Tal Brody is one of the greatest players to ever don the Maccabi Tel Aviv uniform. From the New Jersey native’s on-court exploits, where he captained the yellow-and-blue to its maiden European title, to his off-court travails as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State of Israel, Brody is without a doubt the most notable American athlete to have become part of the fabric of the nation.
His famous remark after beating the Russian Red Army Team CSKA on the way to the 1977 continental championship - “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything,” became part of Israeli culture.
Just as we enter the New Jewish Year and celebrate with family and friends, Brody was feted with a surprise 80th birthday bash at The Iris Smith World Jewish Sports Museum located at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan.
From former Maccabi Tel Aviv teammates, relatives and close acquaintances, Brody was once again at the center of the Israeli sports world in an intimate encounter that brought many smiles, laughs and good old fun as stories and memories were shared amongst the attendees of this special event.
“Over the years it has been very difficult to surprise me, but for my 80th birthday this party was no doubt a stunner,” Brody remarked. “The people that are here with me right now took part in so much amazing history together with me from family, friends and Maccabi legends. These are the moments that are absolutely unforgettable and I’ll go to bed and wake up cherishing them for the rest of my life. Winning the first European Championship and the victory over CSKA are part of the history of the State of Israel and to have been part of that makes it even that much more special.”
Brody grew up in New Jersey and began playing the game of basketball at the local Jewish Community Center in Trenton, where he started to hone his skills that would eventually take him to the top of European basketball. Following his time at Trenton Central High School it was off to the University of Illinois where he became a standout point guard and was named as an All-American alongside eventual NBA greats Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham and Bill Bradley.
Begining of a career
With his own NBA career about to begin after being selected 12th overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the draft, Brody decided to head to Israel to play for the Team USA Maccabiah Team at the 1965 Games.
Once he arrived in the Holy Land, which was his first trip abroad, Brody was enthralled. The Maccabi Tel Aviv brass as well, had found a potential leader and star.
“First of all, I was only going to make the decision to stay in Israel if I had not only the confidence to do so but also there had to be the possibility to change and improve the sport of basketball,” Brody stated. “When I was at the Maccabiah Games, I saw that there was a solid base for the sport, but I didn’t realize how tough the actual courts to play on were as I was brought up with better playing conditions. But in my heart of hearts, I thought I could change things and make a difference.”
“When Tal saw the court on Maccabi Street he didn’t realize where he had come,” Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Shimon Mizrachi said with a chuckle. “But thanks to Tal and his commitment we were able to attract more and more players to the club. Tal was and still is a person of the people and who loves the people of Israel and came to the country because of his Zionist passion. He is the greatest ambassador for the State of Israel.”
Brody played for Maccabi Tel Aviv through the end of the 1968 season which also included a time where he was working with the Israeli soldiers on the front lines during the Six Day War in 1967. He then returned to the United States to serve his country of birth in the military before heading to the 1970 World Championships in Belgrade where he played for the American National Team.
It was in the former Yugoslavia that Maccabi ensured that Brody, who was named Israel’s Sportsman of the Year in 1967, would return to Israel for good and continue with the mission he had begun a few years earlier.
Back in Israel, Brody served in the Israel Defense Forces and started to really become the leader of Maccabi Tel Aviv as its captain and star. Whether it was inspiring the youth during the 1970’s or winning domestic league title after title, Brody was changing the face of Israeli basketball.
One of those players impacted was Miki Berkowitz, who would end up eventually being Brody’s partner on the court and would lead Maccabi Tel Aviv into the following decade upon his retirement.
“Tal is my partner and great friend. When I was younger, I would have been shocked that one day he would be one of my friends. As a kid, I was in awe of him as I would watch him train when I started in the youth department. Tal Brody was my idol. I remember when I arrived at the gym for my first practice with the senior team and Tal came over to me and said weren’t you the boy that would sit and watch us train? It was my honor to train and play with Tal at Maccabi Tel Aviv.”
“I always loved the No. 6 which was my number but Tal was the star,” Berkowitz continued. “I took 9, which is 6 turned around, as we were partners right from the get-go. Today, every Thursday we walk five kilometers together, we do business together but what we truly want is that the people of Israel will turn into one team just like we were back in 1977 where we won our first European Championship. This was the greatest moment.”
As Maccabi, led by Brody, became more and more of a powerhouse, other players would join the fray from far and wide as Israeli Moti Aroesti along with Americans Bob Griffin and Aulcie Perry became part of the club. But the common thread with all of the new recruits was Brody and his influence on what was being created in the Middle East, as the foundation of a basketball power was being laid for the generations to come.
“I remember when Tal came back to the country, he told me he gave up 10,000 by not going to play in the NBA,” Aroesti recalled. “I told him, that’s nothing and that he would make 100,000! But what I didn’t tell him was that it would be in Lira and not US Dollars!”
Griffin also reminisced about Brody and winning the 1977 European Championship.
“The amazing thing is that so much time has gone by and it’s still important and it really is due to Tal. He was a great player, efficient and he could do everything on the court. But the thing that impressed me so much was the calm he displayed. If you were playing next to him it immediately gave you confidence that things were going to work out. He deserves it all.”
Brody continues to bring the best out of today’s generation, as at 80 he still works with youngsters in order to shape the future.
“I feel the love every single day from the people of Israel and I am still sharing the values of sports with the younger generation,” said Brody.
As the party came to a close, Mizrachi put the final stamp on what Brody means to so many.
“We can only hope to see many more people like Tal. He didn’t just put Israel and Maccabi Tel Aviv on the map, he changed the face of Israeli basketball.”