It’s hard to overstate how important it was to Israelis — and to the Jewish world — that an Israeli team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, won a basketball game against a Russian team in April 1977.
It does seem a little bit unlikely. Israelis play basketball? Who knew? They beat Russia? Big deal!
But it was a huge big deal. It took a small, scrappy country, still shaken from the Yom Kippur War, on the cusp of the big changes that were to come when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, landed in Israel, shook Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s hand, and began a cold peace.
In April 1977 — in fact on April 8, 1977, the day after the game was won — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose murder, also 20 years later, shook the country in ways that still reverberate today, 21 years on, resigned from office. (He became prime minister again in 1992.) And the Israelis didn’t beat any old Russian team, and the game wasn’t any old game.
The Israelis beat the Red Army’s official team, CSKA Moscow, in the semi-finals for the European Cup (and later went on to win the whole thing, in a game against an Italian team, Mobilgirgi Varese).
David and Goliath, yes. Rocky and Apollo Creed. The Mets and the Orioles. All underdogs, each pitted against highly favored bullies, each eventually victorious.
Back in 1977, the Cold War had not yet ended. The Soviet Union, as it then was called, had broken off official relations with Israel — it was allied with the young country’s sworn enemies in the Arab world. The Russians refused to come to Israel, and they refused to let the Israelis into Russia. The game was played in Virton, a small town in Belgium.
When the game was over, the team’s star, the Trenton-born Tal Brody, now 73, said, in heavily English-accented Hebrew, “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything!”
That euphoric declaration has become part of Israeli culture (and so has its coiner, Mr. Brody, who made aliyah and has lived in Israel ever since, and now is the country’s goodwill ambassador).
“On the Map” is now also the title of a documentary, filmed first in Hebrew and then slightly redone in English, that tells the team’s story, puts it in context, and carries it forward, looking at the impact it’s had on Israel.
A panel — two people who know a great deal about Israeli basketball firsthand, moderated by someone who knows a great deal about sports in general and the business of sports in particular — will talk about the movie. Dr. Lee Igel of Haworth, a clinical associate professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute and co-director of NYU’s sports and society (and yes, the name of the program ends there, just sports and society) will lead a discussion between Penny Amodai, who comes from a rabid Maccabi family, played basketball herself, and now works for the NBA in New York, and Dr. Bob Griffin, who now teaches English literature but was a point guard for Maccabi and played on the 1977 team.
“On the surface, ‘On the Map’ is a classic sports story,” Dr. Igel said. “It’s the story of an upstart team that beats the mighty giant and goes on to win it all. It’s a miracle story in a way — really, in every way you can imagine. A spiritual way, a religious way. In a larger perspective, just a few years later, there was the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. ice hockey team beating the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. That’s on the surface.
“Below the surface, the question is why we paid attention to it, and why we should pay attention to it.
“It’s a nice story, but why should it matter?
“To me,” Dr. Igel continued, “it’s a Tel Aviv story, an Israel story, a Jewish story. Tel Aviv because it reflects Tel Aviv today, its start-up nature. It’s about excitement, innovation, entrepreneurship.
“You need a villain in a story like this, and it’s the Soviets. One thing we tend to forget about the Soviets is that they were human beings. The propaganda about the Soviet Union as being the Evil Empire came from around that time. But they were human beings.
“Soviet teams were organized and trained in a very systematic way, so when they took to the court or the ice or whatever, they appeared almost robotic. But really they were very fluid, because they had trained together so intensely. So you have this big, organized, established institution playing — and then here comes Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It’s not a patchwork of players. Not really. There had been a concerted effort to put together a team. But they were at nowhere near the level of the Soviets. The organization was well managed, but the funding was so totally different. So you’d have to grab at this start-up mentality in order to win.”
Where to start?
“You’ve got to have an idea.” In this case, that you can build a basketball team, made up of people from all over, who have to be willing somehow to figure out how to make it all work, because they want to badly enough, because they are not cogs in a machine but somehow instead they are its engineers. “You’ve got the elements, you know how to put it together.
“So there was this build-up, and then they start to win, and it all started to come together. And then everyone starts to notice, and that’s when interesting things start to happen — but now it’s make it or break it. The team can continue to win, or it can start to panic at its own success.
“Remember, sometimes even the best ideas fail. But this one didn’t.
“It’s a great story arc, and below it are what we now see and know as a Tel Aviv story, this start-up mentality. And the idea that you can do it — that’s a very Israeli and a very Jewish idea.”
Ms. Amodai is from Tel Aviv. Her connection to the panel is through Dr. Igel; she was his student at NYU, and earned a master’s degree in sports business there. But her ties to Maccabi Tel Aviv go far deeper.
To explain it, first she must explain how sports are structured in Israel. There are basically two sports organizations, she said; although other, smaller ones exist, the main ones are Maccabi and Hapoel. They function like overarching camps, she said, spanning both sports and geography, and even entering politics.
There are Maccabi and Hapoel teams representing most major Israeli cities and towns, and they span a range of sports; that means that there is, say, a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and a Hapoel Jerusalem soccer team and a Maccabi Haifa youth league and Hapoel Jerusalem swimming club.
Maccabi largely represents Likud, the right-of-center Israeli political party, and Hapoel generally supports “Avodah.” Labor.
“My grandfather’s family launched one of Israel’s most famous shoe stores, Mikulinsky’s, in 1925, and my grandfather, Aryeh, was a hardcore Maccabi fan,” Ms. Amodai said. “My grandfather even volunteers to pick up players and drive them to games. To this day, I carry a letter from the Maccabi Association formally thanking my grandmother, Bianca, for allowing my grandfather to help them.”
