Tuesday, December 14, 2010
From high hoops to home truths
Perhaps Israel's most-famous sportsman, Tal Brody is now a Goodwill Ambassador: "With my 45 years in Israel, I can help other people see many beautiful things."
When the Foreign Ministry appointed US-born former Israeli basketball star Tal Brody as Israel's international Goodwill Ambassador in July, he saw it as a completely natural progression. "I'm embarking on the third stage of my life," he tells ISRAEL21c. "This is what I want to do. I'm very proud as a sportsman to fill this role."
At 67, he could have retired, and together with his wife Tirtza enjoyed watching their five grandchildren grow up in Israel. Instead, he is taking on the role of roving ambassador. "It's a lot of energy moving around and talking, but I enjoy it," he says.
Arguably Israel's most famous athlete, Brody first came to Israel as captain of the gold-winning US team for the 1965 seventh Maccabiah, the quadrennial "Jewish Olympics."
A college hoops star at the University of Illinois, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in physical education and a Masters in educational psychology, the Trenton, New Jersey native was the number 13 Draft pick in 1965. But instead of pursuing an NBA career, he opted to help propel Israeli basketball onto the international scene.
"In 1966-7 I came here for one year. The idea was to help Israeli basketball. What happened to me that year pulled me into the second year. I saw the excitement basketball was generating, how the sport was influencing the morale of the country, just as the Egyptians and Syrians were getting ready to push us into the sea."
His second year in Israel was curtailed when the US military began recruiting graduates for the Vietnam War effort. "I joined the army's All-Stars team, and did goodwill tours of South America and Europe," he recalls. This included representing the USA in the World Championships in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1970.
"During that competition I received a note from Moshe Dayan asking me to come back to Israel," he recalls. In Belgrade, he met with then-Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Yehoshua Rosen, who brought him back to Maccabi after his release from the US military.
Putting Israel "on the map"
What follows is part of Israeli sporting folklore. Under the guidance of the legendary late coach Ralph Klein, a Holocaust survivor who went on to coach the West German national team, Maccabi became Israel's first - and so far only - international sporting powerhouse.
Brody, a consistently influential shooting guard, captained the 1977 team that won the European Championships, beating Mobilgirgi Varese 78:77 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on an unforgettable night that had the whole country glued to television screens. It was the first time an Israeli team had won any sporting competition of that caliber.
But the symbolic highlight was the 91-79 semi-final victory over CSKA Moscow, then one of Europe's top teams, played in Belgium after the Soviet champions refused to play in Israel or to host Israelis. Brody's immortal phrase from an animated post-game interview put the result in proportion: He and his teammates had put Israel "on the map."
"And we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything," he proclaims in heavily American-accented Hebrew.
Brody was the backbone of the "winningest" team in Israeli sporting history. He galvanized a rare group of homegrown talents with NBA veterans, in the first of a string of successful Maccabi lineups. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Championship Cup again in 1981 and reached, but lost, the European finals five times during the 1980s. Further European titles were to follow in 2001, 2004 and 2005. He was also an Israeli national team stalwart, scoring 1,219 points in 78 games.
Following the end of his basketball career at age 34, Brody turned to commerce, running a sporting goods importing business while conducting basketball clinics all over the country. He became a successful insurance agent, handling pension programs and provident funds for two decades. That, he says, was the second stage of his life.
The third stage of his life
"Two years ago, I handed my portfolios over to a large company so that I could go out and do public diplomacy - it's necessary now more than ever. With my 45 years in Israel, I can help other people see many beautiful things. All my life in Israel I've always been asked to speak about the country. I've maintained a relationship with the Jewish Agency and met with groups from Young Judea, Birthright and Nefesh B'nefesh. It's my pleasure to do it. I enjoy doing it, and try to give them a well-rounded view."
He also serves as chairman of the Spirit of Israel, a non-profit Jewish Agency subsidiary that raises funds from the Israeli public and creates awareness for Israel's social agenda. "This work is really important - we support children at risk in youth villages, homecare for elderly, things like that," he says.
Volunteering to simultaneously help several non-profit organizations has been an integral part of his life. The groups he helps include the state's central fundraising organization Keren Hayesod, and Migdal Or, which helps at-risk, impoverished, orphaned and underprivileged children. In 2004, he received the rare honor of lighting a torch at the 56th Independence Day ceremony as a mark of respect for his voluntary work.
And he is still very much involved at Maccabi Tel Aviv, as a member of the club's Board of Directors. "The team has brought a lot of honor to Israel. It has a good coaching staff - David Blatt does a great job as coach. It's a new team this year, with Tal Burstein and Lior Eliyahu coming back from Spain and a new Greek center [Sofoklis Schortsanitis]. It's going to take a while for them to get organized. There are still a few missing links and there could be a lot of ups and downs before they achieve consistency. They may have to switch a few players. It doesn't happen overnight. The team is good enough to get past the first round of this year's Euroleague. I hope they reach the Final Four," he says.
Brody has not forgotten that the Maccabiah first brought him to Israel, and serves as a board member of the Maccabi World Union that organizes the Games.
Brody recently returned from his first visit to the US as Goodwill Ambassador, where he shared his passion for Israel with students, organizations and media during a whistle-stop 20-day trip. "It started with a couple of fundraising evenings in private homes: A luncheon for Magen David Adom and another for the US Maccabiah 2013 delegation. I spoke in schools, community centers, synagogues, Christian communities.
"I tell them my story"
"I tell them my story about why I came to Israel, why I love Israel - relating everything that a lot of people don't hear. I speak about our culture, arts, sports, successes, not the things they see on the news. They see Israel as paramilitary. On the campuses especially, they only hear pro-Palestinian voices. I try to get a feeling about what is bothering them about Israel. I tell them that forming an opinion without being in Israel is not fair. They should come to Israel and see it for themselves," he says.
He also meets with Israelis living in the US, and has found that today the Jewish community in the States is very divided over Israel. "The new generation is less informed about Israel. It's important to get them involved, at least before they form an opinion," he explains.
During his talks, Brody addresses many controversial issues and he is not afraid to meet with groups that are not pro-Israel, or Jewish. "I've had to answer difficult questions, like about the security fence. I told them about the realities, and they understood. I also talked about Israel to the African-American community. I told them about African-American basketball players in Israel and the Ethiopian community. They didn't know there are black Jews. Many of these kids are going home and passing the message: 'Anthony Parker of Cleveland played for two years for Maccabi Tel Aviv - and he's one of us.' "
Brody also spent time in New England, where he hosted a basketball clinic in Roxbury, MA with the Boys and Girls Club of America. Back in Israel, as Goodwill Ambassador he has also met with visiting foreign dignities, including several US Senators. "Then there was the mission from the South African Zionist Federation," he adds.
"Israelis find the idea of a goodwill ambassador strange," he confides. "Israel doesn't have the funding for public diplomacy that our neighbors do. The amount of money being put into their propaganda is enormous. This leads to an unbalanced situation on the campuses. You can't take for granted the support from the Christian community either. In Boston, Miami and Washington [Israeli] consulates and the embassy are going out to do as much as they can in this respect. I'm going in to reinforce their presentation."