The chance to play in the NBA is an opportunity few basketball players would pass up. But for Tal Brody, the opportunity to inspire a nation proved to be a greater calling.
Though he was selected 12th overall in the 1965 NBA Draft, Brody turned down professional basketball in the United States to play in Israel, where he helped the nation capture its first-ever European Championship in 1977.
“By going to Israel, basically everything changed with my goals in life,” Brody said. “I saw I was doing something for people I felt a part of.”
Now a Goodwill Ambassador for Israel, Brody spoke about his basketball career, life in Israel and the political situation in the Middle East in front of a group of approximately 15 people at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale on Tuesday afternoon.
Born and raised in Trenton, N.J., Brody was a high school basketball star and helped lead his team to a perfect 24–0 season and a New Jersey state championship in his senior year.
His prowess on the court earned him scholarship offers from 40 different colleges, but Brody ultimately settled on the University of Illinois, which at the time had one of the top three basketball teams in the country. Still, Brody continued to excel. His senior year, he was named an All-American and was picked as one of the top 10 basketball players in the country.
After the 1965 NBA Draft, everything was lined up for Brody to play for the Baltimore Bullets (today known as the Washington Wizards).
“For me, everything was set to go to the NBA,” Brody said.
But a trip to Israel permanently changed Brody’s plans. After concluding a Bullets rookie camp, Brody traveled to Tel Aviv to compete in the 1965 Maccabiah Games, where he helped the U.S. basketball team win a gold medal. It was the first time Brody had ever traveled outside the United States, and the international experience left a deep impression on him. For the first time he was interacting with other Jews from around the world and felt bound by the common religion.
“For me, it was a cultural experience. All that history I learned in Hebrew school all of a sudden unfolded for me,” Brody said.
Afterwards, officials from Maccabi Tel Aviv, an Israeli basketball team, approached Brody and asked him to consider staying in Israel, as they felt he could make a difference by boosting national morale.
Brody chose to defer returning to the NBA for one year. But after that year had passed, he decided to stay for a second year.
“I saw the meaning and the importance that I had, going to Israel,” Brody said. “I saw that in many different instances — not only [in] the fact that we were winning and people were smiling, but when we went to East Europe to play. The Jews in East Europe were coming up to us after the game and thanking us so much for making them proud in countries where they had suffered anti-Semitism.”
Brody returned briefly to the United States for two years after he was again drafted, but this time into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. After he fulfilled his military duty, Brody received a letter from Moshe Dayan, the defense minister of Israel, who urged him to return to Israel, as he had begun to inspire Israelis through basketball, a sport not previously popular in the state. Brody said he was surprised by the offer from such a powerful state official, and he accepted. This time the move was permanent, and Brody began the process toward becoming an Israeli citizen.
In 1977, Brody led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first ever European Championship. The road to the championship included an 91–79 upset of the heavily favored CSKA Moscow of the Soviet Union in the semifinals.
After that game, Brody famously said, “We’re on the map! We’re staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything.”
The European Cup finals were played in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where sports once again transcended politics. Though Israel did not have diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia at the time, an Israeli plane carrying the players was allowed to land in Belgrade. In the final, Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated the Italian squad Mobilgirgi Varese, 78–77, to clinch Israel’s first European Cup Basketball Championship.
The win ignited widespread celebration in Israel and became a source of national pride for Israelis.
“The celebration couldn’t be in the middle of Tel Aviv because it was too small to handle 200,000 people,” Brody said.
After retiring from basketball, Brody was called to Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, and awarded the Israel Prize, the highest honor an Israeli can receive. It was the first time the award had ever been given to a sportsman.
Three years ago, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., chose to honor Brody and Maccabi Tel Aviv, which was the first time a team outside the United States had earned recognition from the organization. The exhibit honoring the team was fittingly titled “Putting Israel on the Map.”
Students in attendance at the talk said they enjoyed the personal approach of Brody’s talk.
Shira Winter ’12 called Brody “really dynamic” and added that it was interesting to hear how living in Israel impacted him on a personal level.
Jonathan Silverstone ’15, a New Jersey native, added that he enjoyed the fact that Brody did not limit the discussion to just foreign policy and the political situation in the Middle East.
“It was nice that he really explored the other facet of life in Israel, which is the cultural side of things, and the importance of having a Goodwill Ambassador to show that it’s not all always about the Israel defense forces,” Silverstone said. “That shouldn’t be the only thing that’s discussed in Israel-related events on campus.”
Brody is currently in the United States on a speaking tour organized by the Israeli Consulate in America.