The family was devoted to the organization. “My family went to every single game,” she said. “We went to away games, which were abroad, and to finals tournaments, which also were abroad. To today, we all have season tickets.
“Going to a game together was like going to another Shabbat dinner,” she said. “The entire family got together to cheer for Maccabi.”
She was born on April 7, 1986, nine years to the day after the huge win that put Israel on the map. “I know a lot about it, like every Maccabi fan — no, like every Israeli sports fan. We all know about it because sports and politics are so tied together in Israel.
“The game shaped the team, and the team represented the country all around the world.
“Israel is not only about soldiers and wars,” she said. “It is about so much more.”
Oh, and one more question. What was the magic that led the team to victory? “For that, you should ask Mr. Griffin,” who played on the team, she said. If anyone knows, it would be him.
Mr. Griffin has led an unexpected life. Basketball is only part of it.
He was born on Long Island’s North Shore, in Port Washington, and went to Columbia in 1968, a basketball player who planned on majoring in English literature. He sat on the bench while some soon-to-be-famous players were on court — most prominently Jim Baron, who went on to be a college coach — but dropped out after two years. Mr. Griffin drifted to Europe, floated around for a while — it was 1970, and that was in vogue just then — and then fetched up in Israel, at the invitation of a friend, Stanley Felsinger, who was playing in Israel then and had a spare bed.
Mr. Griffin played for three teams in Israel, ending up with Maccabi Tel Aviv. “During that time, I went back to school at Tel Aviv University and I finished up my B.A. in English literature,” he said. Once that heart-stopping season was over, “I retired from basketball and went to graduate school at Yale,” he said, casually, as if of course that’s what he did.
Mr. Griffin — really Dr. Griffin, but he asked that we not use the title; although we know that most certainly we should, we will accede to his wishes — wrote his doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. That’s the 18th-century essayist, poet, philosopher, lexicographer, wit, melancholic, and all-around character who commonly is called Dr. Johnson, although his right to that title is less clear than Mr. Griffin’s. It is Dr. Johnson who undertook to compile the first modern English-language dictionary, a monumental effort that resulted in a compelling and frequently eye-opening work; it is also Dr. Johnson whose life was chronicled astonishingly by James Boswell.
Mr. Griffin’s dissertation focused on the idea of reflection, a key concept for Dr. Johnson, he said.
It is highly unlikely to find someone who segued as effortlessly as Mr. Griffin from basketball to Johnson. It is possible that the miracle of the team echoed itself forward.
Dr. Griffin taught English literature at Bowdoin College in Maine for a few years, and then he went back to Israel, where he taught at Tel Aviv University for another 18. Now he teaches at Texas A & M, but when he retires, he plans to move back home to Tel Aviv, where his wife and children live. “I moved to Texas only for professional reasons,” he said. Israel’s his home.
There were many lessons he learned playing basketball that he transferred to his academic career, Mr. Griffin said. “If you are a graduate student, it is highly competitive. You have to publish.
“I made my living for seven years by playing basketball, so I was used to competition. If you’re not used to it, that kind of competitiveness may be a shock. Some people may know that they like literature, but they’re not sure that they like the professionalization of it, so they drop out.
“But to me, the professionalization also was another version of something I’d already experienced.” He’d gone from being a child, playing basketball for fun, to being a student, playing it for his school’s status and bragging rights, to being a professional, playing it for money. “It really was another version of exactly the same thing,” he said.
He also feels that he benefitted as a teacher from having done something entirely different, Mr. Griffin said. “I didn’t go straight through as an academic, but I also had other experiences. It meant that I wasn’t a typical academic, and I could relate to students differently.”
So — why did the team win? What was the secret?
“I think we won because we had a group of people whose abilities meshed and balanced each other, but also because, to a person, we had high basketball IQs, and because we were fighters,” he said.
“For example, I only found out after the game against the Russians — and it’s in the movie — that our management was hoping we would lose by less than 40 points. The Russian team had beaten Real Madrid in Madrid the week before by 20 points. But something like that never occurred to me or the rest of the players.
“Our attitude was who cares what they did in Madrid last week? They still have to beat us tonight.
“In short, we were not intimidated. We saw it as an opportunity to beat a team from Russia.”
There was one other, smaller thing, he added. “It also helped, I have to say, that, for security reasons, the game was played in a small high school gymnasium in a small town in Belgium near the border with Luxembourg. That meant there were no Russian spectators; the gym was filled with Israelis who lived in Europe or flew in from Israel.”
The team was made up of different, strong personalities, but there was something that united them. “It’s not that there were not internal rivalries over scoring and playing time,” Mr. Griffin said. “But no one undermined the team effort.
“Everyone was there to win the game every night.
So Mr. Griffin was an active part of a miracle, one that put him and the rest of the team, as well as the country they represented, on the map.
Who: Former Maccabi Tel Aviv 1977 player Bob Griffin will be part of a panel discussing
What: “On the Map,” a documentary about the crucial basketball game
Where: At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, 275 McKinley Ave., in New Milford
When: On Sunday, September 25; the film starts at 7 and the panel discussion will follow.
Why: Part of the school’s annual Israel Night, benefiting the Stephanie Prezant z”l Israel Scholarship Fund
How much: $18; reservations are necessary.
For reservations or more information: Call Alyssa Wolf at (201) 262-9898, ext. 275, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.