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Olympic Profile Ralph Klein: Israeli Coach of West Germany’s Basketball Team

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One of the interesting elements in international sports competition is the search for effective coaches. “Home town boys” are not necessarily the best choices. When Mexico was awarded the 1968 Olympics, it was natural that the Mexican Olympic Committee went abroad for 26 of its 29 or 30 coaches. Most of the individual sports and some of the team sports were not popular in Mexico, and there was no cadre of top-flight coaches to drea on for leadership of world-class teams.

But some interesting match-ups have occurred in the 1984 Olympic Games. One of them is in the leadership of the West German basketball team. Ralph Klein, an Israeli who was born in Berlin and who escaped from the Holocaust barely in time, has been employed by the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) Olympic Committee as coach.

How did that happen? “They were looking for the best man, and it was me,” says Klein. “They were considering three Americans and myself. Perhaps its was easier because I was already in Germany, and knew the language and the psychology of the players, but I think it was mostly because I was a better choice.”

One of the candidates had served one year as national coach, not too successfully, and the others had experience as coaches in Europe. Klein had been employed as coach of the Cologne club, and had guided them to a successful season when he was tapped by the national committee for their squad. He took over the team in time to finish fourth in a qualifying tournament in France in May, and qualify for the Olympic Games. While Klein was born in Germany he lived there only eight years. In 1929 the family moved to Hungary from where his father had come to Germany. He recalls that life in Germany was not too bad, in the eyes of a young boy.

His years in Hungary are the ones he remembers with sadness and hatred. Within five years the family was restricted to the ghetto, and then his father and sister were sent to Auschwitz. He and his brother and mother remained in Budapest until 1945, when his sister was liberated. They returned to Berlin, but his brother and sister moved to Israel in 1947 and Klein and his mother emigrated in 1951.

VARIED SPORTS CAREER

He went into sports and physical education as a career almost immediately. From 1951 to 1964 he played with Maccabee Tel Aviv and the national team. In 1964 he came to the United States under the auspices of the United States Committee for Sports in Israel to study coaching under some of the major coaches in America.

Since 1965 he coached the National Junior Team, Maccabee Tel Aviv and the National Senior Team. During his tenure Maccabee Tel Aviv won the European Cup of Champions and Israel reached the finals of the European Tournament, losing to the Soviet Union by 19 points at Torino in 1979.

By 1983 I had gone as far as I could go in Israel,” said Klein. “I wanted to do something different, and the logical step was to Europe. The best offer was from Cologne, so I went there. After the club season, I was asked to take over the national team. So that is where we are now.”

Klein retains his Israeli citizenship, of course, as he plans to return to Israel at the end of his two-year contract. He is on the faculty at Wingate Institute of Physical Education, where he teaches organization and administration of sports, so he must return within 24 months to retain his tenure.

“My citizenship causes a problem to the basketball federation,” he says. “So they must have wanted me when they knew what problems it causes. For example, when the team plays in Spain, they must take special steps to obtain a visa for me. For their players it is no problem, but Spain does not recognize Israel, so the officials have much more red tape to handle when we go into certain countries.”

Asked what he would do if he had to coach against Israel, he said: “I have done that already. When we were in France, Israel was one of the teams there. I told my committee in advance, if winning was important in order to qualify, I would coach the team. If not, I would sit on the sidelines.” As it turned out, the match was the last of the tournament. FRG had already qualified and Israel was out of the running. So Klein sat on the sidelines and let his assistant handle the team. Israel won by one point.

“There are some things I will do and some things I will not do,” said Klein as he stood up to leave the interview. “When we are in a match and the national anthems are played, I will stand with everybody else and for all the music. But I did not march under the German flag during the Opening Ceremonies. They didn’t miss me.”

The name of the city in which a history of anti-Semitism in Hungary was published was misidentified in a headline in Thursday’s Bulletin. The city was Budapest.

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