Maccabi TA fans 224.
(photo credit: AP [file])
When the New York Knicks PA announcer asked the crowd to cheer loudest for the singer it wanted to hear most, you just knew Neil Diamond was going to win. After all, with Maccabi Tel Aviv in town, Jews and Israelis had taken over Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Of course the fans wanted to hear a member of the tribe.
With "Sweet Caroline" blasting throughout the arena, hundreds of women in long skirts and even more men with black yarmulkes jumped out of their seats to sing along. They were only outnumbered by those Israelis in yellow hats, who got even rowdier when a song by the Israeli band Ethnix hit the sound waves.
"We came especially for the game," said Aharon Schwartz, who arrived with his wife, Lili, from Akron, Ohio where they are working with the community as delegates from Israel through the Jewish Agency. "My wife got me these tickets for my birthday."
Lili excitedly snapped photos of the Maccabi players warming up while Aharon, dressed in a yellow shirt with a yellow Maccabi scarf draped around his neck and a yellow bandana wrapped around his head ran around the arena, trying to get closer to the action. His look of excitement put the kid in the candy shop to shame.
"I burn for Maccabi," said Aharon.
He was not alone. Thousands of Maccabi fans filled the near-capacity crowd and batted together plastic inflatable sticks with El Al imprinted on them throughout the game. Israeli singing sensation Dudu Fisher, who played Jean Valjean in the Broadway musical "Les Miserables," opened the night's festivities by singing Israel's national anthem, Hatikva.
The crowd cheered at its conclusion and kept the excitement going during player introductions, giving the loudest applause to Yotam Halperin, one of two Israeli starters on Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Fans in attendance included Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody, Maccabi owner Ra'anan Katz and all 20 boys on Israel's national youth hockey team.
"I wasn't surprised that the crowd supports Maccabi," said Leonid Zaliznayak, 17, a star player on the hockey team. "Because New York is like the same number of Jews as in Israel."
Well, a few million behind, but on this night, it was hard to tell as Jews filled the World's Most Famous Arena.
Not all the Israelis, however, were pulling for Maccabi. Moshe Cohen, who grew up in Haifa but has lived in Queens for 25 years, wore a white Knicks jersey with "HACOHEN" stitched onto the back in big orange block letters. "I'm amazed [at the crowd]," said Cohen. "I wasn't expecting that many fans to show up for the game."
The exhibition game raised money for Migdal Ohr, an Israeli youth village that helps over 6,500 abused, impoverished and underprivileged youths.
Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman runs the village and belted out an impromptu rendition of "Shema Yisrael" during halftime, imploring the fans to join in.
Where was Neil Diamond when you needed him?