This Friday marks the 40th anniversary of Maccabi Tel Aviv winning the European Championship in basketball for the first time. But it was actually the semi-final, in which Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the mighty Russian team CSKA Moscow, which is etched into the collective memory in Israel. NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton described it as “one of the greatest sporting accomplishments ever,” and the story of that game in 1977 is featured in a new film “On the Map.”
One can only understand how big a story this game was by understanding both the sporting and the political contexts for the game. Israel was a young country, less than thirty years old, with 4 million citizens, whereas the USSR was a world superpower, with 290 million citizens. Israeli basketball was still developing, whereas the Moscow team had won numerous European Championships – it was billed by the Israeli media as a clear situation of “David versus Goliath.”
But the game was also about so much more than basketball. It was the height of the Cold War, and the USSR were allied with the Arab nations, having given them weaponry that was crucial in causing the massive Israeli losses in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The USSR had broken diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967, and in fact refused to play the game in Israel, or allow the Israeli into Russia, so the game had to be played in Belgium. It was also at the height of the international campaign to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, a point that was made by the Maccabi coach to his players before the game. The fact that Maccabi had a number of American players also added to the political intrigue. This was a game that symbolised far broader struggles.
Maccabi pulled of a stunning victory, defeating the Soviet team 91-79. In the midst of the jubilant scenes on the court after the game, the American-born captain of the team summed up the Israeli emotions in one sentence. “We are on the map, and we will stay on the map! In sport, and in everything!” said Tal Brody, in a line that lives on in the memory. The young Israel had already had to defend itself from three wars of annihilation, and Brody felt Israel’s growing international stature was symbolic that Israel was going to stay on the map – both in sport, but even on the simple physical level.
The film “On the Map” was recently released, and CAMERA-supported group Owls for Israel held a screening of it at Florida Atlantic University. By reaching out to students with an interest in sports, this screening allowed Owls for Israel to bring Israel’s story to a new group of people – telling more Americans about the story of this amazing state, that forty years later, is still very much on the map.
Contributed by Aron White, CAMERA intern