By Jeffrey Barken
The stakes could not have been higher when Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team faced its heavily favored rival, the Russian CSKA Moscow squad, on a neutral court in Belgium in 1977.
Deadly terrorism against Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur War had cast despairing clouds over Israel during the first half of the decade. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Jewish state’s viability was questioned.
Therefore, Maccabi’s upset triumph over CSKA Moscow — along the team’s road to a European basketball championship — ignited renewed patriotism among many Israelis. Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin’s new documentary, “On The Map,” recounts the achievements of a team nobody thought could win, and captures the unique charisma of the players who inspired a nation.
Early in the film, former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren describes the hardship Israelis had endured.
“It was a very difficult [time] for Israel, probably the greatest trauma suffered by the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Oren reflects on the setbacks Israel suffered during the early 1970s.
“Two-thousand-six-hundred Israeli soldiers were killed in three weeks. Everybody knew someone who had died in that war. It seemed at that point that we could not go any lower or any darker,” Oren says. “Then suddenly this,” he adds, smiling as he recalls Maccabi Tel Aviv’s triumph.
The film’s title references the defiant words team captain Tal Brody spoke after Maccabi defeated the Russians in the historic matchup. “We are on the map and we will stay on the map, not only in sports but in everything!” Brody jubilantly declares in unforgettable black-and-white footage.
“For me it was a very exciting story, because I’m a basketball fan . . . and I’m a fan of Israel. In many ways this is my first childhood memory,” Menkin tells JNS.
He was inspired to make the film largely out of nostalgia, but when he began researching the Maccabi team and discovered never-before-seen footage, he realized the true significance of the project.
“In many ways this story is even more exciting to [audiences] in the US than it is in Israel,” Menkin says, noting that many young Americans are unfamiliar with this chapter in Israel’s history.
Before there was the US Olympic team’s “miracle on ice” in 1980 against the Russians, as the trailer to “On the Map” states, there was “a miracle on hardwood.” Maccabi’s victory against CSKA Moscow was a symbolic feat that resonated across the free world and stands as an enduring testament to the special relationship Israel shares with America.
“Compared to the other teams, we didn’t have any big names,” Miki Burkovich, Maccabi’s guard, reflects in the film, validating their underdog status.
“The team consisted of five American players who didn’t make the NBA — most of them Jewish — and three Israeli sabras,” adds Mike Karnon, a Maccabi Tel Aviv historian.
The story of how the American players adapted to life in Israel and came together as a team reflects Israel’s immigrant heritage. Viewers will especially delight in the athletic and spiritual journey that Maccabi center Aulcie Perry underwent. Perry had made it to the final rounds of tryouts for the New York Knicks, but was ultimately denied a spot on the roster. Aulcie was playing at Madison Square Garden when he was approached by Maccabi’s coach Ralph Klein, who asked him to consider playing basketball in Israel.
The longer Aulcie played in Israel, the more interested he became in Israeli culture and the Jewish religion, eventually converting to the faith.
Menkin’s previous films include “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy,” biopic stories about scarred individuals who overcame hardship.
There are other characters in the film — such as iconic Israeli leaders Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin — who are notable for the way they elevated basketball as Israel’s national pastime and set the stage for the east-west political confrontation that the 1976-77 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball season came to represent.
“Moshe Dayan was the most recognizable face in the world except for Mohammad Ali,” says Eric Menkin, a player on the history-making Maccabi team. “He was at every one of our games, shaking our hands.”
Defense Minister Dayan’s unforgettable eye patch and his double-edged gesture of also shaking the hands of Maccabi’s opponents before the start of a game was at once an intimidation factor as well as motivation for the Israeli team to play its hardest.
The story of Jewish-Russian activist Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, adds another dimension to the film. Sharansky recalls how the former Soviet Union did not recognize Israel.
“Every expression of solidarity with Israel was almost betrayal,” Sharansky says. For Russian Jews and Israelis alike, the fact that Maccabi managed to force a matchup with the Russian team, even if the game took place in a neutral location, was a major spiritual victory for the Jewish people.
Audiences will want to know more about the makeup of the Russian basketball team, and the secret interactions they had with Maccabi players on the eve of the big game — an element that Menkin neglects to explore in depth.
Nevertheless, the film presents many intriguing personalities and anecdotes that bring the period and the dramatic games to life.
Menkin notes that he “wanted to show something really positive coming out of Israel and also to show a time when Israel was a little more naive, different, special, even magical.” His film revives the fervor and excitement that accompanied the Jewish state’s foray onto the world stage.
Maccabi’s story proves that regardless of the current international mood, Israel remains a country that matters.