By Jeffrey Barken/JNS.org
“Highs and lows make you feel that things matter,” writes Jonathan Safran Foer in his novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Indeed, the stakes could not have been higher when Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team faced its heavily favored rival, the Russian CSKA Moscow squad, on a neutral court in Belgium in 1977.
Deadly terrorism against Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur war had cast despairing clouds over Israel during the first half of the decade. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Jewish state’s very survival on the world stage remained in question. Therefore, Maccabi’s upset triumph over CSKA Moscow—along the team’s road to a European basketball championship—ignited renewed faith and patriotism among Israelis, turning the tide on a turbulent period. Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin’s new documentary, “On The Map,” recounts the tremendous achievements of a team nobody thought could win, and captures the unique charisma of the players who inspired a nation.
Early in the film, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren describes the hardship Israelis had endured.
“It was a very difficult [time] for Israel, probably the greatest trauma suffered by the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Oren reflects on the nation-building setbacks Israel suffered during the early 1970s. His description of the toll the Yom Kippur War had on Israeli society is particularly telling.
“Two-thousand-six-hundred Israeli soldiers killed in three weeks. Everybody knew someone who had died in that war…It seemed at that point that we could not go any lower or any darker,” Oren says. “And then suddenly this,” he adds, smiling as he recalls Maccabi Tel Aviv’s triumph.
The film’s title references the defiant words team captain Tal Brody spoke after Maccabi defeated the Russians in the historic matchup. “We are on the map and we will stay on the map, not only in sports but in everything!” Brody jubilantly declares in unforgettable black-and-white footage.
“For me it was a very exciting story, because I’m a basketball fan…and I’m a fan of Israel. In many ways this is my first childhood memory,” Menkin tells JNS.org. He was inspired to make the film largely out of nostalgia, but when he began researching the Maccabi team and discovered never-before-seen footage, he realized the true significance of the project.
“Only now do I really get how big it is…In many ways this story is even more exciting to [audiences] in the United States than it is in Israel,” Menkin says, noting that many young Americans are unfamiliar with this chapter in Israel’s history. Before there was the U.S. Olympic team’s “miracle on ice” against the Russians, as the trailer to “On the Map” states, there was “a miracle on hardwood.” Maccabi's victory against CSKA Moscow was a symbolic feat that resonated across the free world and stands as an enduring testament to the special relationship Israel shares with America.
“Compared to the other teams, we didn’t have any big names,” Miki Burkovich, Maccabi’s legendary guard, reflects in the film, illuminating the humble origins of the players and validating their underdog status.
“The team consisted of five American players, who didn’t make the NBA (National Basketball Association—most of them Jewish—and three Israeli sabras,” adds Mike Karnon, a Maccabi Tel Aviv historian.
The story of how the American players adapted to life in Israel and came together as a team reflects Israel’s immigrant heritage. Viewers will especially delight in the athletic and spiritual journey that Maccabi center Aulcie Perry underwent. Perry had made it to the final rounds of tryouts for the New York Knicks, but was ultimately denied a spot on the roster. Aulcie was playing at Madison Square Garden when he was approached by Maccabi’s coach, Ralph Klein, who asked him to consider playing basketball in Israel.
“At September, with no job…any job I would have said yes to—my first thought was that I was going to be doing a lot of praying!” Aulcie says in the film. An element of fate, and a quirky story about a cake that was symbolic of sportsmanship and collaboration, landed Aulcie a coveted spot on Maccabi. The longer Aulcie played in Israel, the more interested he became in Israeli culture and the Jewish religion, eventually converting to the faith.
“My movies are both documentaries and fiction, I will usually follow a person from the present through whatever happens to them,” Menkin says, describes his directorial style. His previous films, “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy,” are biopic stories about scarred individuals who overcame hardship. “On the Map,” however, inverts the narrative structure, investigating an event that took place 40 years in the past and the iconic team that stood at the helm of a wounded nation, steering Israel toward renewal.
“This was my team, all of them were my childhood heroes,” Menkin says. “Tal Brody was a role model as captain, Miki Berkovich was the ideal Israeli sabra—he had so much chutzpah the way he moved the ball—and I’ve always been fascinated by Aulcie Perry’s story.”
There are other characters in the film—such as iconic Israeli leaders Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin—who are notable for the way they elevated basketball as Israel’s national pastime and set the stage for the east-west political confrontation that the 1976-77 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball season came to represent.
“Moshe Dayan was the most recognizable face in the world except for Mohammad Ali,” says Eric Menkin, a player on the history-making Maccabi team. “He was at every one of our games, shaking our hands.” Defense Minister Dayan’s unforgettable eye patch and his double-edged gesture of also shaking the hands of Maccabi’s opponents before the start of a game was at once an intimidation factor as well as motivation for the Israeli team to play its hardest. Similarly, Rabin, a general at the time and later Israel’s prime minister, honored the team’s victory over the Russians in a way that cast the players as heroes for all of Israel.
The story of Jewish-Russian activist Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, adds another dimension to the film. Sharansky recalls how the former Soviet Union did not recognize Israel.
“Every expression of solidarity with Israel was almost betrayal,” Sharansky says. For Russian Jews and Israelis alike, the fact that Maccabi managed to force a matchup with the Russian team, even if the game took place in a neutral location, was a major spiritual victory for the Jewish people.
Audiences will want to know more about the makeup of the Russian basketball team, and the secret interactions they had with Maccabi players on the eve of the big game—an element that Menkin neglects to explore in depth. Nevertheless, the film presents many intriguing personalities and anecdotes that bring the period and the dramatic games to life. Conscious that Israel has suffered new lows in its recent history, Menkin notes that he “wanted to show something really positive coming out of Israel and also to show a time when Israel was a little more naive, different, special, even magical.” His film revives the fervor and excitement that originally accompanied the Jewish state’s foray onto the world stage. Maccabi’s story proves that regardless of the current international mood, Israel remains a country that matters.