While preparing this article, I asked my friend Yarone Arbel, also a columnist on Euroleague.net, for some data about Tal Brody. He sent me an e-mail with some figures and details about Brody, 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 of 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 and also at the local Boys Club and his school. From those school days he knew he wanted to be either “a pro basketball player or an FBI agent”.
He 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 there he would probably have more of a role. 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 that years later would re-write NBA history like Rick Barry, Bill Bradley and Billy Cunningham. In 1965 he finished his degree in physical education and was selected in the NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets with the 12th overall pick of the first round. Everything pointed to a brilliant NBA career.
The trip that changed his life
Until he finished his studies, Brody had never travelled 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 travelling back to the States, he received an interesting offer: to stay in Israel and play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It’s 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, however, and headed back to the USA 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 from the Baltimore Bullets, he decided to go back to Israel.
First final for Maccabi
In the 1966-67 season, Maccabi played the Cup Winners Cup. After defeating Aris, Joventut and BK Botev of Bulgaria in the semifinal stage, it 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 in two games. In Varese, on April 7, 1967, Ignis won 77-67 despite Brody’s 27 points, making him the top scorer in the game. Six days later, in the Tel Aviv game, Brody scored 26, but Maccabi could only win 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, but 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 he was close to ending up in another war, in Vietnam. Fortunately, he was called by the USA team that played the World Championships in Ljubljana; that was the first time I saw Tal Brody. On a pretty modest team, with Bill Walton as future star, but then too young to have a relevant role (3.7 points), Brody was the third-best scorer with 10.4 points, only after Kenny Washington (11.8 ppg.) and Mike Sillman (11.7 ppg.). Against Australia, Brody scored 19 points, against Czechoslovakia 17. 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, 1977 champ Brody played with Maccabi until 1980. He won 10 Israeli Leagues titles, six cups and – as the icing on the cake – the European Cup in 1977 in Belgrade against its greatest rival of those years, Mobilgirgi Varese. Exactly 10 years after the defeat in the Cup Winners Cup, Maccabi exacted revenge by winning by 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 up the borders. Several charter flights landed in Belgrade, even the first jumbo jet in the history of the airport. At the break, Maccabi had a 39-30 advantage, but Varese had the last chance to win since it had the last possession of the game with 7 seconds to go. However, good Maccabi defense stopped a combination between Aldo Ossola and Bob Morse, and Maccabi won its first continental crown. Jim Boatwright led the winners with 26 points and Miki Berkowitz added 17, but captain Brody contributed 9 points and was the protagonist of the historic photo, receiving the trophy from the hands of Borislav Stankovic, FIBA President. Mission accomplished.
The return home was an experience to behold. More than 150,000 people welcomed the 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 some 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, though Israel lost 103-123. All told he scored 1,219 points in 78 games wearing the Israel national jersey. For Maccabi, in Europe, he scored 1,378 points in 81 games. In the national league he scored 4,049 points. Despite these numbers, the fact remains that his contributions cannot be measured with only with points and assists; Brody’s true measure of greatness comes through his mere presence and historical role.
Over the years, Brody received many recognitions in Israel, among others the “Israel Prize” in 1978, the top honor awarded by the state. In 1996 he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and in 2011 the United States National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In February of this past season, his No. 12 college uniform was retired by the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. For a short time he 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. He was a candidate for the Knesset (Parliament) in the lists of the Likud party, but he was not elected. He owns an insurance company. Since 2010 Brody has been a Goodwill Ambassador of Israel, but talking about basketball, like Yarone Arbel says, in Israel there was a “before and after Tal Brody”.