It wasn’t just the press that was yellow this week. Tel Aviv was yellow; Israel was yellow.
“All Europe is yellow,” the fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv sang to an approximation of the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”
You can’t blame supporters of the basketball club going to town – or going on the town – with the revelries. It’s not every day their team wins the Euroleague Final Four – the crowning glory of basketball in this part of the world. In fact, it’s so far from being an annual occurrence that older Israelis, even those who don’t follow sports, can tell you where they were the first time it happened – in 1977.
Actually, Maccabi Tel Aviv BC initially made its name in a David-versus-Goliath game in the 1977 European cup semifinals when it beat the Red Army, or at least CSKA Moscow. That was when Maccabi player Tal Brody created the Hebrew catchphrase “Anahnu al hamapa ve’anahnu nisharim al hamapa...” (“We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map. Not just in sports, but in everything.”) I also quote it frequently, albeit without Brody’s American accent. And when you think how far the country has come since those days, Brody could be considered a “net prophet.”
This week was the first time the team managed to claim the Euroleague title since 2005, and we (permit me to use the first person plural here) were again considered the underdogs.
Usually I can tell when a major triumph like this has taken place by the unmistakable roar that travels through the generally open windows in my neighborhood; but on May 18, it seemed like the country was on fire.
Most of my neighbors kept their windows shut because of the smell of Lag Ba’omer bonfires.
In an extraordinary turn of good fortune, the game against Real Madrid in Milan took place on a night between the Passover and Shavuot festivals when Jews hold celebrations, and news of the win – 98-86 in overtime – traveled fast, in a way reminiscent of the bonfires lit in ancient times to pass important information along from hilltop to hilltop.
Throughout the country, fathers escorting younger children to campfires were torn between watching their offspring and racing home to catch the end of the nail-biting game.
Wags quipped that the real competition was who would call the team first to congratulate them: President Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Peres, who long ago managed to get over his label as a loser, beat the prime minister, but it was close. And as they say in every major game, “It ain’t over till it’s over”; Peres and the premier continued to rival each other in their compliments and hosting of the team.) The celebrations literally lit up Tel Aviv: City Hall was illuminated in yellow and blue and the water in the fountains in Rabin Square, where thousands of fans rowdily gathered, also flowed in the team colors.
A television report on the celebrations, which carried on for days, revealed a culinary tribute: A kibbutz served a yellow-andblue rice dish – a double compliment: not only to the Maccabi colors but also a play on the name of Tyrese Rice, the Final Four MVP.
Whenever the team wins, we are all Maccabi Tel Aviv.
I’M GENERALLY a good sport, but appallingly bad at sports. My only attempt at basketball, soon after my arrival in 1979, was an utter failure. Not only was my five-foot frame (1.5 meters) dwarfed by other players but I didn’t know the rules and played according to the way I had been taught netball, like all girls who studied in the English school system: Don’t hold the ball more than three seconds; don’t take more than one step with the ball; and never let the ball touch the ground no matter what.
I still don’t know basketball regulations, although as I evidently infringed most of them, I did learn some peculiarly colloquial Hebrew that I won’t share in a family paper.
Nonetheless, the names of the Maccabi players of the time – Tal Brody, Doron Jamchi, Miki Berkovich, Motti Aroesti, Earl Williams and Aulcie Perry – were part of the Hebrew lexicon, and I picked them up as naturally as Brody’s expression.
Coaches including Ralph Klein, Zvi Sherf, Pini Gershon and David Blatt have become familiar over the years. Blatt, like Brody, has become a source of particular pride for American immigrants to Israel, although in the international world of sport, Blatt has coached many rival teams and led the Russian team to a bronze medal in the last Olympics.
During my military service in the early 1980s, my unit noticed that on the night of a big game – either basketball or soccer – there would be relative quiet, as long as the Russians were playing. The Cold War played out at sporting events; the Arab-Israeli conflict, too. Nobody wanted to take time out from watching a fast-changing game to fire a few rockets on Israel from Lebanon.
It’s easy to dream of a world united in sport but ironically, Blatt’s career notwithstanding, the major sporting events have led me to conclude that there will always be wars: Sporting identities are nothing if not tribal (and permit me here to gloat that as a member of an Arsenal-supporting family, I had double the reason to be pleased this week).
For all the talk of a united Europe, when it comes down to it, the average man (yes, particularly men) still thinks in terms of his country’s team, his city’s team and his neighborhood team.
While Israelis were basking in being on the map, our enemies were mourning that we hadn’t been wiped off it as a people long ago.
Jerusalem Post staff picked up on a story in the Spanish daily El Pais which reported that some 18,000 offensive messages were posted on Twitter by disappointed supporters of Real Madrid who were really, really bad losers.
“Now I understand hitler [sic] and his hate for the Jews...,” tweeted one user, who apparently hasn’t got the message that it’s only a game (or as we say in Hebrew, when we lose, “Zeh rak sport,” “It’s only sport”).
Others suggested that instead of basketball courts, our place as Jews is in gas ovens.
It’s responses like these that give Maccabi extra meaning: The Maccabi sports organization was founded in 1921 as a clear antidote to Diaspora mentality and image, in part to offer a home to Jews who were banned from so many clubs throughout Europe. Its name is the ancient battle cry of the Maccabeans.
The Tel Aviv club’s official name today is Maccabi Electra; having fans from the president down is one thing, but no club can survive without commercial sponsorship. It doesn’t matter which sponsor’s name adorns the players’ shirts (it used to be Elite before Electra took over) for ordinary Israelis, Maccabi is just Maccabi. And Maccabi is the name of the game.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.