Hoops diplomacy

One of the country’s most famous basketball stars, Tal Brody, is taking on a new role to help Israel look good abroad.

brody 521 (photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
brody 521
(photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
One of Israel’s most prominent athletes, American-born basketball star Tal Brody became famous for uttering two sentences on a wintry evening in a small Belgian town called Vitron in February, 1977.
An All-American basketball player at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s, Brody had just led Maccabi Tel Aviv to victory against the CSKA Moscow – the mighty Soviet Red Army team that had won the previous four European Cup titles.
No one thought that the Israeli team had a chance. It was the height of the Cold War; emotions were high – Brody and his teammates knew that CSKA Moscow represented a country that was supplying arms to the Arabs.
The winner would play in the European Cup finals. Until then, no Israeli team had gone beyond the first round of the European Cup. The country was in the doldrums: It was isolated from the global mainstream, boycotted by the Arabs, its economy was in recession and its enemies labeled it a cruel occupier of Arab lands. If Brody and his teammates triumphed it was bound to put smiles on Israeli faces.
In a startling upset Maccabi won 91-79, and ecstatic fans carried Brody, a 6 foot-1 inch guard, from the court on their shoulders. It was then, in American-accented Hebrew, that he made his now famous comment, “We are on the map. We are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything.” That Maccabi-Moscow game is high on the list of events that helped boost national pride.
Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Brody that his statement had brought tears to his eyes (an unusual event for the usually stoic Rabin). “We are on the map” became one of the nation’s most famous quotes and Brody became “Mr. Basketball.” One Israeli told journalist Thomas Friedman that on one level it was Brody and his teammates beating the Russians, but on another it was his grandfather beating them. “It was our retroactive victory over the Cossacks.”
The “We are on the map” comment has been repeated in political speeches and even in commercials. Two months after the triumph over Moscow – in April 1977, Brody led Maccabi to victory against Mobilgirgi Varese of Italy in the European Cup finals in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Israel still had no diplomatic relations with Communist Yugoslavia and the El Al plane carrying the team was the first Israeli plane permitted to land there. Maccabi scored another upset win over Varese, 78- 77. Winning that basketball title was the first major international achievement for Israeli sport. In 1979, Brody was awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize.
Thirty-five years later, now 69, serving as Israel’s first and only Goodwill Ambassador, Brody tells The Jerusalem Report, “I had come to live and play in Israel, to bring Israeli basketball to a higher level. When I said we were now on the map, I meant that we had for the first time reached that level and were going to stay there.”
Brody offers a warm welcome at his deluxe Netanya apartment on a beautiful morning in late December. The ex-basketballer is wearing a red, blue and white tracksuit with a 2003 Maccabiah Games insignia on the jacket. His face is lined, his hair a bit thinner, but he is still very much the athlete who took Israel by storm in the late 1960s.
Back then, for an American Jewish basketball player to consider playing the sport in Israel would have been most unusual. But Brody, unlike the others, had close family who had lived in pre-State Palestine. His father had spent 1921 to 1923 in Palestine en route from Eastern Europe to the United States; his grandfather had lived for a decade in Palestine, helping to build an electric power station and an airport.
Despite these ties to the Jewish state, Tal as a child thought little of Israel. Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, he began playing basketball at the age of eight, and was an All-State player at Trenton High School. Wooed by dozens of colleges for his basketball skills, Tal chose the University of Illinois where he slept with a basketball and dribbled it to classes. With Brody on the team, Illinois won the Big Ten Championship and was ranked third in the country. In 1965 he was voted All American and selected as one of the top 10 players in the US.
Traveling to Israel in the summer of 1965 to participate in the Maccabiah Games, he helped the American basketball team capture gold. The management of the most successful local basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, asked Brody to stay in Israel and play basketball for them. But he had a chance to play for the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets (today the Washington Wizards), after being picked 13th in the draft.
