A combination of his accomplishment on the court and class off it have made Mickey Berkowitz Israel’s ultimate sporting legend.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
What is it about Mickey Berkowitz that sees him top every poll for Israel’s greatest athlete of all time? After all, other players have scored more points or won more titles, not to mention the fact that with different sports being so incomparable one would expect a varied list of sportsmen and sportswomen to be giving him a run for his money.
But just like on Israel’s 50th Independence Day, and its 60th, on its 70th – which will be marked on Thursday – it is Berkowitz’s name that shines brightest.
Perhaps it all traces back to the timing of Berkowitz’s breakthrough with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the mid-1970’s.
With Israel still reeling from the Yom Kippur War, Berkowitz became a symbol of the young, vibrant successful country Israelis wished for.
Berkowitz was the face of the triumphant Maccabi team that was crowned as European champion for the first time in 1977, and he has only enhanced his reputation since.
Berkowitz has been retired since 1995 and turned 64 earlier this year.
But his iconic status as the ultimate Israeli athlete has not waned and it is hard to see anyone threatening that position any time soon.
“It is a great honor to be selected as the greatest Israeli athlete from among all the sportsmen and sportswomen Israel has had over the past 70 years,” Berkowitz told The Jerusalem Post
. “I really hope that beyond my sporting accomplishments, it is my approach towards the fans and my character that brings people to choose me.”
Among his many achievements, Berkowitz won 16 Israeli championships, 13 State Cups and two European cups at Maccabi Tel Aviv, while also leading the Israel national team to second place at the 1979 European Championships. He was selected to the FIBA Hall of Fame last summer, being named in a star-studded list that included the USA ’s Dream Team, Shaquille O’Neal and Toni Kukoc.
He was also named among 13 International nominees announced for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for 2013.
“I was fortunate to be part of Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club for a couple of decades during which the team was in many ways like Israel’s national team,” explained Berkowitz.
“I was also lucky enough to be coached by the three greatest Israeli basketball coaches of all-time, Yehoshua Rozin, Ralph Klein and Arie Davidesko, who have since all passed away. I came with the talent and with the passion to work and they all gave me the foundations on which to become a professional basketball player. All of this, together with the big bonus of having great players around me that helped me display my abilities, are what made me the player I became.”
Berkowitz hasn’t been directly involved in Israeli basketball over recent years, but his face is still ever-present at BSL arenas, with his son Niv a player for Hapoel Eilat.
“I have seen a lot of basketball in my life and beyond seeing I have also accomplished quite a bit. I have the experience and if I receive an offer that would interest me I would happily take it,” said Berkowitz, who believes Israeli basketball is being held back by the number of foreigners on each BSL roster who play at the expense of local players.
“I’m certain that there are many talented youngsters and they just need to be discovered and developed.”
While no one knows what the next 10 years will bring for Israel, there seems to be little doubt that Berkowitz will still top the list of Israel’s greatest athletes when the country celebrates its 80th Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“I wish our small and young country many congratulations for its 70th Independence Day,” added Berkowitz.
“I hope that in the 80th or 90th Yom Ha’atzmaut I will be able to say that peace has also arrived and that there will be no more bereaved families of fallen soldiers. That is what I wish us all.”