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Maccabi Tel Aviv – I’m Lovin’ it

The year was 1977. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat made a speech at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and the Israeli army held its biggest drill since the 1973 War. And yet, it seems that what Israelis remember most from that year took place in Belgrade, where Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Championship in basketball.

Maccabi Tel Aviv is not just a sports team. It is an empire which reigns basketball in Israel, and attracts most of Israel’s basketball fans. “The popularity of Maccabi Tel Aviv is unparalleled in any other country I can think of,” says one of Israel’s leading basketball commentators Ofer Shelah. “In no other country would you find that the sole interest of the overwhelming majority of basketball fans is focused in one team. It is a phenomenon which exceeds basketball,” adds Shelah.

But this was not always the case. While in Israel Maccabi had already won 22 state championships, including seven in a row from 1970, in 1977 Europe it was considered a small Middle Eastern team which had no significant achievements to its name.

The Middle Eastern team turns into a European giant

That is, until February 1977. Maccabi Tel Aviv qualified for the European Championship’s semi-final, and was to play against the Red Army team, CSKA Moscow. To many in Israel it seemed like the battle of David and Goliath. When Maccabi won the game Israel was ecstatic. Then, Maccabi went on to win the final game against Italy’s Mobilgirgi Varese. At the end of the game, the team’s American-Jewish player Tal Brody held the trophy and shouted to the camera “We are on the map, and we are staying on the map, not just in sports, but in everything.” Almost 30 years later, Israelis still remember Brody’s enthusiastic statement.

Maccabi’s first win of the European Championship “took place during a stormy period in the country’s history,” says Dr. Yair Galili, Head of Sport and Mass Media Studies at the Wingate Institute in Israel. “In 1977 the government fell, and Maccabi’s achievement brought much pride to the Israelis. It attracted many who wanted to identify with success, and to a large extent this continues until today,” Dr. Galili adds.

Instantly, Maccabi became the country’s favorite team. One of the team’s most enthusiastic fans was then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who used to shake the players’ hands before every game in the European Championships. Minutes after Maccabi won the championship in 2001, coach Pinhas Gershon received a telephone call from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who congratulated him on the win. This became a routine, which continued in 2004, and 2005.

Maccabi – an Israeli team?

Maccabi’s successes in Europe are also viewed by Israelis from the political aspect. “It proves the powerful existence of Israel among the world nations,” says Shelah. “In that respect, a Maccabi fan doesn’t really care if any Israelis play in the team, or if it plays well. What the fans are interested in, is that Maccabi wins its games against the other nations.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, only one or two players in Maccabi were foreigners. But in the middle of the 1990s a rapid change occurred. Since then, the team’s backbone is made up of mostly American, but also European players. Today, the Israeli players are hardly dominant in Maccabi’s game, and none of them were raised in the club.

“There were times when Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Israeli players did not score one point in an entire game,” says Shelah. “But this does not seem to bother its audience. In Pinhas Gershon’s team since the beginning of the century Israelis played a very minor role, but the team gained even more popularity because it won more games against the other countries. Period.”

Dr. Galili of the Wingate Institute disagrees with Shelah. He believes that as the team gives a lesser role to its Israeli players, so the level of identification with it is diminishing. In any case, bringing in foreign players is not a phenomenon unique to Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Three decades after his “We are on the map” statement, Tal Brody today sits on Maccabi’s board of directors. According to Brody, globalization is also felt in basketball. “Look at Olympiacos for example – they hardly have any Greek players.” Even in the NBA things are changing, and today one can see 82 European and South American players in the league, Brody says.

Excellent management, though a bit unorthodox

Many things have changed since Brody came to play in Israel in the 1960s. Having been listed by The Sporting News and Converse as one of the Top Ten college basketball players in the USA, Brody was used to playing in front of an 18,000-fan crowd. When he arrived in Israel he had to adjust to playing on outdoor courts with concrete tiles. Since then, Brody says, the change is remarkable. “In order for the team to succeed, people [in the management] sacrificed everything, even at their families’ expense,” he says.

For decades now, the team has been led by a small group headed by Shimon Mizrahi and Moni Fanan. Not missing a game, the two are involved in all aspects of the players’ lives, on and off the court. “The team is not run according to professional standards,” says Shelah. “[Vice Chairman] Moni Fanan, for example, spends a lot of money on spoiling the foreign players. It may be, however, that if the team would have been run as a purely professional organization, it would have lost some championships. A professional organization cannot be based solely on winnings,” says Shelah.

In the Israeli league, Maccabi loses between one and three games a season, rarely twice in a row. Every game the team loses is considered a sensation. To cope with such pressure, the players are treated as royalty, their every need taken care of.

Soon an NBA team?

In recent years, in an effort to raise interest in the NBA, Commissioner David Stern has been playing with the idea of establishing a European division. One of the few European teams the commissioner made contact with was Maccabi Tel Aviv. Experts say this idea is still far from execution, but Maccabi is already toying with it. Tal Brody believes Maccabi can win 20 to 30 games in the 82-game season. Shelah is quick however to pour cold water on this optimistic hope, saying Maccabi will probably not win more than seven games.

NBA aside, Maccabi has just participated in the Euroleague’s Final Four. Maccabi came second to CSKA od Moscow, meaning an end to the dream of its third consecutive Euroleague championship, and its sixth title in total.

Notwithstanding the defeat, Maccabi is one of Israel’s biggest success stories. “Despite the non-Israeli characteristics in the team, Maccabi still represents Israel,” says Dr. Galili and concludes: “From the geo-political aspect, sport is much less significant today than it used to be. But Maccabi still puts Israeli sports on the map. Big time.”