“On the Map”: Basketball documentary remembers a time when miracles happened in Israel — with a little help from its friends

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Tal Brody utters his immortal words after a major upset for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“ON THE MAP” SCREENING
WHAT:
Reception/screening of sports documentary about Israel’s winning the 1977 European Championship
WHEN: Thurs. (Feb. 16), 6 p.m. (reception) and 7 p.m. (screening)
WHERE: Jewish Community Center New Orleans Uptown (5342 St Charles Ave.)
ADMISSION: Free
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

This NBA All-Star Weekend will bring out many of the familiar basketball stars of yesterday — it’s as much a family reunion as anything else. Many will be looking out for Magic, Michael and Koby.

I’ll be looking out for Brody.

Tal Brody, who led one of the greatest upsets in basketball history, will be joined by former NBA great Dave Cowens and women’s hoops legend Nancy Lieberman for a special screening of the documentary “On the Map” on Thursday (Feb. 16) at the Jewish Community Center New Orleans’ Uptown location. The legends will mingle at a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the screening at 7 p.m. and then a question-and-answer session.

Brody, a New Jersey native, was a former first-round NBA draft pick who instead chose to play for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team and, toward the end of his career, led the team on an improbable run to the 1977 European Championship. It was in an era of incredible contrasts; Israel, not yet three decades old as a national state, was still trying to heal from the successive wounds created by the massacre of its 11 athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War as well as the tense 1976 hijacking by terrorists of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv. And while the nation shared with Europe a new-found passion for basketball, teams such as Russia, Spain and Italy were the real powerhouses.

Athletically and nationally, Israel needed a win. They got it, thanks to an unlikely assemblage of players that started with Brody, an American Jew, and a handful of other, non-Israeli imports that included an African-American starting center, Aulcie Perry. (He later converted to Judaism.)

Director Dani Menkin lays out the story of these and other players, and how they fit together and into a drama that had ramifications far beyond the hardwood of the basketball arena. Among them was the looming shadow that was the Soviet Union, with its notoriously horrible persecution of Jews, and whose basketball team had practically cheated the United States out of a gold meal in those 1972 Summer Olympic Games. Israel, fighting for its national identity, begin in some ways to pin its hopes on a developing basketball program but needed help. They found an unlikely ally in longtime Israeli military and defense leader Moshe Dayan and even then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (a rabid New York Knicks fan).

Israel didn’t have much a team, but slowly it built talent, bringing in Americans and other non-Israelis, each of whom played a distinct role — including American Jim Boatwright, a shooting specialist, and Bob Griffin, a feisty point guard. “On the Map” shows how these unlikely parts came together to become a greater whole.

The story unfolds in rather traditional documentary fashion, with an array of talking heads buttressing the players’ recollections to help lend both perspective and gravitas. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern is one of the best, serving as the over-arching authoritative voice, while retired NBA center Bill Walton offers adequate insight, although you have to listen carefully to learn why he’s there in the first place. (Another minor quibble: Menkin stages a reunion of sorts by having the players gather to watch highlights from the run, but all the viewer really gets are a bunch of reactions with only a smattering of analysis or dialogue.)

Menkin smoothly leads the viewer through the unlikely championship run, which featured huge regular-season upsets of the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow and Spain’s Real Madrid, all preceded by a humbling blowout against Italy’s Mobilgirgi Varese. He’s at his best when juxtaposing the team’s success against Israel’s struggles, both externally and internally, as Rabin endured a scandal that ultimately would force him out of his first term. But he also showed how Israel became completely transfixed by the championship run. Back then, not everyone had a TV in their home, so fans doubled up in homes; Tel Aviv, and many other cities, became ghost towns at night as fans watched the games.

But the real star of the movie, and the championship run, is Brody, whose heart and determination are revealed both in his interviews and in his on-court play. When Israel upsets the vastly superior Soviet Union team CSKA Moscow — in a neutral location, in Belgium, because the Russians refused to play in Israel — Brody uttered an immortal line to his interviewer: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything!” (It was the kind of upset that has been compared to the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s upset of, you guessed it, the Soviet Union, which gave birth to the line, “Do you believe in miracles?”)

This line became a renewed declaration of independence for Israel, and the fact that it came from an American reminds us what being a true ally looks like. Brody talked the talk, but he walked the walk, even becoming an Israeli citizen midway through his career. And it wasn’t just boastful pride; at one point he left the team right before the championship game against the Italian team that had previously humiliated Maccabi Tel Aviv to visit his ailing father back in the U.S. His father admonished him to rejoin his team for the championship game, and become a part of sports history.

Americans should take note of this kind of heroism.

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