Israeli sports fans on Thursday began mourning the loss of Ralph Klein, perhaps the greatest basketball coach the country has ever produced. Klein was a former national team coach who also coached Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first European title in 1977. He died on Thursday morning aged 77 after a long battle with cancer. Tal Brody, one of the key players in that 1977 triumph, which included a win over Soviet powerhouse CSKA Moscow in the semifinals, paid tribute to Klein's patriotic spirit. "He was a very sentimental person who, because of his background, knew exactly how important it was to achieve and what the achievement would mean for the club, the country and Jewish people all over the world," Brody told The Jerusalem Post by telephone from his Herzliya home, describing Klein as one of the "fathers of Israeli basketball." "I always enjoyed the preparation talks we had with Ralph. They were not just professional but also very inspirational about who we are, what our team is and what it means to our country if we can win in Yugoslavia or Belgium or other places in Europe." A German Holocaust survivor, Klein began playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv soon after moving to Israel from Hungary in 1951. He played basketball in the Hungarian league after World War II until 1951 when he and his mother made aliya from Budapest. He captained Maccabi to a championship and a State Cup. Klein was also an Israel international and finished among the top five scorers at the 1959 European Championships. After 14 seasons as a player Klein turned to coaching and in 1970 was appointed as the Maccabi coach. Brody was interviewed by numerous Israeli journalists on Thursday but said he was happy to give up his time in Klein's memory. "It was a sad day, but I was very happy to see how the public related to Ralph and gave him all the honor and credit he deserved and remembered what he has done for the sport [of basketball] in Israel." Another of Klein's greatest triumphs came in 1979 when he led the Israel national team to a second place finish in the European Championships. Four years later Klein made a triumphant return to Germany when he was appointed as the country's national team coach. Former Israeli and international basketball referee Todd Warnick said he was saddened by the loss of a man who he worked with for many years when officiating Israeli league games. "Ralph's life was basketball and he made a life long contribution to the development of Israeli basketball among men, women and children," Warnick said.

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