“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Israeli basketball history
While preparing this article, I asked my friend Yarone Arbel, a one-time columnist on Euroleague.net, for some data about Tal Brody. He sent me an e-mail with some figures and details, but what caught my attention was a sentence that read: “Here, in Israel, when talking about basketball, there is a before and after Tal Brody.” It’s impossible to say more in fewer words about this historical player, a great figure with so much meaning for Israeli basketball. There is no doubt that Maccabi Tel Aviv has showcased better players than Brody, but his merit was being the first great signing of the club and the key piece in an ambitious project of converting Maccabi into a great Israeli ambassador.
Talbot “Tal” Brody was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on August 20, 1943, into a Jewish family. His grandfather and his father emigrated to the United States in the 1920s after having lived in Palestine and Eastern Europe. At 8 years old, Tal started playing basketball at the Trenton Jewish Community Center, as well as at the local Boys Club and his school. Even then, he knew that he wanted to be either “a pro basketball player or an FBI agent.”
Brody stood out in high school (15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds) and received scholarship offers to play basketball at more than 40 colleges. He chose the not-so-powerful University of Illinois, aware that he would probably have more of a role there. With him at the point – with his excellent court vision, great assists and precise shot – Illinois won the famous Big Ten Conference championship. Tal Brody was the top scorer and the best passer. He was named to the prestigious All-American team with players like Rick Barry, Bill Bradley and Billy Cunningham, who years later would re-write NBA history. In 1965, Brody finished his degree in physical education and was selected 12th overall in the NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. Everything pointed to a brilliant NBA career.
The trip that changed his life
Until he finished his studies, Brody had never traveled outside the United States. In the summer of 1965, which would be so important in his life, he was invited to join an American selection of players to compete at the quadrennial Maccabiah Games. His quality as a player and his Jewish origins made him the perfect candidate to be on the team. He was the best player on the team that easily took the trophy. His great talent caught everyone’s attention and before traveling back to the States, Brody received an interesting offer – to stay in Israel and play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It is said that Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli general and minister of defense, who by then was the minister of sports, personally tried to persuade Brody with talk of his leadership in a project called “Great Maccabi.” Until then, the club had never advanced beyond the first rounds of European competitions, but there were plans to convert Maccabi into a powerful team that would be “the pride of Israel.” Brody didn’t stay that year, though, and headed back to the U.S. to take some masters courses to complete his studies. But in 1966, instead of playing with the Atlanta Hawks, who had traded for his rights, Brody decided to go back to Israel.
First final for Maccabi
In the 1966-67 season, Maccabi played in the Saporta Cup. After defeating Aris, Joventut and BK Botev of Bulgaria in the semifinals stage, Maccabi reached the final. On the other side awaited Ignis Varese. It was the first final for two future greats of European basketball, to be played over two games. In Varese, on April 7, 1967, Ignis won 77-67 despite Brody’s 27 points, which made him the top scorer in the game. Six days later, in the Tel Aviv game, Brody scored 26, but Maccabi could only win by a point, 68-67, and the title ended up in Italy.
The following year, Brody was already the best sportsman in Israel. Maccabi games, especially the continental ones, became socio-political events, with the permanent presence of government members. Head coach Ralph Klein started to build a great team with Brody as the centerpiece. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the United States government sent Brody a telegram telling him to abandon Israeli soil. Instead, he decided to stay and even worked with Israeli army soldiers on the Jordanian border.
As an American citizen, he came back to the United States in 1969 to fulfill his military service and came close to ending up in another war, in Vietnam. Fortunately, Brody was called for the USA team that played the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. That was the first time I saw Tal Brody. On a pretty modest team, with Bill Walton as a future star, but too young at the time to have a prominent role (3.7 points), Brody was the third-best scorer with 10.4 points, behind only Kenny Washington (11.8) and Mike Silliman (11.7). Brody scored 19 points against Australia and 17 against Czechoslovakia as the Americans placed fifth.
After the Ljubljana tournament, Brody decided to go back to Israel to live there and play basketball. He became an Israeli citizen, which meant he had to do military service again!
Tal Brody would play with Maccabi until 1980. He won 10 Israeli Leagues titles, six national cups and – as the icing on the cake – the EuroLeague title in 1977 in Belgrade against the club’s greatest rival of those years, Varese. Exactly 10 years after the defeat in the Saporta Cup, Maccabi exacted revenge by winning the European title 78-77. I can clearly remember the atmosphere at the legendary Pionir Arena, with 5,000 Maccabi fans having come from Israel and all over Europe. At that time, Yugoslavia didn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, but basketball opened the borders. Several charter flights landed in Belgrade, even the first jumbo jet in the history of the airport. At the break, Maccabi held a 39-30 advantage, but Varese had a last chance to win with the final possession of the game and 7 seconds to go. Good Maccabi defense stopped a play between Aldo Ossola and Bob Morse, however, and Maccabi won its first continental crown. Jim Boatwright led the winners with 26 points and Miki Berkowitz added 17. Brody, the team captain, contributed 9 points and was the protagonist of a historic photo, receiving the trophy from the hands of FIBA President Borislav Stankovic. Mission accomplished.
The return home was an experience to behold. More than 150,000 people welcomed the new European champs as national heroes. It was the first international title for any Israeli team in any sport.
Prior to winning that final, Maccabi had to get past great rivals like Real Madrid, Spartak Brno and CSKA Moscow. The game against CSKA took place on neutral ground in Belgium because the Soviet authorities would not allow CSKA to play in Tel Aviv, nor would they grant Maccabi players visas to play in Moscow. After beating CSKA 91-79, Brody uttered the words on Israeli TV that would go down as one of the most famous sayings in Israeli culture – sports or otherwise: “We are on the map and we’re staying on the map. Not only in sports, but in everything!”
The 1976 pre-Olympic tournament was played in Edinburgh, Scotland. There Brody led the Israeli team with 15 points. I remember his great game against Yugoslavia: he scored 22 points, but Israel lost 123-103. All told he scored 1,219 points in 78 games wearing the Israel national jersey. For Maccabi, in European competitions, he scored 1,378 points in 81 games. In the national league, Brody tallied 4,049 points. Despite these numbers, the fact remains that his contributions cannot be measured by just points or assists. The true measure of his greatness comes through Brody’s mere presence and historical role.
Over the years, Brody received many recognitions in Israel, among others the “Israel Prize” – the top civilian honor awarded by the state – in 1979. He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the United States National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. Two years later, his No. 12 college uniform was retired by the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. For a short time, Brody was an assistant coach with Maccabi, but his current activities focus more on politics. However, as a recognized philanthropist, he is always eager to help kids and to perform some basketball tricks. Brody owns an insurance company and dabbled in politics as a candidate for the Knesset, the country’s Parliament, but he was not elected. Since 2010, he has been a Goodwill Ambassador for Israel. But when talking about sports, like Yarone Arbel says, there was a “before and after Tal Brody” in Israeli basketball.