Brody acknowledges nearly a half century later that had the Bullets traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, his chances of playing would have been better and he might have stayed in the US. But there was no trade, and after picking up a Master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Illinois in 1966, Tal returned to Israel and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Unquestionably a key moment for Israeli basketball was Maccabi’s 1966 defeat of the Spanish team, Joventut Badalona. Since the games were not televised, it seemed as if the entire country had huddled around their radios to listen to the game. “The country,” recalls Brody, “went from a football or soccer-loving country to a basketball-loving country. Every day that we won was like Independence Day for Israel.” Sporting goods dealers who used to sell six soccer balls to one basketball found this ratio reversed, and they credited Brody’s impact for the turnabout.
In 1967, Brody was named Sportsman of the Year. Until his arrival, Israelis had thought of basketball as little more than a slowpaced game played for fun. With his fastpaced American-style, his superb leadership skills on the floor, he and the team attracted numerous spectators, including the country’s leaders, to their games.
Though he had decided to settle in Israel, Brody returned to the United States in 1968 to serve in the US army during the Vietnam War, where he played for the Armed Forces All-Star basketball teams.
Returning to Israel late in 1970, he began a sporting goods business, married Ronit Born (Moshe Dayan, then the defense minister, was a guest at his wedding), and rejoined Maccabi Tel Aviv. Seven years later, as captain, he led the team to the European Cup championship.
In 1980, Brody sold his sporting goods business to his partner and opened his own insurance agency. From 1981 to 1983 he served as an assistant coach for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Around that time he divorced Born and married Tirtza Chen, who had helped run his insurance company. Together they have three children – two from Tal’s first marriage and one from Tirtza’s – and five grandchildren.
In 1985, Brody formed Bnei Herzliya, a cityrun basketball program that has grown today to 8,000 members, and includes most sports.
In April 1998, the Hebrew daily Maariv conducted a poll for the country’s 50th anniversary, which ranked Brody as the figure who most influenced sport in Israel.
In December 2008, seeking a Knesset seat on the Likud Party ticket, Brody ran unsuccessfully in party primaries.
For the past two years, Brody has served as Goodwill Ambassador with the mission to help improve Israel’s international standing.
In that role, Brody has traveled extensively throughout the United States, lecturing hundreds of times to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, noting Israel’s achievements, sports and otherwise. Asked at that time if he wanted to become an Israeli consul in the US, he declined. “I didn’t make aliya to Israel to become a consul outside of Israel. I enjoy my life in Israel.”
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approached Brody to take on the goodwill mission, the time was right for the basketball legend. “I was in my 60s.
I had sold my insurance business and I was ready to go into this kind of activity full time.” He wanted to be appointed as the prime minister’s representative to the Jewish People, but there was no such government job function. So he took the title of Goodwill Ambassador. He was not permitted a salary, but the government paid his expenses. The Foreign Ministry arranged his overseas visits, mostly to the US, sometimes to Canada, where he often speaks three to five times a day on ten-day visits. “My job,” he notes, “is broadening the conversation.”
Brody talks largely about his own personal experience, coming to Israel, what he has accomplished, and his influence on local basketball. He sometimes draws 1,000 people to hear him talk. Even though Arabs make up one-third of his audiences on occasion, speaking about his own life and career has allowed him to deflect any anti-Israeli questioning from his audiences.
Softening the crowd up, playing to their love of sports, he says at the outset of a talk, “I do not engage in propaganda or talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I stand before you purely as a Jewish All-American basketball player.”
Anti-Israeli demonstrators do on occasion show up outside his lectures, but the talks go undisturbed. Sometimes he gets asked why Israel is an apartheid state. “After I tell them, they understand we are not an apartheid state. I was raised in the US in the 60s at the time of segregation; I saw what apartheid was when I visited South Africa. We don’t have separate bathrooms, or separate laws for Arabs and Jews. We have a democratic society. Anybody can go to the Knesset.”
After more than four decades in the country, Brody sums up what he likes about Israel. “It’s a beautiful life. You can do so many things plus we have eight months of good weather. Handling Hamas and Hezbollah is not a bigger problem than handling Hurricane Sandy, earthquakes, or tsunamis.”