“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Ralph Klein, At the center of Israeli basketball history
Life was hard, especially during childhood, for Ralph Klein. He was born on July 19, 1931 in Berlin to a Jewish family of Hungarian descent and grew up in Budapest, where his father played football for MTK.
During World War II, the family was sent back to Germany under tragic circumstances to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His father Rudolph didn’t survive, but little Ralph and other family members did, thanks to the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. After that, Klein returned to Budapest where he started practicing basketball with VAC.
A crucial moment in Klein’s life came when his mother decided to move to Israel. It was 1951, the start of his true career. He moved with her and started playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, where until 1964 he won eight league titles and six national cups, including several as the team captain and its best player. According to Wikipedia, he played 160 games and scored 2,701 points.
A year after he arrived in Israel, Klein was summoned to the Israeli national team for the first time and went to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. However, official documents show No. 11 for Israel at the 1954 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Rio de Janeiro as being Ralph Ram. It is the same player; Ram was Klein’s second last name. Klein/Ram finished the tourney with 38 points, or 4.8 per game. He later played for Israel at FIBA EuroBaskets in 1953, 1959, 1961 and 1963, the last two as team captain. Then, in 1964, he started his second career, as a coach.
An eight-year-long mosaic
I don’t know what kind of player Klein was. I hear he was solid, but his results as a coach are definitively better, and that’s not just subjective opinion.
He started with the Israel junior team at the 1968 FIBA U18 European Championship in Vigo, Spain, where his team finished seventh. In the 1969-70 season, the opportunity of his life came: Maccabi called him to return, this time as coach.
Many believe that Klein’s arrival to the Maccabi bench was the key to a mosaic that would be crafted over eight years and which would culminate with the club’s first European crown, won on April 7, 1977 in Belgrade against defending champ Mobilgirgi Varese.
It was Maccabi’s second European final. The first had been in the first Saporta Cup in 1967, also against Varese. That final was a two-game affair: Varese won at home 77-67 and Maccabi won in Tel Aviv, but only by 68-67. Tal Brody was Maccabi’s top scorer; in Varese he collected 27 points, and in Tel Aviv 26. Brody was still an American, but after playing the 1970 FIBA World Cup in Ljubljana for Team USA, he received his Israeli passport thanks to his Jewish roots. Brody arrived in Tel Aviv in 1966 “for a year” and stayed forever. Klein called Brody “the man who changed basketball in Israel.”
Starting in 1969, Brody and Klein were tight collaborators. Brody was an extension of the coach. The start was not too promising, as Hapoel Tel Aviv won the league title and represented Israel in the EuroLeague without much success, losing in the second round against ASVEL Lyon.
Maccabi didn’t do any better the following season, falling to Standard Liege 86-107 in the first game, so revenge was almost impossible (74-62). In 1970-71, things weren’t much better as Panathinaikos eliminated Maccabi in the eighthfinals. In 1972-73, Maccabi made the quarterfinals group, but without Klein, who was now coaching Hapoel Jerusalem, Maccabi came in last, behind Milan, Crvena Zvezda and Real Madrid.
The Maccabi club directors, with president Shimon Mizrahi at the helm (and still there nearly half a century later), decided to get Klein back by promising him patience and confidence. At the start of the 1970s, a talented player named Mickey Berkowitz appeared at the 1972 FIBA U18 European Championship in Zadar. Brody was not alone anymore. From the players that had played the 1967 final, only Haim Starkman, Joseph Leja and Gaby Neumark remained, but Klein had his new generation going. Brody and Berkowitz were the strength of the team, but they would need better foreigners and Klein knew he had to dig some up in the United States. He was in love with American basketball, and at the start of his career he took several trips to that country to study the work of American coaches, especially at powerful universities.
In the 1973-74 season, Maccabi improved to third in its quarterfinals group, and the following season fell short of the semis by a few inches, tied with AS Berck Basket of France, but missing out due to point difference. However, with Jim Boatwright and Bob Pleas, plus Motti Aroesti and Eric Menkin at his best, Maccabi now had a respected team. The hope of going one step further didn’t happen in 1975-76 either, as Maccabi was third again behind Real Madrid and Cantu. But the mosaic was almost complete with the arrival of Lou Silver, another key player. That season, Bob Griffin and Lawrence McCray also played for Maccabi, but Silver was the missing factor.
