An iconic figure in the world of sports, famous for his prestigious tenure playing with the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball team in Israel during the late 60s and early 70s, the man brought more than just the love of basketball to Israel, he rallied an entire country to the sport and gave them a champion. Tal Brody is a true national hero. He left the NBA after a couple of short years to pursue a basketball career in Israel, where he lifted his team and the spirit of a nation to new and unforeseen heights. Since his retirement he has been involved with charitable work in Israel and around the world including numerous youth groups. A much beloved legend in Israeli culture, Brody is perhaps best known for his famed remarks spoken at the European championship game in 1977 When the Maccabi team defeated a strong, heavily favored soviet opponent, eventually winning the title game that gave them the countries first championship. Approached by a media crew after the 91-79 victory Tal Brody proudly exclaimed “we are on the map and we are here to stay, not only in sports but in everything.”
The following is a one on one conversation that the Algemeiner had with the Israeli superstar
How did you get into basketball as a youngster and which schools did you play for?
I grew up in Trenton, NJ and I was nine years old when I started playing in the JCC in the Boys Club League, and when I went to high school I joined their basketball team where the coach saw me play. Our team also won the New Jersey State championship and after high school I had a lot of scholarship offers from different universities and I chose the University of Illinois. when I was there we won the big ten championship and our school was rated number 3 in the nation we also won the holiday festival championship in New York Where we beat Adolph Rupp’s team we defeated NYU and west Virginia who had great teams. I knew Lou Dan pier and Pat Riley who played for the great Kentucky team and when I finished university I was drafted 13th in the NBA draft of 1965. I was picked by the Baltimore bullets which are the Washington wizards today and after rookie camp they got me an apartment at john Hopkins University.
What first inspired you to make the move to Israel?
That year of 1965 I played for Team USA in Israel’s Maccabi games where I was first introduced to the country. Our team won the gold medal and I also had a chance to do some traveling and visiting around the state. I gradually developed the desire to stay. I was approached by the minister of sports and Maccabi Tel Aviv and they presented me with the challenge of joining their team, coming to Israel and taking basketball in the country to the next level, and the challenge really appealed to me.
Was it a difficult decision to leave the NBA for a smaller market?
At that time there were only nine teams in the NBA and the players didn’t get huge contracts, not until David Stern took over. Jerry Sloan had been drafted ahead of me and we had quite a good team in Baltimore. they were already loaded up at the guard position so I decided to take on the challenge of helping an entire country as opposed to just one team, and when I went to Israel I saw things differently then what I had imagined it would be like. I was a Jewish kid from Trenton, New Jersey and I was not expecting to see what I saw in Israel, so I told the people in Baltimore that I would take a year out of my life and go to Israel to try to take their game to another level.
At that point did you have plans to stay in Israel for the long term?
No, I was only planning on staying a year, but what happened was that first year in Israel was so exciting and the basketball was doing incredible things for the country; I decided to go back a second year.
What were some of the highlights of your career?
Winning the European championship in ’77 for the first time was the highlight of my career, as well as beating the great team from Russia in the semis. you know, after my first two years in Israel I thought I was going to stay but then I was drafted into the United States Army where I did two years, then I came back to Israel after I got a letter form Moshe Dayan asking me to come back and continue the work I was doing, and 7 years later we won the European basketball championship for the first time. it was something that was revolutionary to the country because soccer is the top sport in Europe and basketball became the top sport in Israel and it had a revolutionary affect on the whole country, It was unbelievable what it was doing to the spirit and the morale of the country, and It was great to be a part of it. Then we won the championship a second time in 1981, and twenty years later we won it again during the 2001 EBC games in Paris, and then again in 2004 in Tel Aviv and 2005 in Moscow; five time winners of the EBC and 13 times in the finals and we were the only team outside of the United States that was honored in the basketball hall of fame. I was invited to come in for the ceremony and represent our basketball team which was truly a great honor for me.
Has basketball helped in some way to lift the people’s spirit in Israel during tough times?
Well, in that first year 1966 when they were recruiting me they said that if basketball would succeed here it would have a phenomenal affect on the country and put smiles on people’s faces, and help the country which was at that time in the middle of a recession. It ended up having a great affect on the country, so much so that I was presented with the honor of receiving Israel prize (similar to what bill Russell achieved with the Medal of Freedom), this was the first time they presented this award to a sports player and I was very proud and honored by it
What’s your take on Omri Caspi being the first Israeli born player in the NBA?
Omri was on our basketball team at Maccabi Tel Aviv and it’s a great honor for our team to have him play in the NBA; I see that he’s holding his own out there. I was very proud when I saw him at the rookie game when I came in on my annual trip during the NBA’s All-Star weekend. I also saw him play last year in Dallas and even though his team, the Sacramento Kings, is not winning. I think he does his job well every minute that he is in the game, and it’s a great honor for the Israeli community to have our first NBA representative.
What are some of the organizations that you are currently involved with?
I chair an organization called The Spirit of Israel. The inspiration came to me during a meeting I attended a long time ago where they said they are trying very hard in the states to raise money for us in Israel, and I wanted to know what the Israelis themselves were doing. So we established The Spirit of Israel where we raise money for Israel, and three projects were chosen which would be financially supported by Israel: helping out the senior citizens – the people that built this country, also kids who are at risk, and we also help victims of family abuse. This campaign has been going on for 12 years.
Have you ever considered getting involved in politics?
Well, actually it’s not something I would like to get into, but Netanyahu asked me if I wanted to join in the efforts for Israel and if I was interested in a new position which did not exist at the time; I was to be ambassador of goodwill. It took them around a year and a half before they established the position and about four months ago the ministry of foreign affairs honored me with this status. I felt very proud that they asked me as a sportsman to take on this position. I have since then been around to many college campuses in North America speaking to the ball players and the students. I have visited Jewish organizations, and have even expanded to Africa American communities.
How is Maccabi doing these days?
We hope very much to have a nice attendance at the Maccabi games this summer in Israel. It’s also becoming very popular all over the United States, and I think it’s a great opportunity for young Jewish kids as far as sports is concerned to come and stay in Israel and participate in the leagues.
How do you handle the Israelis who tease your American accented Hebrew?
Well, they have a show on TV here – kind of like a Saturday night live – where they went at me for my Hebrew. if I had known when I came to Israel all those years ago that I was going to be here for the next 40 years I would have made the attempt to formally study the language. Instead I went to the University of Jerusalem to get a PHD. So I picked up Hebrew from the streets, and I often mistake the feminine and masculine, but I really do enjoy it here especially getting to talk to the young students at the schools here in Israel to inspire them about sports and Judaism. It’s like being transported back to the time when I was their age and loved playing the game; it’s something I truly enjoy.
Ok here is an important one. Favorite restaurant in Israel?
I’d have to say Seatara at the Sea & Sun building in Tel Aviv, and also the Art Café; my wife and I really love to go there with friends for coffee and cake. It’s really an excellent place to be with family and friends.