I came to Israel to play basketball, but I stayed in Israel because I loved the country and became very Zionistic.

And it all started with the Maccabiah.

The Maccabiah definitely changed my life. It changed my goals in life. I dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA as a kid and I realized one dream by coming out of college and being the 12th selection by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1965 NBA draft. I went to the rookie camp and was given a nice apartment in Baltimore, but all of a sudden came the Maccabiah Games. I asked Bullets owner Abe Pollin if I could go to Israel and play for Maccabi USA. At that time there were only nine teams in the NBA and I thought Baltimore was overloaded with guards and I wanted them to trade me to Philadelphia. I was in a situation which was ideal for me to come to the Maccabiah.

What we used to learn in Sunday school unfolded before my eyes when we traveled around Israel. I felt part of that history and felt proud of that history. The Israeli culture was also completely different to what I thought it would be like. At that time, there was no television in Israel and we saw very little of Israel in the US. The country wasn’t like we studied in Hebrew school. It had a very vivid cultural and social life. It was a fun country and all these things struck me when Maccabi Tel Aviv offered me a contract.

Maccabi presented me with a challenge. They said the country is in a recession, the people aren’t smiling, and there are Arab boycotts all around us and our basketball team has never got past the first round of European competition. They said that I could take the team to a different level. That challenge was appealing to me. The fact that the Bullets didn’t want to make a trade and wanted me to come back for the preseason camp, combined with the challenge from Maccabi, which I found inspiring as a Jew and as an athlete, resulted in me talking to the Bullets and telling them that I want to take a year out of my life to get my Masters degree and then I want to go to Israel and play a year with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

What happened to me that first year was amazing. It was unbelievable to see the reaction as our team went past the first and second rounds and playing behind the Iron Curtain and seeing what that did to the local Jewish community. To see how proud they were that an Israeli team could come in and win against their national team. I saw that basketball could have a greater meaning than just playing in the NBA. I saw with my eyes what happened to a country that was in a recession as our team went all the way to the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1967. I saw what it meant to the country and how the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan wanted to come to our games.

Winning the European championship title in 1977 was the fulfillment of a dream, Taking a team that never got past the first round and claiming the continental title with it was a milestone accomplishment.

There were only 25 countries and 1,250 athletes participating when I came for the 1965 Maccabiah Games and this summer there will be nearly 80 countries and 9,000 Jewish athletes.

I’ve been associated with every Maccabiah in the past 48 years and I believe the Games have an important role in building love for Israel. I believe that even if the participants don’t make Aliya to Israel, they go back home as ambassadors of Israel. They see Israel for what it really is and not as it is portrayed in demonstrations by anti-Israeli protesters. They get a realistic view of Israel and they develop that love for the country and feel part of it.

To you the athletes I say: take the whole experience. Of course you want to record your achievements and do the best that you can and maybe even win a medal. But make sure that you visit the country, see the people, see the social and cultural life and feel that you are part of this nation that is called Israel.

Look what you can benefit from the experience and take it home with you. Whether you are going to make Aliya or not, at least you should feel that you are able to stand up for Israel wherever you are in the world.

Tal Brody became the first sportsman to be awarded the Israel Prize in 1979 after helping Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first European Championship title in 1977. His influence on Israeli basketball is incalculable and he coined what is without a doubt Israeli sports’ most celebrated quotation following Maccabi’s victory over CSKA Moscow en route to the final: “We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.”

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