For the second time in three years, the Maccobi Tel Aviv basketball team has experienced the conversion of an American-born Black player. Earl Williams, formerly a member of the Detroit Pistons, arrived this week in Israel and told the press he had become a member of the Jewish faith and had taken as his Jewish name Eliezer Ben Abraham.
In 1978, Aulcie Perry, a player from New York, who had played for several years with the Maccabi team, became a convert after study with a Beth Din (rabbinical court) in Brooklyn, headed by a Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz. Perry’s conversion become a hot religious and athletic issue when the validity of that conversion was challenged by two major American Orthodox rabbinical organizations.
The dispute led to warnings from the Agudat Israel that it might leave Premier Menachem Begin’s coalition if Perry’s naturalization certification was not rescinded by the Interior Ministry, controlled by another coalition partner, the National Religious party.
BACKGROUND OF THE ISSUE
The athletic-related issue arose from a rule that each team in the Israeli National Basketball League (NBL) may bring on one non-Israeli player of Jewish birth and one of non-Jewish birth. When a non-Israeli player of non-Jewish birth, as in the case of Perry, became a convert, his action made room for acceptance by an NBL team of another non-Israeli player, in Perry’s case, an opening on the Maccabi Tel Aviv team.
The Tel Aviv team thereupon imported Williams, who has since been a star player. Israeli sports experts said they had assumed that now that Williams has converted to Judaism, he leaves a spot on the team for a non-Jewish player. In fact, Williams’ conversion left an opening which was filled by Jack Zimmerman, who was graduated from Dayton (Ohio) University and played international contests with the Maccabi Tel Aviv team last season.
Israeli cage teams also may, for international competition, add a player who need not be Jewish, But he can play only in international contests, not in local ones.
Williams has turned out surprisingly to be a highly aggressive player, whose tactics have offended many Israeli cage fans. Williams has a tendency to bait opposition players. Some of the more mild-mannered Tel Aviv fans find such tactics contrary to their ideas of "smart basketball."
In an international game last year, with a leading team in Greece, Williams struck an opposition player, touching off a riot that involved the whole Maccabi squad.
AGGRESSIVE STYLE SURPRISES COACHES
Williams’ aggressive style, both on and off the court, has surprised former NBL coaches who have had the opportunity to work with the new convert and who are startled to learn about his conversion. "This cannot be the Earl Williams I used to know when I was affiliated with the Detroit Pistons during Williams’ stay there," said one former assistant coach. "It just doesn’t sit right with me."
Sports observers noted with interest that the Maccabi five not only lead the NBL every season but also have managed to lead the League in conversions of non-Jewish players. There is a third convert, Jim Boatwright, a former Mormon from Utah.
The Hapoel Tel Aviv team, the Tel Aviv Maccabi team’s fiercest competitor, which initially blew the whistle on the question of Perry’s conversion, also was disclosed this week to have a convert as a player. Lavon Mercer, the star pivot player of the Hapoel team, has undergone conversion and is now a Jew. Mercer has been an NBL star for the past three seasons.
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