The most incredible sports story you've never heard
A new film spotlights the unbelievable underdog basketball team that uplifted an entire country.
Tal Brody vividly remembered the night from nearly 40 years ago. And why wouldn't he? It was the night that would forever change his life.
NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a friend and former teammate of Brody, summed it up like this: "It is easily one of the greatest sporting accomplishments ever."
Brody – a scrawny kid from Trenton, New Jersey – had somehow found himself on the team that won the 1977 European Basketball Championship. What's more, he was representing Israel, a country so small it's about the size of Brody's home state. The upstart team had, against all odds, beat the leading Soviet team CSKA Moscow and showed the world that miracles do happen.
"When we won the championship," Brody recalled during a recent interview with From The Grapevine, "when I picked up that trophy, I was like picking up the whole country on my shoulders."
At that moment, he uttered a phrase that would reverberate in the annals of sports history: "We are on the map!"
"On the Map" is now the name of one of the season's most highly anticipated sports documentaries, and it follows Brody and his team on their journey during that momentous year.
With Brody in the captain position, the Maccabi Tel Aviv team had a decent, if not extraordinary, regular season. But they came alive during the European Cup playoffs, handily winning their first two games against Spain and Czechoslovakia.
They were now set to play in the semifinals against mighty Moscow. The Soviets had won the prior four European Cup basketball titles, and had been undefeated during those four years. The game pitted Israel – which at the time had only 4 million residents – with the Soviet Union, a nation of 290 million.
At first, Moscow refused to even take part in the game. Since the 1972 Olympics, when the Russian national team eked out a controversial one-point win at the last second of the game against the U.S., the team had a reputation for breaking the rules. They didn't want to travel to the coastal Mediterranean metropolis of Tel Aviv, and they wouldn't give visas to anyone on the Israeli team to play in Russia.
Eventually, after some backroom talks, they agreed to play Maccabi Tel Aviv – but it would have to take place in the small town of Virton, Belgium. Fans of both teams had never even heard of the place, a hamlet of only 10,000 people. The arena for this international tournament was big enough for only 500 attendees.
"When Russia didn't want to play, it became a big story and a huge game to play against them. Because for us, they were the giants," Dani Menkin, the film's director and an Israeli, told From The Grapevine. The streets of Tel Aviv were empty that night as even those only moderately interested in sports stayed inside to watch the game. According to newspaper reports, most of the country's population tuned into the broadcast.
And what they witnessed was a moment of sports history. Israel won the game, defeating the Russians 91-79.
"Nobody could believe that we could win," said Menkin. "People said that it's well enough that we were playing against them, but beating them was out of this world."
That magical night is now fondly recalled as "The Miracle on Hardwood," and evoked similar feelings among Americans when they defeated the Russians in the 1980 Olympics during the famous "Miracle on Ice" hockey match.
It's a night that Brody will never forget. "The spirit that went on through this country after that, people just poured out into the streets and celebrated. It was amazing." About 150,000 adoring fans came out to welcome the team back on the streets of Tel Aviv.
But the journey wasn't over. They still had one more game to play.
The final game matched them against the highly favored Mobilgirgi Varese, the champions of Italy, who had already defeated the Israeli team twice that season. The game was close, and went down to the final seconds. In the end, Brody and his team won 78-77.
"I was 7 years old and I remember that day," director Menkin told us. "I remember how my father lifted me on his shoulder when he heard of the great victory."
The day the team returned home was declared a national holiday, and Brody became a bonafide sports hero.
That same year, Bill Walton of the champion Portland Trailblazers was named the MVP of the NBA. "When we heard that Maccabi Tel Aviv and Tal Brody won the European Cup championship, I was never more proud in my entire life," said Walton, who was friends with Brody from when they played together in the early 1970s.
David Stern, the former commissioner of the NBA, remembered it this way: "I would describe it as the little caboose that could," he said. "What happened because of that championship is that Maccabi actually became one of the most important club teams in the world."
Their story is now being told, thanks to the new film and some of its high-profile backers. Nancy Spielberg, the sister of the famed director, is one of the producers of the documentary. "When Dani Menkin brought this incredible project to me, I was immediately grabbed with the energy of the story and the thrill of the game," she told From The Grapevine. "I'm drawn to the underdog stories, the Davids versus Goliath. Here was a scrappy basketball team – nothing to write home about – who, through cooperative efforts, not only found their footing on the home court, but reached new heights on the world stage."
The team would go on to win the championship six more times since then, most recently in 2014 under the leadership of Coach David Blatt. They have appeared 16 times in the Final Four. "They became one of the strongest basketball teams outside of the NBA," explained Menkin.
The team reunited four decades later: (Back row) Moti Aresti, Lou Silver, Auclie Perry, Shuki Schwartz. (Front row) Miki Berkovich, Tal Brody, Aryeh Davidesco and Ruti Klein (one of the player's widows). (Photo: Aner Gera)
As for Brody, he's now a grandfather and semi-retired. But he is never far from the game he's loved to play since he attended high school in New Jersey. (One of our interviews took place at halftime of a recent Maccabi Tel Aviv game.) He serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for Israeli basketball, touring the world giving talks and helping organize games between Israeli and NBA teams. This February, on the 40th anniversary of that memorable night against the Russians, he'll be celebrating with other legends at the NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
In total, he appeared with the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in 81 European Cup games, scoring 1,378 points. He was also selected to the European All Star Team. But nothing comes close to that miraculous 1977 season.
"The first European championship was the sweetest," Brody told us. "It's something that nobody has forgotten in this country."
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