Sunday night was a hectic one for many Israelis.
Juggling between supervising their children’s Lag Ba’omer fires and trying to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play Real Madrid in the Euroleague championship game was a quintessentially Israeli experience.
Judging from its track record during the 2013-2014 season, no one could have imagined that Maccabi would take the championship. The yellow-and-blue’s loss to Nes Ziona was one of the team’s low moments and seemed to be a harbinger of more to come. The situation was so bad that coach David Blatt’s future at Maccabi was uncertain. That Maccabi was the underdog going into the game against Real Madrid was an understatement. Real Madrid had won all of the games the two played during the season. For the past eight years Maccabi has failed to return to its former glory as champion of Europe.
This makes Maccabi’s victory against Real Madrid in Milan Sunday all the more amazing and exhilarating.
Overnight, Maccabi has once again become a national symbol of pride. For a short time a truly miraculous victory has brought Israelis together.
True, not all of us follow Maccabi Tel Aviv. Not all of us are interested in basketball or in any kind of sport.
Even those of us who are real basketball aficionados are unable to truly feel joy and pride for Maccabi. Some fans of rival Hapoel Tel Aviv, for instance, are downright antagonistic. Others focus on the fact that many of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players are not even Israelis.
It is rare in this era of multichannel cable TV and Internet that a single event captures the imagination of an entire nation. Our attention spans are short, split as they are among a myriad of media diversions. True, TV viewer ratings for the game were high at 32 percent or around 840,000 viewers – not including those who watched it on various Internet platforms. But an episode of Big Brother or some other popular reality TV show receives similar ratings. It used to be, back in the days when there was a single TV station, that practically the entire nation was united by watching a single sports event.
So it was heartwarming to hear the communal roars coming from open living room windows when the clock ran out and the realization hit viewers around the country that Maccabi had earned champion status.
Objectively speaking, Maccabi’s win against Real Madrid, while exciting, cannot be compared to the tremendously symbolic victory of Maccabi over CSKA Moscow back in 1977. That victory extended beyond the boundaries of the basketball court to the political realm. Not only did it pit the free West against the Communist East, the Soviet Union was Israel’s enemy and supplied arms to Arab nations that had repeatedly tried to destroy it. The 1977 game was a bout between an Israeli David with four million inhabitants and a Soviet Goliath with 290 million.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the celebratory atmosphere that has taken over the nation since last night’s upset. Israel is once again “on the map,” to borrow from Tal Brody’s legendary statement after the 1977 victory over CSKA. President Shimon Peres called to congratulate Maccabi’s players, joking that they nearly gave him a heart attack. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged Blatt to stay on as Maccabi’s coach. Thousands converged on Rabin Square to celebrate. Bars across the nation were packed. Shouts of joy pierced the air in nearly every neighborhood in Israel. Thousands who normally do not follow Israeli basketball rejoiced out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow sports fans.
While it is always pleasant to win, Israel is not in need of a basketball victory to serve as a reaffirmation that the Jewish state is “on the map” and is “staying on the map, not just in sports but in everything,” as Brody so memorably declared 37 years ago. Over the past 66 years Israel has made tremendous contributions to humanity in nearly every field, from science and technology to culture and sport. It has rejuvenated Jewish life and constructed a society with one of the highest standards of living in the world. And it has done this and more while facing formidable challenges.
If it takes a victory by an Israeli basketball team to remind us of all this and inject a dose of patriotism into the country’s citizens, then bring on some more victories.