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(photo credit: courtesy)
When you walk into the Naismith Memorial Baketball Hall of Fame, you expect to see videos, jerseys and sneakers of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain; not necessarily anything belonging to Tal Brody and Mickey Berkowitz.
But starting Sunday, the magic of Maccabi Tel Aviv will be celebrated in Springfield, Massachusetts, alongside dominating NBA teams like the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.
While back in Israel the team in yellow has been going through its worst ever season, in the US the club's incredible success will be highlighted.
Maccabi has won the Israeli league every year since 1969 apart from 1993 and won five European titles, making it the winningest team in Israeli sport.
On Sunday the Hall of Fame's new exhibit honoring Maccabi will open with a special "Hoop it up for Israel" event featuring Brody, Berkowitz and team chairman Shimon Mizrahi.
The 500 square-foot exhibit in the corner of the museum's second floor is larger than the space devoted to the entirety of international basketball. It is set to run until the end of December but could remain after that if it proves especially popular.
The idea for the exhibit came from Grae Sibelman, who directs the community relations department and the Anna P. Housen Israel Desk of Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. Sibelman said she hoped the exhibit would present a different face of Israel.
"When I moved here I decided that I had to make a connection between Maccabi and the Hall of Fame, and the celebration of Israel's 60th birthday made it the right time," Sibelman said.
"A lot of this was done for Israel's public relations. We saw this as an amazing way to improve Israel's public relations and package Israel to the world in a different kind of context."
The exhibit features the 2001 European Basketball League cup that Maccabi won, tributes to Brody and Berkowitz, jerseys, shoes, balls and a video on Maccabi history produced by the NBA.
It also includes a panel and video on what Israel is doing to make the world a better place and a section on Maccabi players who later excelled in the NBA and vice versa.
Hall of Fame historian and archivist Matt Zeysing said the museum decided to open an exhibit about Maccabi Tel Aviv instead of marking the 60th anniversary of the Lakers.
Zeysing, who is not Jewish, said learning about Maccabi changed his perspective about its place in basketball history.
"This exhibit has been an eye-opener for me," Zeysing said. "It is a celebration of Maccabi and its importance to Israel and to the game of basketball worldwide."
The exhibit on Brody tells the story of Maccabi's historic win over powerful CSKA Moscow in the 1977 Euroleague basketball semifinal in which Brody famously said in his American-accented Hebrew, "We are on the map and we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything."
The win was seen as a defeat by Israel of the Soviet Union that armed and supported many of its enemies during the Cold War and Maccabi went on to beat Mobilgirgi Varese in the final for its first European trophy.
"Sports is so much more than what happens on the court and nowhere is that more true than with the story of Maccabi Tel Aviv defeating CSKA in that game," Zeysing said. "It proved that Israel really did belong, despite the people who did not want Israel to compete. When you win, you cannot be ignored."
The hall already profiles several Jews who had an important impact on the development of professional basketball, including Harlem Globetrotter founder Abe Saperstein and Eddie "The Mogul" Gottleib, who coached a South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team that won seven Basketball Association of America titles and was the architect of the merger between two leagues that came together to form the NBA.
Now the hall also honors Brody, the New Jersey native and Israel Prize winner who led Maccabi to 10 championships in the Israeli Premier League, and Berkowitz, who won 17 Israeli championships in 17 seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
"I am proud to be an Israeli when I see Israel included in the Hall of Fame, it gives me goosebumps," Berkowitz said. "I thank the people who chose Maccabi and myself as symbols for my country and for Israeli sports."