Maccabi, Tal Brody: The 'pride of Israel' was made in Belgrade - opinion

That night in Belgrade, the Maccabi basketball club became “the pride of Israel” – more than just a sports club. 

 Tal Brody drive to the hoop for a layup during the Maccabi Tel Aviv game against Italian team Bologna, held at Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu Stadium. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tal Brody drive to the hoop for a layup during the Maccabi Tel Aviv game against Italian team Bologna, held at Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu Stadium.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Late in the evening of April 7, 1977, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a hero of the 1967 Six Day War and a former chief of staff, called the editor of state television and asked him if he could come to the studio so that he would resign. Evidence had appeared in the media a few days earlier that Rabin had two bank accounts in the US, prohibited under Israeli law. 

The editor of the national television asked him to postpone his address to the nation because he had no one to record it. Everyone was watching the broadcast of the basketball match from Belgrade, in which the Maccabi club fought for its first European title against the Italian team Varese.

The day before, on the other side of the world, in New York, another drama was happening, related to Belgrade and the final match. Maccabi basketball player Tal Brody came to the counter of the Yugoslav Air Transport (JAT) at New York’s JFK Airport. He asked to buy a ticket to Belgrade to play at the next day’s final match. He played for Maccabi the entire season and led his team to the finals. 

When he was told that his father was dying, he left the team and returned to the US to see him. When Brody came to the hospital, his father opened his eyes and asked him what he was doing there, and why was he not in Belgrade?

Brody rushed to the New York airport, but there were no tickets left for the flight to Belgrade. While desperately begging the counter clerk to find him a seat, he was approached by the head of the JAT office, who recognized him because he played for Israel at the World Basketball Championship in Ljubljana in 1970, in which Yugoslavia became the world champion for the first time.

 Tal Brody (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Tal Brody (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As Brody himself later recalled, the JAT representative, who he met for the first time, told him to stand next to him and say nothing. According to Brody, even today he does not know how he got on the plane without a ticket, and why no one asked him anything. He landed in Belgrade and joined his team to be part of history.

That Belgrade April night, 45 years ago, is a story that began 11 years earlier. In 1966, the management of Maccabi managed to convince Brody, an American basketball player of Jewish origin, to sign for the  Tel Aviv team. Brody was selected as the 12th pick in the draft a year earlier, and was expected to have a great NBA career. 

That summer, Brody arrived in Israel. He fell in love with the rising nation, fighting for its place under the sun. He decided to stay and build Israeli basketball, with the influence of then-defense minister, Moshe Dayan.

In the following years, other players from the US, mostly of Jewish origin, joined Maccabi with Brody’s persuasion. At the beginning of the historical 1976-1977 season, Eric Minkin, Bob Griffin and Lou Silver came. The last to arrive was Aulcie Perry, a 208-cm. center, when Maccabi’s scouts found him while playing on a neighborhood basketball court in Harlem. 

The tall, thin Perry became a legend; his name is still a slang word for a tall man in Israel today.

IT WAS not easy to organize Maccabi matches, as it was the midst of the Cold War, with the international isolation of Israel by the Arab countries, the Soviet bloc and socialist countries. Later, basketball’s Bora Stankovic and Radomir Saper, said that no one in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) could have ever imagined that Maccabi could reach the finals next to Varese, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid. 

In order to place in the finals, Maccabi had to beat CSKA, led by the legendary Sergei Belov, with five other basketball players from the Soviet gold-medal team from the Olympic Games in Munich, held three years earlier.

The Soviets refused to travel to Israel because they did not have diplomatic relations with the country, and did not want to issue visas to Maccabi basketball players to come to Moscow. FIBA decided to play the matches on a neutral field in Virton, Belgium. Jews from all over Europe rushed to the match and supported their team to defeat the favored Soviets.

The final match was played in Belgrade in the Pionir Sports Hall. Yugoslavia did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Yugoslav leader Tito knew that the match would be a promotion for his country and wanted to show the world that all athletes in the world can play in Belgrade. 

That is why the Yugoslav authorities gave the Maccabi team a special permit, and allowed fans of the team to travel to the city without a visa. The invasion of Maccabi fans on Belgrade had begun; in just a few days, about 4,000 arrived from Israel and Western Europe. 

The fans enabled Maccabi to play in Pionir as if at home, creating an incredible atmosphere in which the players of Varese, then the best European team led by the legend of Italian and European basketball Dino Meneghin, lost.

FOLLOWING Maccabi’s victory, celebrations in Tel Aviv and Belgrade ensued. There were about 200,000 people in the streets, so no one wanted to listen to the resignation of prime minister Rabin. 

In Belgrade, Maccabi fans occupied the squares, and some bathed in the Danube next to the Yugoslavia Hotel, where their team stayed. That night in Belgrade, the Maccabi basketball club became “the pride of Israel” – more than just a sports club. 

Israel achieved the greatest sporting success in history, reminding the world that it does exist as a state. Until that night, Israel was not found on many world maps, until Maccabi drew it, in Belgrade. That’s why, having won, Brody shouted into the camera: “We are on the map. And we’ll stay on the map. Not just in sports. In everything.”

Forty-five years ago, just like today, Belgrade showed that it can host all world athletes, that everyone is welcome, and it is open for all. Tal Brody has been invited to be a guest of Belgrade in May this year, when the final Euroleague basketball tournament will be played in our city.

The writer is deputy mayor of Belgrade.