventure which started 31 years ago.
“October 1984 was the greatest month of my life,” he said. “I was a freelance journalist and someone suggested I do an article about David Stern who was replacing Larry O’brien as NBA commissioner. I interviewed him and there was chemistry between us. He told me that he can’t compete with baseball and football in the US and he wants to make the NBA global. I suggested that we run a pilot program in Israel. He was skeptic but he agreed.”
Henig brought Stern to Israel for a monthlong trip and the rest is history.
Stern and Henig continued their discussion and relationship over the next few years, and from 1990 to 1993, Henig was authorized by the NBA to broadcast games on the then-experimental Channel 2 late at night.
At that time, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were dazzling the world with a series of world championships.
Henig would host pre-game shows and travel to the US for All-Star games and the Finals, bringing Israeli viewers firsthand interviews with Jordan, Magic Johnson and other superstars of the day.
“I haven’t done an NBA broadcast since 1993, and people still come up to me on the street and say, ‘I grew up with you and learned about the NBA from you,’” he said. “It’s all due to me that the NBA is so big here.”
The NBA and his relationship with Stern proved to be a door opener: He became the official NBA representative in Israel, organizing exhibition games, setting up training clinics with the likes of Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and playing a role in the Israel visits of stars like the New York Knicks’ Amare Stoudemire.
Stoudemire went on to become a part-owner of Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club.
“I never thought that the NBA could be such a global success but I quickly learned that nothing stands in Stern’s way,” explained Henig.
“I don’t think even he dreamed that it could be such a success. The finals weren’t even broadcast live in the US when he took over and now it is live in hundreds of countries across the world.”
Henig, who plans on bringing Stern back to Israel as part of his speaking tour, has also set up a charity which sends sick children and injured IDF soldiers to watch NBA games firsthand in the US. He says that everything he has achieved in his professional career began with that fateful meeting with Stern. Henig has plenty to be proud of, but he is far from content. “I’m looking forward to another 30