Hoops of love

Boston Celtics GM Chris Wallace talks about his passion for Israel and ongoing romance with Maccabi TA.

chris wallace 88 (photo credit: )
chris wallace 88
(photo credit: )
A few months ago, the IBA English TV news team received an e-mail from a viewer asking how he could get hold of certain broadcasts he'd been unable to see due to work-related travel and the inadvertent deletion of his pre-programmed video. He always watched the show, he said, and was particularly sorry about having missed one in particular - that covered the visit to Israel of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, accompanied by star Quarterback Tom Brady. The e-mail was signed: Chris Wallace, general manager of the Boston Celtics. That an American Christian - and so prominent a member of the basketball community, to boot - was making such a request would have been heart-warming enough for the small staff working out of Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood. But, that the editor of IBA news, Steve Leibowitz, is also the president of the American Football League in Israel - who happened, by coincidence, to open the e-mail in which this specific request was made - seemed to have been bashert. The subsequent collegial and congenial correspondence between the two led to a meeting last month in Boston, where the following hour-long interview was conducted - on day five of the current war in Lebanon, about which Wallace expressed great concern. "Despite what happened on 9/11," said the 47-year-old self-proclaimed news junkie, inexplicably "obsessed," since childhood, with Israel, "there's no real threat that Hizbullah's going to send rockets down on Providence or Worcester tomorrow. Or that the air force of a nearby hostile nation could suddenly attack us." What sparked your interest in Israel? It started when I was a young kid. I really don't know why, since I'm from a small town in West Virginia with virtually no Jews. And my family - while Methodists and church-goers - weren't what I would call devout Christians. So there was no religious reason. But when I was in junior high school, I simply became obsessed. I even began writing all my book reports on Israel-related works, such as Exodus. Then, when I was in high school, Time/Life published a special 25th anniversary of Israel book which, as subscribers, my parents received. I must have read that thing 10,000 times. What aspect of Israel was at the root of this obsession? The whole story of the country. The odds that the Jews overcame to establish and build it. The passion of the Israelis. But I also liked that it was a Mediterranean culture, with people hanging out at cafes and on the beach. Did your parents consider your interest peculiar? They thought I was weird to begin with. [He laughs boisterously, while his wife, Debby, interjects: "They thought Chris marched to the tune of a different drummer. He had a kind of worldliness to him that was uncharacteristic among his peers."] Yet, like other boys your age, you were a jock. I played sports, but I wasn't a jock. I was a current events junkie. I remember being absolutely riveted by the Munich Olympics disaster, for example. I was depressed for days after such events. And this was before the days of the Internet, when mass communication was limited. Has this had an effect on your voting patterns? No. I've always voted for the independent candidate as a protest. Though I'm from a Republican family and worked as a paid employee in two congressional campaigns, politics at the high levels in the US has become a rich man's game, like polo, due to the dominant role money plays in the process. The candidate I worked for in 1981 was the mayor of our town, and we spent $500,000 in a rural district, while the opposition spent $50,000-60,000. They had no chance. If current events interested you more than sports, how did you get mixed up in professional basketball? Current events interested me, but not more than sports. I'm from a very sports-oriented area, and my Dad came from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, an athletic hothouse from where all kinds of professional football, basketball and baseball players hailed. So, I fell in line. I love all three of these major sports, but I played basketball throughout high school. Then, when I left college (I didn't graduate; I quit the University of Kansas after three years) and was looking for something to do, I had this epiphany one day to start a basketball magazine. The year was 1981 and I was 22. What was it called? The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. It still exists to this day in different hands. Very unexpectedly, the magazine became an artistic success, and received a tremendous amount of good publicity throughout the country. At the beginning of the season, I would preview all the major (300 and some) college teams. 