Homeland Hero

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill

Eddy Baranski photo
Former Illini basketball standout Tal Brody, left, leaps above teammate Ron Dunlap ’68 AHS in a practice scrimmage during their campus days. Brody, above, later leapt to stardom in Israel, where he pumped up that nation’s basketball programs and became a beloved icon along the way.
Photo courtesy of Tai Brody

It’s difficult to put in an American framework Tal Brody’s ’65 AHS, EDM ’66, significance to his adopted homeland. To say that the former Illini All-American point guard is the Michael Jordan of Israel seems inadequate. Yes, like Jordan, Brody was an athlete’s athlete, smooth and slick on the court, a leader and a winner.

But Brody was one of those rare individuals whose legend transcends sports. With his actions and his deeds, he uplifted the morale of an entire country and helped its transition from a fragile, much-maligned state to a confident, self-sufficient nation.

Brody spurned the NBA and took on the challenge posed by the leaders of Israel – to help the young nation build and establish a basketball program that could compete on the world stage. In 1977, he captained the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club to the European Cup championship, the first major international sports championship for the fledgling state.

Perhaps the most significant game of the title run, one that is played over and over on Israeli television to this day, was Maccabi’s defeat of the Soviet Red Army Team in an emotional and politically charged semifinal. The Russians, known to be funding Israel’s enemies at the time, wouldn’t allow Maccabi to play in Moscow, and the game took place on neutral turf in Belgium.

Afterward, Brody uttered one of the most famous sound bites in Israeli history. In his American-accented Hebrew, Brody told a television commentator, “We are on the map, and we are staying on the map – not only in sports but in everything.”

He had no idea of the impact of his now-famous “we’re on the map” comment until Maccabi returned to Israel. The crowd at the airport was 3,000 strong.

When Brody recalls the moment, he opens a window into the way he records his history in his own mind. Brody loves to talk but not about himself. Rather, he prefers to recall conversations with others – larger-than-life people who figure prominently in the history books – to tell the story of his unusual journey. Conversations with prime ministers and ambassadors and advice from past and present basketball legends occupy his memory and form the basis of his recollections.

Following his now-famous comment, “we were called into [then] Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin’s office,” Brody said. “He said to me, ‘Tal, I had tears in my eyes; you don’t realize what you said, how much it meant to the morale and the people of Israel – the fact that we are staying on the map, not only in sports but in everything.’”
The phrase is a staple of Israeli culture, one which expressed the thoughts and feelings of many Israelis – and it has stood the test of time. The 64-year-old Brody remains sports royalty. In 1979, he received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor. More recently, at the invitation of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Brody has been pondering a run for Israel’s parliament.

“In Israel, he’s famous,” said Tirtza, Tal’s wife of 14 years. “Everybody knows him. We go to the movies or we go [to dinner], people are asking him to sign.”

From the East Coast to the Midwest prairie

So how is it that a young man out of Trenton, N.J., came to Illinois in the fall of 1961 and ended up one of the most influential sports figures in Israeli history?

“The fact that the University of Illinois – the Big Ten Conference – [wanted me] was very attractive,” he recalled. “I wanted to see how far I could go with basketball. When [Temple University] coach Harry Litwak came to my house and said, ‘Why do you want to go to the University of Illinois, to be a small fish in a big pond? It’s a big school,’ I told coach Litwak, ‘I like the challenge of maybe being a big fish in a big pond.’”

What also attracted Brody to Illinois was the timing. The Assembly Hall was scheduled to open during his sophomore season. In addition, he would be joining a blockbuster recruiting class, with names such as Skip Thoren ’70 AHS and Bogie Redmon ’65 BUS, and Brody thought together they could develop into one of the nation’s best teams.

“I liked that challenge, and that’s why I decided to go to the University of Illinois,” said Brody, his English inflected with the intonations of the Hebrew language, which he speaks as a resident of Israel. “I never regretted it. I was a thousand miles away from home, and it was the first time I was outside of Trenton, N.J. The experiences which I had at Illinois were unforgettable and really molded my life and everything that came afterward.”

Eddy Baranski photo
In life after basketball, former Illini hoops star Tal Brody may shoot for a spot in the Israeli parliament.
Tim Murphy /FotoImagery.com Photo

It wasn’t long before his fellow Illini found out that there was something a little different about the boy from out East, other than his Jersey accent.

“We also thought it was kind of funny when he slept with a basketball,” said Redmon, “and he used to dribble it to class.”

At Illinois, Brody said he never experienced anti-Semitism, though he made no secret of his Judaism. Brody wore a mezuzah, which contains parchment inscribed with religiously significant Hebrew verses, around his neck during games. The physical education major joined a Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, and sometimes attended the local synagogue. Jewish families in the Champaign-Urbana area hosted him on holidays.

Brody’s campus life revolved around his studies, basketball and the fraternity. He recalls the time a sorority nominated him for the Most Eligible Bachelor on Campus contest, and, much to his uncomfortable surprise, he won.

“When I won the contest, it was really something; I remember I had to get dressed up in a bow tie and a tuxedo,” he said, a hint of red filling his cheeks. “For me, it was really embarrassing.”

The 6-foot-1½-inch Brody never embarrassed himself on the court, though. A three-year starter, he garnered All-America and All Big-Ten accolades his senior year. He remains on Illinois’ top 50 all-time scoring list at No. 33. Most significantly, the Baltimore Bullets selected him with the 13th pick in the 1965 NBA draft.

