On Thursday night, November 2010, Maccabi Electra defeated Partizan mt:s Belgrade for the 11th time in 16 games since the 1979-80 season, and the fifth time at the Pionir Arena. But my topic today won’t be this last game but a memory that I witnessed during the Spring of 1977. It was the title game of the former Champions Cup that was played between Maccabi and Mobilgirgi Varese on April 7. Maccabi won 78-77 for its first European title. But before telling you some things about that game and about the circumstances under which it took place, we have to remember the competition system then. The format called for 24 teams, even though only 23 played that year because Zamalek Cairo (yes, North African teams were still part of the European Champions Cup then) refused to play. So there were six initial groups and a second group phase among six group winners. That year, the second group phase was played by defending champ Mobilgirgi Varese, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maes Pils of Belgium and Zbrojovka Brno of Czechoslovakia. After that, the first two teams in the standings played a single-game final on neutral ground.
Before the start of that second group phase, some serious problems arose. For political reasons, CSKA and Zbrojovka refused to travel to Israel and to play Maccabi at home. FIBA, and especially its manager Raimundo Saporta, found a formula that would benefit Maccabi in the long run: the home games against CSKA and Zbrojovka were won by Maccabi by 2-1 scores, while as a visitor against those two teams, the games were played in Belgium. In fact, Maccabi was almost playing at home because the stands were filled with Yellow fans. Taking advantage of the situation, on the eve of the last group game, Mobilgirgi Varese was already qualified, but it could choose its rival. If it won in Moscow, Varese would play the final against Real Madrid; if it lost against CSKA, Varese would play against Maccabi, against whom the Italians had won twice previously. It was perhaps no surprise that CSKA Moscow won that game by 104-76. Maccabi would be the final opponent for Varese.
Politics and sports
The last group game of that second phase was played on March 24 and the final was to take place in Belgrade on April 7. The Serbian capital featured the new Pionir Arena, built in 1973, which had hosted the 1975 Eurobasket and was now set to be the protagonist in another big event. But once it was known that Maccabi was one of the finalists, the headaches started for many in Belgrade and also in FIBA. Even though the Yugoslavian teams didn’t boycott the games against Israeli teams that season, Yugoslavia and Israel did not have diplomatic relations. However, the government in Belgrade offered FIBA all the guarantees necessary and the event stayed at Pionir. An added problem was the massive presence of Arab students, some from Palestine, in Belgrade. But the police did their job and there weren’t any incidents at the event. The Yugoslavian authorities granted landing permission to seven or eight charter flights filled with more than 2,000 Maccabi fans, to be added to those arriving from all over Europe. Belgrade was soon dressed in yellow, and so of course was Pionir Arena.
Memories: Mizrahi and Berkowitz
The game was, somehow, a revenge match from the Cup Winners Cup first edition 10 years earlier, in 1967, when Ignis Varese and Maccabi met in the final. Varese won that time by 77-67 at home and lost 68-67 in Tel Aviv, thus taking the trophy. That started Varese’s still-unprecedented decade of 10 straight finals in the Champions Cup from 1970 to 1979, of which it won five titles. Maccabi, meanwhile, had long nursed the same dream, to be champions of Europe. Maccabi had played in the top continental competition since its inception in 1958, but had never got to the final. Maccabi landed in Belgrade without its star Tal Brody, who was in New Jersey visiting his sick father, but he managed to get to the game on time.
Varese was the heavy favorite, but Maccabi controlled the game with a 39-30 advantage at the break. In the second half, Varese managed to tie the score at 61-61, but Maccabi pulled away again by 72-66 with time running out. The Italians would have none of it, however. First, they pulled within 76-75 and then 78-77 in the final minute. With 7 seconds to go, English referee Turner made a doubtful traveling call on Maccabi player Lou Silver and Varese had the chance to win the game. But good defense by Maccabi brought the surprise. FIBA General Secratary Borislav Stankovic handed Tal Brody the trophy. Jim Boatwright scored 26 points, Miki Berkowitz 17, Aulcie Perry 12, Tal Brody 9, Lou Silver 8 and Motti Aroesti 2. The team was coached by Ralph Klein. On the other side, Dino Meneghin scored 21 and Bob Morse had 20, but the latter admitted that the defeat in the final had “probably started when in Moscow we took the loss thinking it would be easier in the final against Maccabi than against Real Madrid.”
The celebration was stellar, as legendary Maccabi president Shimon Mizrahi recounted to me this week from Belgrade:
“It was something unbelievable. At that point it was the biggest success for Maccabi and Israeli basketball. I remember that our Jumbo jet was the first one that had ever landed at the Belgrade airport. We were at the Jugoslavia Hotel, on the shores of the Danube, where we celebrated until very late. There were thousands of fans at the Tel Aviv airport waiting for us. The Israeli Prime Minister also had a reception for us and it was almost like a national party. That spring in Belgrade marked a before and an after in Maccabi’s history.”
Miki Berkowitz, one of the heroes for Maccabi that night, also has fresh memories about it:
“What I remember the most is the atmosphere,” he said. “I’d say that 90 or 95 percent of stands were filled with Maccabi fans. It was like playing at home. I was still young, 23 years old, and this was my first success. I remember our crazy fans swimming in the Danube that night.”
Some 33 years later, on April 1, 2010, Maccabi lost to Partizan in the Euroleague Quarterfinal Playoffs, but did so at the new Belgrade Arena. This week, Maccabi got revenge at the legendary Pionir, still a holy ground for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
(November 06, 2010)