356 pages! And I started out doing it literally all myself. I dictated it onto a Dictaphone, and my dad's secretary at his law firm transcribed it (2,200 pages, double-spaced). Then, I went on radio talk shows to promote it, and my mother and father and I took orders over the phone in their basement. Then I'd go to the post office and mail them out. We started off selling 3,000 copies, and by the end, we were up to around 12,000. But I never got the distribution and financial level to equal the artistic quality. Yet you didn't remain on the "artistic" end of the business. Once I got into the business, I realized that I wasn't necessarily a media person. To be successful in the media, you've got to be a harsh public critic, which is something I don't like to be. So I never came down that hard on the players or the coaches I was covering. I didn't know exactly what direction I was going in, but it was clear that it wasn't in my interest to be too critical of the people I might end up meeting under different circumstances. And the magazine opened doors for you? Oh yes. When I was first starting out, I created a proposal to expand the business. Remember the fighter Sugar Ray Leonard? Well, he was a basketball fan and when I heard he was appearing at a benefit for the YMCA three hours from my house, I drove down there and paid $50 for this dinner to give him this proposal. The security guards looked at me as though I were crazy [he laughs] when I tried to approach him. But I didn't care. I thought that I had to get my ideas out to as many key people as possible and eventually the right doors would open. In the 1986 Draft, there were several players who had drug and alcohol issues and the No. 2 overall selection, Len Bias, died of a cocaine overdose. I was hired by the team - the Portland Trailblazers - to perform background checks on the potential draftees. The great thing about the NBA - and I'm sure pro sports in general - is that you can end up at a whole different destination from where you started. It's not a strict hierarchy. The Boston Celtics is arguably the greatest basketball franchise in the NBA, yet the team hasn't been in the playoffs. Doesn't that put you under a lot of pressure? We have been in the playoffs in four of the last five years. We just haven't won a championship in 20. Of course, there's pressure in any job in pro sports - even on teams that are dominant. But it's the world we live in. The one we've chosen. What about Israeli basketball? You are known to follow Maccabi Tel Aviv closely. My interest goes from macro to micro - from my original interest in Israel altogether. My wife and I took our first trip there in 1992. We were hosted by Maccabi Tel Aviv. General-Manager Ami Eshel picked us up at Ben-Gurion Airport. We were at Tal Brody's house. Several times, we went out to restaurants with Maccabi people. And we just fell in love with them. I don't think that I've ever seen greater hospitality in or out of basketball. We've stayed in touch since then. The basketball community as a whole is small to begin with, but it's growing increasingly smaller, due to the Internet. And there simply aren't that many people in the world involved in basketball. It's not an industry like banking or medicine involving hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of people. People who earn a living at the game, including at the college and professional levels in the US and abroad, is well under 10,000. If you put Maccabi Tel Aviv on the court against the Boston Celtics, what would the result be? Maccabi is a formidable foe which won a preseason fame last October at Toronto. They have a very strong home-court edge at Nokia Arena, but I believe we have too much firepower to lose that match if it ever occurred. Maccabi has proven, with two Euroleague titles in the past three years, to be an elite power in European basketball. The NBA champion must win 16 playoff games. But it's not a level playing field, because Maccabi, or any team in Europe, does not have the financial resources to spend on acquiring talent that the NBA can deploy. The average NBA team salary is well over $50 million. In Europe - and Israeli teams compete in the European system - there's only one team that reportedly spends over $25 million: CSKA Moscow. Also, the European teams don't have access to the draft. So, the next time a great young player comes out, they can't get him. I have tremendous respect for what Maccabi has accomplished over these last few years. It's extraordinary. The chemistry among the players is so good. That's not an easy thing to achieve. No matter how great their pedigrees or their talent, you can't guarantee that they're going to come together. Basketball is an interdependent sport. It's about a feel for the game and knowing your teammates. It's a choreography. And Maccabi dances together as well as any team I've seen in Europe over the last three years. A record two Israelis were chosen in the draft this time. What's your take on that? They were drafted in the second round. This was for two reasons: One, because Seattle and Houston saw talent; two, because they don't have to be put on the roster right now. With most American players selected in the second round, the selecting team probably has to place them on its roster for the next season, or release them. The two Israelis, Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu, can remain on their respective teams, while Seattle and Houston retain their draft rights. It's a win-win situation for the teams which select an international player with potential whom they can move over at the appropriate time. If he never develops, it really doesn't hurt the team, because when players are selected from the middle of the second round, there is not the risk of forsaking potentially star-caliber players, as exists in the Lottery area of the first round. Isn't it true that at this point, no matter what country a team is affiliated with, it is dominated by American players? Yes, many of the top teams in Europe have key American players. For