Maccabi Tel Aviv has always been a beloved Israeli brand. For decades the premier Israeli basketball team and one of the top contenders in all of Europe, it has had no trouble courting its legions of devoted fans, who routinely don their Maccabi yellow-and-blue shirts, scarves and flags as a point of pride.
But when the squad squeaked to an overtime victory over Madrid earlier this week, earning itself a Euroleague championship at the end of a season of struggles and setbacks, the national adoration for Maccabi hit a new high. Neighborhoods erupted with car honks and cheers. City squares were packed for rallies and celebrations. Israel’s top dignitaries, including its president and prime minister, carved hours out of their schedules for personal meet-and-greets with the players, and took to social media to show their pride (and in Peres’s case, a cheeky yellow tie).
But while Maccabi Tel Aviv is no doubt the darling of Israeli sports, a significant number of its players are American-born. For a few of its brightest stars, American-born Jewish athletes who immigrated in order to come to Israel and play for their team, this win has made them feel simultaneously more American and more Israeli, and given them a sort of celebrity they could only have dreamed of back home.
One of Maccabi’s veterans, David Blu, first joined the team more than 10 years ago. Born David Bluthenthal to a Jewish mother and an African-American father who converted, Blu has ridden the wave of Israeli celebrity before. In 2004, when Maccabi also clinched the Euroleague title, he was a single 24-year-old relishing in the attention Tel Aviv fans poured on him. This time around, he has returned to the team after coming out of retirement, and left his wife and two small children behind in southern California for the season.
“I was fully prepared to be done with my career,” he said of his decision to leave the team in 2012 and earn a degree from the University of Southern California. “But upon graduation I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. I was looking into coaching and broadcasting, and none of those avenues were working out for me. I had to come back.”
He found a soft landing on his return thanks to his close friendship with Maccabi coach and fellow American David Blatt, as well as the support of his teammates. As an American-Israeli, he said, he’s never had to struggle to feel comfortable in the Holy Land.
“The thing about Israel is that it’s very pro-American and the people here really embrace American culture,” he said. “The fact that we have an American coach allows him and our team to really come together, including all the foreign guys… Unlike many teams in Europe, we don’t have separate cliques. We all hang out together and we get along. That’s the secret to our success.”
Blu has been a mentor to the team’s younger players, including 24-year-old Sylven Landesberg, a New York City-bred guard on the team who not only made immigrated in order to play, but is currently juggling his time on the court with his mandatory IDF service.
“I knew the army was part of the deal; I just never knew when my name would be called,” said Landesberg, who serves as a fitness instructor at the Tel HaShomer military base.
Basic training, Landesberg felt, was by far the hardest part, and he is grateful to be finished with it. “Now that it’s over, it’s something that I appreciate,” he said. “I made a lot of friends there and had a lot of experiences I am going to keep with me for the rest of my life.”
Of course, another experience he will hold on to for years to come will be the win in Milan this week.
“It’s amazing and totally unbelievable,” prided Landesberg, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is from Trinidad and Tobago. “We knew we were the underdogs coming in and we felt that if we were just able to stay in the game, when it came down to it the pressure would be more on them than us. We played a great defense and a great offense, and in the end they folded.”
The instant celebrity status, he claimed, hasn’t gone to his head.
“I don’t really look at it differently,” he explained. “Of course, now a few more people know who we are and they say hello on the street. But I’m still just a regular kid from Queens. I’m no better than the next person — I wake up and brush my teeth and eat breakfast just like the next guy.”