It was one of the biggest upsets in modern sports history. It involved an unlikely team of underdogs defeating one of their game’s biggest group of bad guys, then following that landmark with a victory in the finals over a much-garlanded opponent who had crushed them twice before.
And a gathering of American sports fans who know about it probably wouldn’t fill Madison Square Garden.
But Dani Menkin, an Israeli filmmaker of considerable merit, remembers the 1977 European basketball championships, won by unfashionable Maccabi Tel Aviv; he remembers them well enough to make them the subject of his new film, “On the Map,” which opens Friday, Dec. 9.
“It’s one of my very first childhood memories,” Menkin said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles last week. “Everyone in Israel who is capable of remembering something will not forget that day. For us it was equivalent to the men walking on the moon for Americans.”
Menkin was 7 when it happened, and although he didn’t know it at the time, he was destined to revisit his childhood memories in his work.
“Many of my memories are in the film,” he said. “I remember a country that was naïve, young; I remember that when they won we felt that Israel had won.”
To understand the true nature of that victory and how it translated to the global stage, you need a little backstory, something that Menkin’s film presents in quick, deft brushstrokes.
In a sense, the story begins with the 1972 Munich Olympics and the tragic murder of Israeli athletes during the Games. Almost forgotten in those terrible events was the comparatively trivial matter of the contested defeat of the U.S. men’s basketball team by the Soviet Union. It was alleged that Russian manipulation of the game clock cost the Americans a hard-fought and richly deserved victory. In the world of basketball, the Soviets were now clearly marked as pro-wrestling-style baddies.
In the geopolitical world of Israel, they had been real-life bad guys for a long time. By 1977 the European basketball world had been utterly dominated by the Soviets, Italy and Spain. The Soviet team that repeatedly won its national title and represented Russia in the tournament was CSKA Moscow, the Red Army team, and most of its starting lineup still consisted of members of the ’72 Olympic squad.
But Maccabi Tel Aviv was led by its aging captain, Tal Brody, and he had been there, too, as a member of the U.S. team, a point guard from the University of Illinois whose 6-foot-1 height belied his commanding presence among his teammates. Brody had passed up a potential career in the NBA as a first-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets to make aliyah. As a highly respected player with a large network of friends, he had attracted several American players to Israel where, under the guidance of legendary coach Ralph Klein, Maccabi had developed into a small powerhouse.
The Maccabi Tel Aviv squad that “put Israel on the map in sports, in everything.” Aner Gera
Still, nobody expected them to advance very far in the 1977 tournament. Except, perhaps, them.
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Menkin, whose filmography includes excellent documentaries about individuals surviving against the odds, “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy” among them, had spent several years as a writer and director for Israel’s all-sports channel. “On the Map” was a film he was born to make.
“Feb. 17 will be the 40th anniversary of the championship, but I wasn’t thinking about that,” he admitted. “Jim Boatwright [one of the starting five for Maccabi] passed away in 2013, and I thought ‘this is the time to tell the story while the rest of the team are all here.’”
The film has multiple dramatic climaxes, with the Tel Aviv team facing down CSKA Moscow and then facing an Italian team from Varese in the finals. The drama of playing the Soviets resonates powerfully through the tangled history of Israel the nation, but the contest against Varese offers an equally dramatic set of conflicts, pitting Maccabi against the winners of several championships. Varese had thrashed them twice in their previous meeting that season.
Structurally, the double climax ought not to work, but documentary filmmakers are used to the lack of neatness presented by history, and Menkin does an admirable job of making both peak events register. He is aided magnificently by the presence of all the surviving players, Boatwright’s widow, several broadcasters and involved bystanders including the great center Bill Walton. They bring a vividness to the story that is aided immeasurably by generous helpings of game footage.
For the filmmaker, meeting his childhood heroes “was closing the circle.”
He said, “Here was this kid who dreamed of being a part of that team and he’s grown up and telling their story.”
Menkin isn’t letting go of the feelings from that 1977 triumph that Tal Brody famously said, “puts Israel on the map in sports, in everything.” His next project is a fiction feature about Aulcie Perry, the team’s African-American center, who embraced Israel and Judaism so wholeheartedly that he converted and made the Jewish state his home. The circle isn’t quite closed yet.
“That was my team,” Menkin said. “That was the team of the country.”
“On the Map” opens Friday, Dec. 9 at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., cinemavillage.com.