the past few seasons, Maccabi had an American, Anthony Parker, who was considered the best player in the Euroleague. CSKA Moscow won the Euroleague title last season with two key American players - J.R. Holden and Trajan Langdon - but the MVP [most valuable player] of the Final Four was a Greek. The top teams in Europe are comprised of players throughout the continent, and in some cases South American and the Caribbean, not merely dominated by American imports. The top European teams will go anywhere in the world to find a player they feel can help them win. Doesn't this go against the concept of rooting for your nation - or your state, as in the case of college sports? No. College sports is a good example of why not. Players in colleges come from all over the country, not just from the vicinity of the college. Being from West Virginia, I love West Virginia University football, for example. The whole state is riveted by that team, yet few of its players are from the state. Many of the out-of-state recruits have no real connection to West Virginia before they commited to the school. It is a small state of only three-million people. If our state said it only wanted West Virginians on the team, we would win few games. We simply don't have the talent base. Sports is about survival of the fittest. And fans throughout the globe want to win. They want exciting performers, and they don't care where they come from. No sports franchise in the world has a greater following than the Boston Red Sox and this season the team has only one player from Boston, however, the lack of significant hometown geographical representation is absolutely of no concern to the team's legion of fans. If victory is the only thing that counts, why not be in favor of steroids? Performance-enhancing drugs have been a serious issue for a long time now. That's why the amount of resources devoted to enforcing regulations concerning them has increased dramatically. It's difficult for the enforcement bodies because the athletes taking those drugs, and the doctors behind them, got a head start over the governing bodies. It's only now that the governing bodies are catching up. It's a major stain on sports that needs to be eradicated as soon as possible. Why don't Americans like soccer? There are only so many sports you can grow up with. While there are millions of kids in the US who have played soccer over the last few decades, more Americans have grown up with soccer from a participant standpoint than from that of avid fans of the game or a particular club. Major league soccer does exist in America, and there's some interest in the World Cup. But, you become a fan based on the experiences of your formative years. Did you follow the World Cup? Yes, but I wouldn't consider myself a soccer enthusiast. I'm a sports enthusiast and a big-event enthusiast. So the World Cup catches my attention. But that's the extent of it. It's a good game, don't get me wrong. I enjoy it. But I have so much going on and when I'm not involved in basketball, the one sport I allow myself to really follow is football. Do you believe that sports is an arena that lends itself to cooperation and peace? I can't say for certain, but any time you bring people together, you create bonds. That's one of the ideas behind the Olympic movement: to bring people from around the world from diverse backgrounds and cultures together. To foster some sense of interdependence. That's one of the reasons the school system cultivates sports. I don't know how effective it is in the long run. But I do know that nothing brings people together like getting behind a successful sports team. One of the most remarkable things I've ever seen is the aftermath of Maccabi's success in the Euroleague Final Four in 2004. I've seen many crowds of fans in my life - at World Series' games and basketball and football championships, Olympics, other European championships. But I've never seen anything like that crowd. I remember when there were about 3-4 minutes to go in the game, when it was clear Maccabi had won, and all of a sudden the crowd breaks out in a spontaneous rendition of the Israeli national anthem. I'd never seen anything like that. After the game, a cab driver kissed me on the cheek and said: "We've been unhappy for 2,000 years, and all we asked was to be happy for one night. Tonight's that night." I was blown away by that. I've never seen the equivalent joy anywhere in my life. Even after the Red Sox finally won the World Series? That came close, I'll admit. But this had more angles to it because of the nationalistic aspect - because of the four-year intifada the country was just emerging from. Despite what happened on 9/11, there's no real threat that Hizbullah's going to send rockets down on Providence or Worcester tomorrow. Or that the air force of a nearby hostile nation could suddenly attack us. But in your neighborhood, the proximity is so close, it's something we simply can't comprehend. We're used to having this buffer of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That's why I really wish more Americans would visit Israel. You don't understand or appreciate what a great story the birth of the state is until you actually step foot in the country and meet the people. There is more interest and coverage of Israel and the Middle East than ever before. However, unless you've been there, you can't grasp the complex reality of the situation. Steve Leibowitz contributed to this interview.