Tal Brody: Changing basketball shoes for ‘hasbara'

Former Maccabi Tel Aviv superstar is now Israel’s first Goodwill Ambassador, which he says is a "natural position" for him.

Tal Brody 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Tal Brody 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
For most, Tal Brody is frozen in that one unforgettable moment in history. After Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory over CSKA Moscow in the European Cup Championship in 1977, an ecstatic, sweaty shooting guard and captain uttered an iconic sentence in his heavily-accented American Hebrew: “We’re on the map, and we’re staying on the map!”
It was Israel’s first victory in a major international sports competition, and the sentence immediately became a classic sound bite.
But Brody, now a 68-year-old grandfather, hasn’t stopped representing Israel in the international arena. After embarking on a successful career as an insurance agent for many years, the tall, trim former star has embarked on what he calls his “third career”- advocacy for Israel. A regular on the pro-Israel talk circuit, Brody makes monthly trips to the US to speak at schools, universities, synagogues and public institutions to provide Americans with some of the feel-good stories from Israel that get lost in the din of the violent headlines.
Brody’s official position is Israel’s Goodwill Ambassador, a new position that was created for him by Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu).
The position followed an unsuccessful bid for a spot on the Likud list for the Knesset in 2008.
“I wanted to serve the State of Israel the best way I can,” said Brody, who served in both the Israeli and American armies.
Brody’s decision to join Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1965, despite being drafted 12th in the NBA, was a turning point for Israeli basketball. Suddenly, the struggling team was drawing viewers, had legitimacy, and the victory over Moscow in ’77 united the country in wide-spread spontaneous celebration that prompted dancing in the streets.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Brody talked about the transition from advocating for Israel as an athlete through his basketball victories, to advocating for Israel as a long-time resident and passionate supporter of the country.
Brody hasn’t stepped away from the arena, and utilizes sports, especially among youth, as a vehicle for advocacy.
The value of using sports was brought home the strongest two years ago, when Brody was assisting the American- Israel Friendship League and brought 12 kids from Sderot to the US to play basketball.
Off the court, the kids spoke about what it was like to be in the middle of a basketball game when a red alert sounded, meaning rocket attacks were imminent. They described the pandemonium of trying to empty a gymnasium of two teams and all the spectators into a protected area in the course of 15 seconds.
“This is how the American public can relate,” said Brody. It took the kids’ description of a normal basketball game, interrupted by violence, for Americans to fully grasp what it means to live under the threat of Kassam rockets.
Basketball is the same in America and Israel, and connecting over a shared passion makes the rest of the explanation, about borders and peace negotiations and terrorism, more understandable.
“Sport overcomes political borders,” said Brody.
The flotilla of May 2010, and the public relations disaster that followed, was the turning point when the government finally sat up and took notice of the importance of advocating for Israel, Brody believes. “[They realized] we’re winning wars, but losing the battle on hasbara (public diplomacy),” he said.
In addition to his frequent speaking engagements, Brody maintains an active Facebook page and mailing list, where he updates thousands of supporters about good news coming out of Israel, including stories about dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and innovative Israeli start-ups and inventions.
After more than four decades in Israel, Brody’s accent has mellowed to near-fluency, though he still gets recognized – and photographed – everywhere he goes.
“I’ve been in Israel for 45 years, I know the real Israel,” he said. Being Israel’s first Goodwill Ambassador is exactly the place where he wants to be, he added.
“This is a natural position, I’ve been doing this type of thing all my life, and it’s a great honor to do it when they need it.”