One of Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin‘s earliest memories is being taken by his father out into the streets of Tel Aviv on February 17, 1977. There they joined the huge crowds celebrating the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s victory against CSKA (Red Army Moscow) in the semi-finals of the European Championship. Menkin, who was seven at the time, was one of 150,000 ecstatic revelers crammed that night into what is now Rabin Square.
Menkin, now 46, has never forgotten that euphoric moment and was recently compelled to memorialize it through his new documentary, “On The Map.”
It was an Israel from a bygone era. In a deep economic recession, the country was still reeling from the Yom Kippur War and the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The Cold War was raging, and young Israel was boycotted and ostracized by much of the world.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s against-all-odds defeat of an enemy superpower’s mighty team electrified the nation. This was the same Soviet team that (controversially) beat the heretofore undefeated US team at the 1972 Munich Olympics leading no one to bet on Maccabi.
In a post-game interview, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s American-born team captain Tal Brody conveyed the nation’s mood and aspirations. “We are on the map, and we are going to stay on the map — not just in sports, but in everything!” he exclaimed exuberantly in broken Hebrew.
Less than two months later, in a slim one-point victory, Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the highly favored Italian champions Mobilgirgi Varese in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to win the European Cup finals. (The El Al plane that brought the Israeli players to the match required special permission to land in Yugoslavia, which did not have diplomatic relations with Israel.)
It was a turning point for Israeli basketball, and Israeli sports in general. Since then, Maccabi has made it all the way to another 17 European Championship final games and won five of them.
While the surprise 1977 victory and Brody’s remarks are legendary among Israelis of all ages, this astounding sporting accomplishment is little known across the Atlantic. Menkin, a lifelong Maccabi Tel Aviv fan, decided it was time that Americans became familiar with this miracle on hardwood.
‘We are on the map, and we are going to stay on the map—not just in sports, but in everything!’
“Americans all know about the ‘Miracle on Ice’ – the unexpected US victory over the USSR in hockey at the 1980 Olympics, but they don’t know about the amazing thing that Maccabi Tel Aviv did just three years earlier,” Menkin told The Times of Israel from Los Angeles, where he is now based.
Menkin originally made a film about the story for Israeli television, but realized after meeting executive producers Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman — the team behind “Above and Beyond” — that there could be a possibility of expanding it into a feature aimed at American audiences.
“Above and Beyond,” is a 2014 film about American and other foreign former WWII airmen who volunteered to fight for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence and contribute to the nascent Israeli Air Force. Menkin saw a parallel in the Maccabi team that won the European Championship. It consisted mainly of American players recruited to elevate the team’s playing.
Brody, from Trenton, New Jersey, had come to Israel in 1965 to play in the Maccabiah Games. Asked by Moshe Dayan and others to stay for at least a year to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Brody — picked 12th in that year’s NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets — decided to give up a career in the NBA to play in Israel.
Asked by Moshe Dayan to stay for at least a year to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Brody decided to give up a career in the NBA to play in Israel
“After that first year, I was sold,” Brody told The Times of Israel by phone from his home in Tel Aviv about his decision to stay on long term in Israel.
He ended up leaving for a couple of years when he was drafted for US military service, but returned and made aliya to Israel in 1970. (He also served in the IDF.)
In addition to Brody, Menkin got the full participation of the other surviving American-born members of the 1976-1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv team, many of whom played numerous seasons with the team and ended up settling in Israel and marrying Israeli women. The film also features interviews with Israeli former Maccabi Tel Aviv star Miki Berkovich, former NBA commissioner David Stern, and American basketball icon Bill Walton, among others.
The film also features never-seen-before dramatic archival material discovered in private and public archives in Israel and Europe.
“We found footage shot behind the scenes at the games, which was really unusual for the 1970s,” Menkin noted.
Menkin is pleased with the release of “On The Map” just in time for the 40th anniversary of the game-changing championship. But more importantly, he is happy that he was able to get the film done while most of the former players are still able to recount their experiences for the camera.
‘The film reflects a period of history that is still with so many Israelis as they go to sleep and wake up every day. It’s something they tell their kids and grandkids about’
“With [coach] Ralph Klein and [player] Jim Boatwright having passed away, I knew that we had to get moving on this project,” the director said.
Brody, who is now a goodwill ambassador for Israel, is confident that American audiences introduced now to this amazing sports story will appreciate it as much as Israelis who experienced the thrill of victory four decades ago.
Currently on tour throughout the US with the film, Brody explained how the unrehearsed words he spoke from the heart upon beating the Soviets are about much more than just basketball. His “on the map” phrase entered the Israeli vernacular because it resonated far beyond the hardwood court.
“The film reflects a period of history that is still with so many Israelis as they go to sleep and wake up every day. It’s something they tell their kids and grandkids about. So much has happened in the world since then, but Israel has stood strong throughout,” Brody said.
“On The Map” opens in Los Angeles on November 25 and in New York on December 9.