For the 1976-77 season, FIBA changed the competition system and, instead of two elimination rounds, six groups with four teams each were formed. Maccabi finished atop Group E, in front of Bologna, Dinamo Bucharest and Olympiacos. The only defeat was against Bologna. The six group champs then played in the final group, which after 10 rounds was led by Varese at 7-3. Maccabi, CSKA Moscow and Madrid all finished with 6-4 records, but Maccabi took the point differential this time to finish second and advance to the final. It has to be noted that politics were also on Maccabi’s side, with two games won 2-0 since Zbrojkovka Brno and CSKA refused to travel to Tel Aviv and played their home games against Maccabi in Belgium.
The appearance of Maccabi in the final created, from the first moment, a diplomatic problem. Yugoslavia didn’t have a diplomatic relationship with Israel, but when FIBA decided to let Belgrade organize the final game, nobody believed Maccabi would make it! However, the federation managed to achieve flexibility from political authorities and flocks of Maccabi fans were granted permission to enter the country without visas. It was unprecedented, one of the few times that basketball defeated politics.
The game took place on April 7, 1977 at Pionir Arena in Belgrade, which was only four years old at the time. I was at the game and remember a great duel between two good teams and two great coaches. Sandro Gamba was at the helm in Varese, but Klein was up to the challenge. Before the final game, he motivated his players with the following message:
“When we play tonight, nobody in Rome and Napoli will cheer for Varese. But back in Israel, in every city and village you to to, everybody will care about Maccabi. We represent our whole country here.”
And he was right. Thanks to him, Maccabi became the most popular team in Israel and, from that date, it also became the team of the country and the pride of Israel.
Motivated by that message, Maccabi surprised everybody with a good first half and led 39-30, but Varese came back in the second and it was 61-61 with 7 minutes remaining. The last seconds were pure drama. With Maccabi ahead 78-77, referee David Turner called a questionable traveling violation on Silver. Varese had 7 seconds to win the game, but the pass from Aldo Ossola to Bob Morse went out of bounds and Maccabi won its first European title.
Ranko Zeravica, the great Yugoslav coach attending the game, congratulated Klein on his strategy. He said that Maccabi defeated Varese with its own weapon: pressure on playmakers Ossola and Giulio Iellini. Jim Boatwright (26 points), Berkowitz (17), Aroesti and Aulcie Perry (12), Brody (9), Silver (8), Shuki Schwartz (4), Menkin and Griffin wrote basketball history together with Klein. On the other side, Dino Meneghin with 21 points and Morse with 20 were not enough.
Borislav Stankovic, FIBA secretary general, gave the trophy to Brody, who told him, “We played the game of our lives.”
The Israel national coach goes to … Germany!
The following step was the logical one: Klein became coach of the Israeli national team.
In a short period of time, he managed to achieve the biggest Israeli international feat to this day: a silver medal at the 1979 EuroBasket in Italy. In the group stage, Israel delivered the upset of the tournament by beating Yugoslavia, the reigning European and world champion, 77-76. The team lost the title game to the USSR, 71-92, but the whole country was ecstatic and Klein and his players were national heroes.
Berkowitz made the all-tournament team, together with Sergei Belov, Dragan Kicanovic, Kreso Cosic and Vladimir Tkachenko. Klein remained national team coach until 1983 but his next job surprised everybody, including his family: he became the national team coach for Germany! Nobody saw that coming from a Jew who lost his father to the Nazis in Auschwitz. But Klein had his reasons and motivations.
“I saw it as my victory over the Germans, with the great and strong Germany inviting an Israeli to coach its team,” he said.
And he did it quite well. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Germany finished eighth. At the following year’s EuroBasket in Stuttgart, Germany was fifth and overcame the Yugoslavia of a young Drazen Petrovic, as well as France.
The stars in Klein’s German team were Detlef Schrempf, Uwe Blab and Mike Jackel, as well as youngsters Christian Welp and Stephan Baeck. Klein, with his eye for talent, selected the players who would later be the core of the German title-winning squad at EuroBasket in 1993.
Klein was a great motivator and he knew how to get the most out of each player. He always believed in stars and was ready to give his best plays to the best players, but he also liked to have 12 good players at his disposal to maintain the rhythm. He hated defeats, especially by tight margins. “A loss is a loss, by 1 point or 20 points. I hate losses, we must try to win every game,” he used to say.
Even in his seventies and after suffering from colon cancer, Klein was never far from basketball. He coached a high school girls’ team and a minor league women’s team, Elitzur Elkana, which renamed itself in Klein’s memory after his passing.
Klein was awarded his country’s most important accolade in 2006, the Israel Prize for Sports. He passed away on August 7, 2008. The Maccabi Tel Aviv veterans’ team now bears his name, and the arena in the town of Yavne is also named for the coaching legend. The 2011 film “Playoff” is inspired by Klein’s life story, though it did not receive much critical acclaim. But even without a movie, Ralph Klein has his place in the history of basketball, and not only in Israel.