SI Vault
William Nack
March 11, 1991
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March 11, 1991



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As representatives of Israel, the Maccabi players always get their share of abuse from rival fans, but a crowd in Salonika tested them sorely on Jan. 17, the night after the war began. The players heard chants of "Saddam!" and "Ara-FAT!" while losing to the Greeks 93-81. But then, playing the next week in Yugoslavia, where they beat one of Europe's strongest teams, and again a week later in Germany, where they lost 102-101, they heard something different. By then Israel civilian centers had come under missile attack, but the government had chosen not to retaliate. "The crowds cheered and cheered for our players," said Lippin. "That never happened before. It made us feel very good. We always represented Israel, but now it was different. We represented Jews everywhere, and we got cheered in Yugoslavia and Germany. And in France, too."

In some cities Maccabi games even began taking on the flavor of home. At Wembley more than 6,000 people showed up for the game, and at least 5,000 were Israelis living abroad. At the introductions of the Israeli players, they cheered thunderously, waving blue-and-white Israeli flags, and frequently broke out in throaty chants that swept through the arena: 'Mahk-ah-BEE! Mahk-ah-BEE!" It is not inappropriate as a fighting chant; Maccabi was the name of a priestly Jewish family that led the struggle to overthrow Hellenism and Syrian rule in the second century B.C.

"This team symbolizes strength and victory for Israel," said Sharon Hanein, a law Student at Essex University who was among a raucous contingent of Israeli-born students attending the game. "They are beyond sport, really, speaking for Israeli unity."

The strain of playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv intensified immeasurably after the game in Salonika when, with their usual security escort, they returned to their hotel. Suddenly word spread from room to room, with shouts up and down the corridor, that Tel Aviv had come under an air attack, that Iraqi missiles had hit the city and that a number of civilians had been wounded. The Maccabi players watched CNN for the initial reports of damage. To a man they panicked, most of them grabbing for telephones to call their families, their wives and parents living in Israel. They spent half the night listening to busy signals.

Nothing he had ever experienced growing up in Louisiana—or playing basketball for Digger Phelps at Notre Dame or for Bill Musselman with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season—had prepared Royal for that Scud attack on the city he was living in. Not even the drug wars of Washington, D.C., where he played for the Bullets last year, were enough to steel Ed Horton for the reports he was hearing that night. Each European team is permitted to sign two foreign players, and Royal and Horton were Tel Aviv's. At one point, the two men exchanged glances.

"I ain't goin' back to Israel," Royal said.

"Me, either," said Horton.

Willie Sims is a third-generation Jew from Queens who played at LSU and moved to Israel in 1981. He became an Israeli citizen in 1982 and married an Israeli woman, Ariela Sheffr. The couple had one daughter, Danielle, now three, and Ariela was already eight months pregnant with their second child. They had just bought a new apartment in Tel Aviv, where Sims had started an import-export business with another naturalized Israeli, Lavon Mercer, a 6'10" Maccabi center who had played for Georgia. While there he helped recruit Dominique Wilkins, before moving to Israel. Over the Christmas holidays, Mercer's wife, Sharan, and their two children, Dionn, 8, and Alex, 3, had gone to visit Sharan's parents in Atlanta. They decided she and the children should stay there as the crisis deepened in early January.

But now, in Salonika, Sims did not know what was left of his home and family. "The TV said that Tel Aviv had come under a Scud attack," recalls Sims. "Can you imagine what that's like, sitting in Greece, to hear that the city where your family is living just came under an enemy air attack? I panicked. I jumped up and tried to call. I couldn't get through. There must have been millions of people trying to call Israel. It was terrible. It was so frustrating. I went nuts. I stayed up all night trying to reach Ariela. I kept worrying: 'Where did they hit? Was Tel Aviv on fire? Were they using chemical weapons? There were seven or eight Scuds that hit Israel. That's all I knew."

Sims finally reached his wife at 4 a.m., hours after he had first heard the news, and her voice on the telephone sounded distant and garbled. "Ever try to talk to someone with a gas mask on?" Sims says. "She had one on, and she was screaming, 'Everything is O.K. We're waiting for news, but I can't breathe with the mask on.' I kept screaming back, 'Keep the mask on! Keep them on, whatever you do.' We were having a baby. It was some night. Scared the heck out of me."

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