When President Shimon Peres on Sunday congratulated Maccabi Tel Aviv’s head coach David Blatt on his team’s triumph in the Euroleague final, he told him to come with the team and the trophy to Jerusalem.
Blatt replied that they wanted to bring the trophy home as a farewell gift for Peres towards the completion of his tenure in appreciation for all that he’s done.
True to his word, Blatt, at the president’s invitation, arrived wit the team and its staff and owners plus several fans at the presidential complex on Wednesday, holding the trophy aloft, but carrying a smaller version of it for Peres to keep.
Many of the president’s staff had brought their children to the event and some of the youngsters were sporting yellow T-shirts with Final Four logos.
There was also a group of children with life threatening illnesses – several of them confined to wheelchairs – who were there under the auspices of the organization Kav L’Chaim, and who had been invited by Peres so that they could realize their dream of coming close to the celebrity hoopsters and breathing in the championship magic.
Towards the end of the ceremony, after all the presentations had been made, Peres turned around and addressed both Blatt and forward David Blu.
“Israel is short on Davids now,” he said, alluding metaphorically to the David of old, and asked them both to remain in Israel “in the Kingdom of David – Maccabi Tel Aviv.”
Moderating the event was former Maccabi Tel Aviv team captain Mickey Berkowitz, who in 1977 helped the team to win its first European Championship at which Tal Brody famously said that Israel was on the map and would stay on the map.
Though he didn’t have much to say, Berkowitz, sporting a yellow tie, was visibly nervous, and said that when he was asked the previous day to be the moderator he had been hesitant about taking on what was, for him, an unfamiliar role.
It was more daunting, he said, than standing on the free-throw line in the last few seconds of the game and knowing that if he hit both shots, his team would win.
But ultimately he decided he could not miss out on the opportunity.
Not long before the arrival of the team, Peres had hosted the prime minister of Bulgaria, for whom the red carpet had been laid out.
It was still in place for Maccabi Tel Aviv, whose players arrived not in their classic yellow-and-blue uniforms, but in well-tailored dark suits with white shirts and blue ties looking more like businessmen – albeit extremely tall ones – than basketball players.
They were placed on a two-tiered dais with Peres, and looked extremely impressive when they all stood up as he entered the reception hall.
Peres usually shakes hands with everyone in the front row at any function, but this time he made a point of moving through the second row as well to shake the hand of each and every player, coach and official.
Maccabi Tel Aviv President Shimon Mizrahi, observing that the state does not always formally recognize achievements, said that it was a great honor to be invited by the president and recalled a similar occasion during the tenure of the late president Chaim Herzog, at which Herzog had told them they were the “best ambassadors that the State of Israel could have.”
Peres – extra talkative, even by his own flowery standards, with a 20-minute address plus an encore – echoed Herzog’s sentiment and added to it by saying that “not only does Maccabi Tel Aviv act as an ambassador outside of Israel, but also within the country itself, a victory like this unites old and young, men and women, people from all different backgrounds.”
Blatt said that the invitation to celebrate the victory with the president was the high point of their triumph.
“In sport we always look for models to emulate, dedicated and committed people such as Peres who serve as an example for the rest of society – people who reach their targets through hard work, will power and motivation,” Blatt said.
He pledged that Maccabi Tel Aviv would continue to serve as role models to Israel’s youth.
Team captain Guy Pnini said that they had embarked on their mission as representatives of the state, and that it had been so heart-warming to see so many Israelis in Milan.
Peres was effusive in his praise for Mizrahi, for Blatt and for the team as a whole saying that for two nights he had sat riveted in front of his television set watching both the semifinal and final games.
Although he admit he was no expert, it appeared to him that all the players worked as a team and yet also had their moments of individual glory in which each of them had shone.
He had invited them he said, in order to express the appreciation of the nation for the pride and spontaneous happiness that they had brought to the people.
“You elevated our spirits,” he said, commenting that Israel is not always exceptional when it comes to everyday mundane things – “but when it comes to big things, we do them well.”
Directing his attention to the non-Israelis on the team, Peres switched to English saying: “I know not all of you are Israelis, but all of you fought for Israel, and I saw how much you cared.
I want to thank each of you. We are proud of you.”
The victory, he continued, proved that people can give more of themselves than anticipated.
CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid are formidable teams, he acknowledged, and it wasn’t certain that Maccabi Tel Aviv could beat them.
“This is a beautiful victory which sets an example to youth, because they will all identify with you,” he told the new European champions.
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