Interview: Tal Brody
Basketball great Tal Brody, one of Israel’s best-known American immigrants, became a legend in 1977 when he led the Maccabi Tel Aviv team to the European championship, a day that lives forever in the sporting annals of the Jewish state. Brody, 59, went on to a business career and is now considering a third act—in the Knesset.
Q. What made you turn toward a career in politics? How did this come about?
A. I had never really thought about getting involved with politics, although I’ve been a member of the Likud Party for some time. I always felt a sports [figure] should not try to sway public opinion or tell people who to vote for. But then Bibi Netanyahu called me to discuss…representing Likud in the Knesset. It struck me that this was something very important to all the things in which I had been involved and that I care deeply about. I haven’t yet made a final decision, but I’m leaning in this direction.
Q. How did Netanyahu influence you?
A. I was genuinely touched when Bibi emphasized how important it is to bring in people who are not traditionally associated with politics, people who do have worthy agendas and care about where this nation is headed.
Q. What are the key issues for you?
A. First, I want to advance sports in Israel: build better facilities all over the country, helping athletes, especially those with Olympic aspirations. We need solid programs that can take kids at risk off the streets and channel their energy positively. Next, as an immigrant to Israel, I want to help [with] aliya and absorption. I want to encourage and strengthen programs such as Nefesh B’Nefesh. I love to speak to birthright israel groups, sharing my experiences. Finally, I want to continue helping kids at risk through the programs I value such as [Jewish Agency for Israel-sponsored] Spirit of Israel, the [educational] Migdal Ohr programs and others.
Q. You have a reputation as a straight shooter. How will you fare in the rough and tumble world of politics?
A. It’s really hard to say no when your past prime minister says [Israel] needs you in the Knesset. I also see that being an American could help in light of the importance of U.S.-Israel relations. Nurturing this relationship…could be an important service to offer. Israel must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively in a period when the Iranians are building an atomic bomb. We need friends in this world who feel what we feel: That [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is crazy enough to use it!
Q. One of your fondest dreams came true last October when Maccabi Tel Aviv played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. How did you make it happen?
A. Maccabi has been playing [National Basketball Association] teams since 1990, with many of the games in Israel. We earned the credibility to play with N.B.A. teams after winning the European championship five times since 1977, and playing in the finals 12 times. The N.B.A. staked a claim in going global and felt that Israel was a solid partner. The first time we beat an N.B.A. team was when we took on the Toronto Raptors a few years ago. But over this 15-or-so-year period, the New York Knicks eluded us. We agreed that it would be a benefit game for the 6,500 Israeli kids at risk who are helped by Migdal Ohr and its leader, Rabbi David Grossman. We ended up with a full house, with close to 20,000 tickets sold.
Q. What was positive about the Knicks winning 112-85?
A. It was simply a beautiful, memorable happening. Everyone present enjoyed it immensely. We have fans who have traveled to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play in Prague, Paris, in Moscow. We have had up to 10,000 fans flying places to take part, not to mention untold thousands of members of local Jewish communities. Many Israelis living abroad never miss these overseas games. JCCs bring their kids out in an organized way, sponsors get involved. One sponsor brought 500 kids from New Jersey to the Garden for the [Knicks] game.
Q. Early in your career you got caught up in international relations and security issues. Can you describe the events?
A. During the [10 years] I played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel faced an international economic boycott and was going through a harsh recession. Politically, we were especially isolated. Our team passed the European first round, second round—O.K., people started paying attention—and then the third and fourth rounds. It was us against the Russians, who until then had never agreed to play Israel. But they had to, they couldn’t surrender, and they were confident they would win. They would only agree to a neutral site, which turned out to be in Belgium, near the Luxembourg border. The Russians never, ever anticipated this game would generate so much attention. It was in a small arena. Everything that could happen, did happen.
Q. Such as?
A. Fifteen busloads of Jews came from all over Europe to support our team. It was broadcast in Israel, and the entire nation was watching, not to mention a huge worldwide audience. The Russians were shell-shocked. They were surrounded by a sea of waving Israeli flags, the audience singing “Am Yisrael Hai” at the top of their lungs. The excitement gave our guys a huge shot of adrenaline.
Q. How did your off-the-cuff remark to a journalist become part of the Israeli lexicon?
A. We won the game by 12 points. The crowds danced the hora all over the stadium. As I was walking from the court, Israel Radio’s Alex Giladi grabbed me and stuck the microphone into my face, and 10 years of excitement burst out. ‘Anakhnu al ha-mappa!’ I shouted. ‘We’re on the map.’ The meaning was clear, we had symbolically broken not only sporting boundaries but many others as well.
Q. Describe how that slogan became an instant catch phrase.
A. It was shouted by the 3,000 people who met us at Ben-Gurion Airport. Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin and President [Yitzhak] Navon referred to it when a quarter-million people came out to celebrate with us in the center of Tel Aviv.
Q. What did it mean for you to be the first person to win the Israel Prize for excelling in athletics?
A. It went way beyond sports. [Maccabi Tel Aviv] did a lot of things and got to a lot of places where politics couldn’t reach. After the fateful 1977 game in Luxembourg, the Russians joined us for dinner, actually talked to us. That was something totally new. This was before glasnost. The Iron Curtain was still rock solid. When we went on to the European championship games later in the year, in Belgrade, what was then Yugoslavia permitted two Israeli jumbo jets and three other flights from Israel to land there for the first time. Busloads came from all over Europe again, up to 7,000 supporters. Two years after I retired, I got a letter from [Israel’s] Education Ministry informing me of the award, which I received in Jerusalem on Independence Day. I was proud that education and sports were merged for my selection for the Israel Prize.
Q. How did you get to Israel in the first place?
A. I was drafted into the American Armed Forces during the Vietnam War, and as a young man I was already fairly accomplished in basketball. Moshe Dayan sent me a really nice note, saying he hoped I’d come to Israel once I completed my service and play for Maccabi, which I had done in 1966-68. I was floored that the famous Dayan would send such a note to a young guy from Trenton, New Jersey, and I did decide to come back to Israel.
Q. And following your active decade on the team?
A. Well, I had to make a living. I taught at the Wingate Institute [Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sports] and gave basketball clinics. Eventually, I went into sporting goods for 10 years, sold it and moved into insurance, specializing in the management of pension and provident funds, which Tirtza, my wife of 18 years, and I continue to do. I’m involved in some philanthropic programs that are very important to me. My partnership [in the business] will be sold in 2009, when I reach 60.