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January 16, 2020 4:02 pm

From Harlem to Tel Aviv: Aulcie Perry’s Basketball Journey

avatar by Gary Shapiro

Director of The Jewish Museum Claudia Gold, basketball legend Aulcie Perry, chairman of The Jewish Museum Robert Pruzan and executive director of Film at Lincoln Center Leslie Klainberg. Photo: Gary Shapiro.

Legendary basketball player Aulcie Perry’s life has been remarkable on and off the court. 

This African-American athlete’s life changed dramatically after playing basketball on a court in Harlem in 1976. A scout from Israel saw him there and recruited him to join the team Maccabi Tel Aviv. Within a year, Perry catapulted the team to a European championship, a feat repeated four years later. 

Israeli director Dani Menkin’s documentary “Aulcie” follows the arc of Perry’s remarkable life and career. It premiered this week at the New York Jewish Film Festival, which is sponsored by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center.  It has upcoming screenings in Las Vegas and Palm Beach, among other locations.  

“It is a love story,” said Menkin. He noted that Perry embraced Israel and the feeling was mutual. Perry converted to Judaism, became an Israeli citizen and adopted a Hebrew name, Elisha Ben Avraham. And Israel rescued his career when he was released by the New York Knicks before ever playing game in the NBA.

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“In return, he put Israeli basketball on the map,” said Menkin.

The film describes Perry’s early life growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1960s. Born in Newark Beth Israel Hospital, Perry was already 6’5” at the age of 13. The violence of the period was striking. Perry said that around 20 of his fellow high school students were dead before they graduated. “Basketball was my way out. I knew it was going to be a way out of a bad situation,” said Perry.

Maccabi Tel Aviv gave him his start. In the film, the team is described as becoming part of “the in thing” in the 1970s. For example, Moshe Dayan could be seen shaking hands with players on the court. Perry became the equivalent of a pop star. 

“He was Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rolled into one,” said Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff. “He turned himself and his team into the kings of Europe.”

He and Israeli model Tami Ben Ami became an item. They were a power couple, like “Brangelina,” said Wolff of Sports Illustrated, referring to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. 

While Perry’s life story has ups and downs, the latter has much to do with drugs. What started as an addiction to pain killers for his knee “became my downfall,” acknowledged Perry. “It’s when everything began to collapse for me.” 

In 1987, he was convicted in the US of heroin trafficking. He served five years of a ten-year sentence in federal prison in North Carolina. While there, he received thousands of letters from fans. “The people at the prison couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The documentary has an emotional scene where Perry meets with his college-age biological daughter, Cierra, for the first time. 

Perry still works in youth basketball in Israel. Asked by The Algemeiner what advice he had for children who wanted to have careers as basketball players, he said one has to work hard every day at it. “It can’t be a hobby,” he stated, “and it has to come from inside.”

Executive producer Nancy Spielberg said Perry’s openness and honesty made the film remarkable. 

Perry commented, “I’m a very lucky man, even with the hardships.”

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