Brody went to training camp with the Bullets, but while there he was invited to represent the United States at the Maccabiah Games – the Jewish Olympics – in Israel. He was the center of attention and not just because he led the American team to the gold medal.

“The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, from the first hour I’m in Israel, escorted me all over,” Brody said, “and they presented me how important it was that I would come to Israel to try to help build the basketball programs and help take the team past the first round of the European Basketball Championships, and help the team progress all the way along and take up that challenge.”

The courtship proved successful. Brody turned down the Bullets and returned to the University of Illinois to complete his master’s degree in educational psychology in 1966. That same year, he joined Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Life in Israel

Once there, Brody experienced culture shock both on and off the court. To this day, his friends and family still tease him about his grasp of Hebrew, learned “on the street,” so to speak, as Brody didn’t have the opportunity to study the language in an academic setting.

On the court, he applied the American basketball work ethic of practice and preparation. Maccabi Tel Aviv practiced just two times a week. With Brody’s prodding, that eventually evolved to four.

But nothing could prepare him for the game conditions he faced.

“When I came to Israel for my first season, you had to shoot your shots judging the wind,” Brody said. “We would go up to Haifa or up to the north, and it would be rained out, and we would have to go back to Tel Aviv by bus and then go back again to play the second game.

“We would go to some kibbutzim [communal farms] and play, and sometimes you couldn’t even see the basket because of a dust storm or a windstorm.”

Despite these issues, under Brody’s leadership as team captain, Maccabi Tel Aviv became the toughest ticket in town after blazing through the first and second rounds of the European basketball championships in 1967. The team went all the way to the finals, gaining fans the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

“The fact that an Israeli team was able to get to the finals of the European championship was something unbelievable,” he said. “It gave a lot of confidence and spirit within other sports in Israel that Israeli athletes and sportsmen could contest internationally. Basketball took over soccer as being the most popular sport in Israel.”

Soon after the season ended, Brody received a telegram from the U.S. State Department, telling him to return to the U.S., as Israel was on the doorstep of war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But instead of fleeing, Brody volunteered and led soldiers stationed on the Jordanian border in fitness and sports activities. He remained in Israel throughout the triumph to be known as the Six-Day War, an experience which further cemented his love affair with his adopted homeland.

After that first season – and its ripple effects – Brody’s plans changed. He fully comprehended that his basketball future was not stateside but in Israel.

“I saw what it meant to the Israelis in the street because at that time, it was more than basketball – it was morale,” said Brody. “It meant so much to the country, which was going through an economic depression at that time, and during that whole year, the tension was being built up on the borders of Israel. The fact that our basketball team was able to succeed – it gave such a morale boost.”

Tal Brody may be an Israeli superhero, but as he sits in his sister’s Denver kitchen on a crisp fall morning, it is clear that part of his heart always has remained in America.

“There’s no doubt about my dual citizenship,” he says with a sly grin. “I’ve been in the American Army, and I’ve been in the Israeli Army.”

Drafted in 1968 as the Vietnam War raged overseas, Brody reported in for a U.S. Army stay that proved anything but typical – he spent most of the following two years playing basketball all over the world. Brody also is one of the few men in history to represent different nations in international basketball competition, having played for the U.S. in the 1970 World Championships.

Beyond the court

Although Brody did not play his pro ball here, he serves an influential role in promoting the globalization of the NBA through his tenure as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s liaison to the league. Last October, Brody was instrumental in organizing an exhibition game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the New York Knicks. Proceeds from the game benefited Migdahl Or, an Israeli charity for disadvantaged children.

“When our team plays in New York or L.A. or Toronto, we basically fill up a stadium between Israelis coming in from Israel or [Israelis] who are working and living in the U.S., and the [local] Jewish communities,” he said. “There’s no other team that has a following like our team.”

Brody – who keeps slim by walking on the beach near his Mediterranean coastal home and looks as if he still might fit into his No. 12 Illinois uniform – is most proud of his community work in helping children at risk.

Basketball has been the main conduit he has used to make children’s lives better. Twenty years ago, Brody started a youth basketball program that now attracts a thousand boys and girls every year.

“You take the kids off the street – whether it’s an Arab or Israeli, whether they’re black or white, Christian or Jewish – everybody on the court is the same,” he said. “That’s the way the game is being taught in Israel. That’s why it’s so popular and so successful and so widespread. I’m very happy to be a part of that influence and take up that challenge. That’s what I wanted to do, to see it realized and to see it keep going forward.”

And Brody may have found yet another outlet to continue helping Israeli children. Last summer, headlines blared the news that Netanyahu, who served as Israel’s prime minister from 1993-99, has been courting Brody to make a run for the Israeli parliament on the 2009 Likud party ticket. 

Netanyahu’s pitch to Brody emphasized that the sports icon would be able to continue his community work but on a far different level.

“Basically, I’m not looking for a career in politics, but I can’t turn my back if someone like Benjamin Netanyahu says, ‘Look, Tal, we need you, and we want you to come into the next election; it’s important for the country,’” he said.

When it comes to helping the people of Israel, it’s clear that Tal Brody still can’t say no. After all, he helped put – and keep – his homeland “on the map.”

- Bleill is a freelance writer in Champaign.

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