Selected 12th overall in the 1965 National Basketball Association draft, Tal Brody passed on the American Dream so he could help change the landscape of Israeli sports—turning down the Baltimore Bullets for a spot on Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It was a challenge to take a team that never went past the first round of the European basketball championships to another level, and I’m very happy I took up that challenge because we won the championships five times,” he told JointMedia News Service.
The first of those five European titles came in 1977, when Brody—the team captain—was carried off the court on the shoulders of fans celebrating a historic victory over heavily favored CSKA Moscow. He declared afterward to a TV announcer: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map— not only in sports, but in everything.”
These days, the man nicknamed “Mr. Basketball” in Israel has a very different opponent—those who continue to take shots at the Jewish homeland. Last year, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman appointed Brody as the first-ever international Goodwill Ambassador of Israel.
“I’m very proud that they chose a sportsman to take on that position,” Brody said in a phone interview from Miami (where he visited Dec. 12-17) arranged by the Consulate General of Israel to Florida & Puerto Rico. “It’s basically speaking on the [school] campuses and trying to go up with the facts against the fiction about a lot of things which are said about Israel, and having good discussions with the students.”
The ambassador’s latest journey
Brody, 68, takes diplomatic trips once every 4-6 weeks on behalf of Israel. On this particular mission, he visited the new campus of the David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie, Fla., and was also at an event that he called “a page out of the history” of U.S. basketball, with 330 people—including Hall of Fame big man Dave Cowens—in attendance.
At the Posnack school, whose basketball team happens to be coached by former NBA guard Kenny Anderson, Brody said he was in contact with current New York Knicks’ star forward Amare Stoudemire—who made headlines in 2010 by visiting Israel and exploring his possible Jewish roots, then considered playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv before the resolution of this year’s NBA lockout.
“Although we’re happy that the NBA is going to have a season that we can watch, we’re disappointed in Israel because we lost [New Jersey Nets’ guard Jordan Farmar, who was playing with [Maccabi Tel Aviv] up to now, and the fact that if the NBA wasn’t going to have a season there was a good chance that Amare Stoudemire was going to join our team for the second half of the year,” Brody said.
‘Presenting Israel beyond the conflict’
Brody, who was born in Trenton, NJ, and starred at guard for the University of Illinois, said he works with both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations—from Hispanic, Christian, African American, and other circles—in his position as goodwill ambassador.
“When I’m coming in to the States, I’m presenting Israel beyond the [Arab-Israeli] conflict, our normal and daily lives in Israel,” he said. The Christian community, Brody said, is “more and more getting together and backing Israel, and helping to stop all these BDS boycotts, sanctions against Israel.”
Nevertheless, Brody must fight the numerous “misconceptions” about Israel that exist around the world. He highlights how Israel is the only country in the Middle East that gives full rights to women and homosexuals—not an Apartheid state, as it is commonly alleged.
“On the [college] campuses, Christians or African Americans who have never been to Israel, they sort of think that we’re like South Africa, which is so far from [the truth],” Brody said. “So when I come, we have these discussions and they get a better understanding for what Israel is, and what it isn’t.”
When asked by students why Israel doesn’t “give freedom of movement to Palestinians,” Brody explains that until the Second Intifada of 2000, there was never any type of security fence and that movement between the Palestinian Territories and Israel was unrestricted, wtih large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza working in the Israeli building industry.
However, once Palestinian suicide bombers attacked the country’s citizens, killing more than 1,700 Israelis—including Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Druze, infants and seniors, in pizza parlors, buses and hotels—more security was needed, he tells students.
“Try to picture yourself, in the morning, getting on a bus to school … and all of the sudden a young guy gets on who is brainwashed, who thinks he’s going to heaven with 72 virgins waiting for him, and your only benefit is ZAKA (volunteers responding to tragedy in Israel] to pick up your limbs and put them in a bag for a decent burial,” Brody said.
‘The sports capital of the Middle East’
When he speaks to crowds, Brody said he also calls Israel “the sports capital of the Middle East”—and with good reason. He explained the “60-40-20” system for remembering the country’s athletic history—60 years since first participating in the Olympics; 40 years since 11 Israeli athletes were massacred at the Olympics in Munich, Germany; and 20 years since Israel won its first Olympic medal, in Judo.
Since its breakthrough two decades ago, Israel has received medals at each Summer Olympics, with most of its success coming in martial arts and watersports. But Israel isn’t a fish out of water when it comes to winter sports, either—its junior ice hockey team (13-year-olds) recently placed first in its group at the world championships in Canada.
“We don’t even have ice in Israel, they practiced on rollerblades,” Brody said.
“Very few people realize that we’re so intense about sports, which is part of our lives,” he said.
The rise of Israeli basketball
Although the Knicks’ Stoudemire didn’t take the plunge, a handful of NBA players signed contracts with professional teams in Israel during the U.S. league’s labor dispute. Brody explained that American players consider Israel a real option “because they know that they can play basketball and have an excellent life,” adding that “they choose Israel sometimes above other countries in Europe.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv has a $20 million budget—about a third of the NBA salary cap—but that hasn’t stopped the club from attracting NBA players like Farmar, who is now back with the Nets.
Another indicator of the rise of Israeli basketball is the success of former Maccabi Tel Aviv star Omri Casspi—the NBA’s first Israeli-born player—who averaged 9.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in two seasons with the Sacramento Kings, and is expected to have a more prominent role this season as a starting forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Everybody hopes that he’ll be getting more playing time,” Brody said of Casspi.
Brody said that when he watched Casspi play at the 2010 NBA All-Star weekend in Dallas, in a game pitting the league’s top rookies against the top sophomores, Casspi “looked like he belonged there. He belonged on the court.”
“I think he can prove himself, he has the ability and he has the ambition, he has the drive, he’s a hustler, and I think the coaches like him,” Brody said. “Sometimes he gets overanxious because he wants to play more, but you live and learn.”
However, beyond contributing on the court, Brody takes pride in how Casspi has spoken at various synagogues and Jewish organizations since joining the NBA, while inspiring fans all over the country to come to games with Israeli flags.
In that sense, Brody—the government-appointed ambassador—considers Casspi an “unofficial ambassador.”
“I think every Israeli that goes abroad is a goodwill ambassador, and especially Omri,” Brody said.