New Film Tells Story of Israeli Basketball Triumph Over Soviets
JNS.org – 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.
The murder of Israeli athletes 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 very survival on the world stage remained in question.
So the Maccabi’s upset triumph over CSKA Moscow — along the team’s road to a European basketball championship — ignited renewed faith and patriotism among Israelis, turning the tide in a turbulent period. Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin’s new documentary, “On The Map,” recounts the tremendous achievements of a team nobody thought could win, and captures the unique charisma of the players who inspired a nation.
Early in the film, Israeli MK Michael Oren describes the hardships that Israel endured during the 1970s.
“It was a very difficult [time] for Israel, probably the greatest trauma suffered by the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Oren said. His description of the toll that the Yom Kippur War had on Israeli society is particularly telling.
The film’s title references the defiant words team captain Tal Brody spoke after the Maccabis 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 makes this statement in the film, 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.org. 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.
“Only now do I really get how big it is … In many ways this story is even more exciting to [audiences] in the United States 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” against the Russians, as 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 it also 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 legendary guard, says.
“The team consisted of five American players, who didn’t make the NBA (National Basketball Association — 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. Take Maccabi center Aulcie Perry. 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 approached by Maccabi’s coach, Ralph Klein, who asked him to consider playing basketball in Israel.
“At September, with no job … any job I would have said yes to — my first thought was that I was going to be doing a lot of praying!” And the longer Aulcie played in Israel, the more interested he became in Israeli culture and the Jewish religion.
“My movies are both documentaries and fiction, I will usually follow a person from the present through whatever happens to them,” director Menkin says, describing his directorial style. His previous films, 39 Pounds of Love and Dolphin Boy, are biopic stories about scarred individuals who overcome hardship. On the Map is a different story.
“This was my team, all of them were my childhood heroes,” Menkin says. “Tal Brody was a role model as captain, Miki Berkovich was the ideal Israeli sabra — he had so much chutzpah the way he moved the ball, and I’ve always been fascinated by Aulcie Perry’s story.”
“Moshe Dayan was the most recognizable face in the world except for Mohammad Ali,” says Eric Menkin, a player on the 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 a motivation for the Israeli team to play its hardest.
Similarly, Rabin, a general at the time and later Israel’s prime minister, honored the team’s victory over the Russians in a way that cast the players as heroes for all of Israel.
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 beat the Soviets was a major spiritual victory for the Jewish people.
This film revives the fervor and excitement that originally accompanied the Jewish state’s foray onto the world stage, and proves that regardless of the current international mood, Israel remains a country that matters.