Why you should care

Because sometimes sports can change the world.

It wasn’t much of a setting for what became an international basketball sensation — a sports facility in the southern Belgian town of Virton that was roughly the size of an American high school gymnasium. The nondescript venue mattered little to Moscow’s CSKA Red Army club, which expected to trounce the underdog Maccabi Tel Aviv team and head to the championship game of the 1977 EuroCup.

But Aulcie Perry had other ideas. A 6-foot-10 center from Newark, New Jersey, the graduate of the historically Black Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, had found an unlikely home with Maccabi. Cheered on by flag-waving Israelis who had made the long trip to Belgium for the semifinals, Perry began the game by swatting away one Red Army shot after another. The defensive shutdown lifted the fans from their seats and keyed a Maccabi offense led by captain Tal Brody, a star at the University of Illinois who was selected by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1965 NBA draft before becoming an Israeli sports icon.

We were not the underdog anymore.

Dani Menkin, Israeli filmmaker

Expats like Perry and Brody elevated the club, but Maccabi didn’t just rely on transplanted Americans. The team’s dominant star was homegrown Mickey Berkowitz, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who in 2017 was inducted into the International Basketball Federation Hall of Fame alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Toni Kukoc, a 6-foot-11 Croatian forward who starred with the Chicago Bulls.

Maccabi Tel Aviv had dominated Israeli basketball since the club’s inception in 1932. Competing against Europe’s marquee clubs was another matter. In the runup to the game against Red Army, “we had some setbacks against really good teams like Real Madrid and the Italian team, Varese,” says Bob Griffin, another American-born Maccabi player. “We hadn’t had that kind of competition before. But we were getting better by the time we played the Russians.”

The neutral site in Belgium wasn’t ideal, but it was necessitated by a complete diplomatic breakdown between the two countries. Typically, teams hosted each other during the European championship tournament, but that was a nonstarter during this icy period in Soviet-Israeli relations. The diplomatic standoff was highlighted by the plight of the refuseniks, a group primarily made up of Soviet Jews who were denied the right to immigrate to Israel. Just months before the tournament, Natan Sharansky, perhaps the most vocal and high-profile figure in the movement, was arrested on a variety of charges, including treason.

Flickr   government press office (gpo)   moshe dayan at a maccabi tel aviv game

Rare photograph of Moshe Dayan with spectacles sitting at his place of honor during a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game in the European Cup games in Tel Aviv.

Source Government Press Office (Israel) CC BY-SA 3.0

By the time Maccabi advanced to the semifinals against the Red Army, they weren’t just facing a diplomatic adversary, they were meeting one of the world’s best teams. Many of the players on the undefeated squad that had run roughshod over opponents in the tournament’s opening rounds had also played on the Soviet national team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. There, in the gold medal game, they had defeated the U.S. on a disputed last-second call that remains the most controversial moment in basketball history.

If Munich was a triumph for the Soviets, it was a tragedy for Israel, which mourned the loss of 11 athletes who were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. By 1977 the Holocaust was not that distant a memory for the Jewish people and, coupled with the Yom Kippur War, Israel was desperate for anything that could lift the country’s collective spirit.

It found just that with a basketball team.

Bolstered by Perry’s defense, Maccabi kept pace with the Soviets in the opening minutes and surged ahead 41-38 at halftime. With the team leading 89-69 in the closing minutes, the television audience back home in Israel was already streaming into the streets. When the game ended in a 91-79 Maccabi victory, the winning club’s few but spirited boosters in Virton stormed the court. More than four decades later, the win still transcends sport in Israel. “It’s something that is never forgotten,” says Brody. “It’s a continuous ongoing topic — a landmark.”

Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin has another analogy for the game’s impact. “The only way I can compare it to a non-Israeli audience is to ask how much the moment when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon affected the world,” Menkin says. “People felt nothing would be the same. That’s how we felt. We were not the underdog anymore.” Menkin immortalized the historic moment in his 2016 film On the Map, which includes interviews with Brody, Griffin and Perry.

A few days after their historic win, Maccabi defeated the Italian club Mobilgirgi Varese to capture Israel’s first European championship. But it was the win over the Soviets that made the biggest impact back home, especially during a postgame interview when Brody declared that Israel was officially “on the map,” a provocative statement considering the region’s volatile political climate.

Upon their return to Tel Aviv, the team received a hero’s welcome that included a parade as well as a private meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who told Brody, “You don’t realize what this meant to the country.”

The win did more than boost morale in Israel. It helped establish Maccabi as one of the top basketball clubs outside North America. In recent years, the Maccabi coaching staff has included David Blatt, who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2015 NBA Finals, and the roster has featured Omri Casspi, who currently plays for the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

Since that historic win in Virton, the club has won multiple European championships. But for basketball fans and nonfans alike in Israel, the club will always be remembered for that upset in 1977. “Education, culture, the spirit of the country — everything changed,” says Brody. “All of a sudden comes a basketball team that takes the whole country into the streets, celebrating, proud of this victory. It changed the mood, it changed the spirit of the country.”

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