When my husband and I first made aliyah 15 years ago and an Israeli asked us where we were from in the United States, they looked at us blankly when we said Cleveland.
They knew New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, but Cleveland simply was not on their radar. This despite the fact that Cleveland for many years sent a high number per capita of members of the Jewish community on aliyah – I have the telephone and address book of former Clevelanders published by our hometown association to prove it.
After a few years, when I said I was from Cleveland, an Israeli’s immediate response was “LeBron” — prep phenom LeBron James had been drafted out of his Akron parochial school by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 and immediately began to make a name for himself in the NBA. He then made quite a big show of leaving the Cavaliers for Miami with a live ESPN special titled “The Decision,” and Cleveland again became a laughingstock (burning river anyone?) and somewhat known even in Israel.
Two weeks ago I spent a Shabbat on a small kibbutz in the lower Galilee where my daughter is performing her first year of national service. During a Shabbat meal at the home of a native Israeli family, their young son, taking note of my still pretty poor Hebrew, asked where we originally came from. At the mention of the word Cleveland his eyes widened and he leaned forward. “David Blatt,” he said in a reverent whisper of the Cavs’ first-year coach.
While Israelis love LeBron, they love Blatt even more.
David Blatt led Israel’s beloved Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to the EuroLeague championship last year. David Blatt was the first Israeli to become a head coach in America. David Blatt, years earlier, had eschewed a shot at the NBA to make aliyah and play professional basketball in Israel until a career-ending injury.
Now Cleveland is on everyone’s radar here, with not only Clevelanders but thousands of Israelis waking up in the middle of the night to watch the playoffs and NBA Finals games live, saving the biggest cheers for shots of Blatt on the sidelines pacing in his neatly and decidedly un-Israeli tailored suit. We’re all walking bleary-eyed through the next day. The Clevelanders even have a hashtag, #CavsIsrael, and we cheer and commiserate via Facebook.
Being a fan of any Cleveland sports team is generally a thankless proposition – we haven’t had a championship for any major team since 1964 – but I love rooting for all my hometown teams.
Still the Cavs have a soft spot in my heart that predates Blatt, LeBron and aliyah. It goes back to the mid-1970s when my brother and I would huddle in his bedroom hours after we were supposed to be asleep listening to the team’s colorful radio announcer, Joe Tait, call the games.
You could hear the sport shoes scuffing on the floor and see the players going up for shots (“to the line, to the lane …”). Most rewarding was Tait’s triumphant shout of BINGO! when guard Bingo Smith swished a jump shot. We whispered Bingo with him and sang the Cavs’ fight song along with the fans at the games.
My nighttime Cavs’ watching here in Israel is reminiscent of those undercover nights as a youngster in Cleveland. Blatt and LeBron (who I have almost forgiven for “The Decision”) are just the icing on the cake.