So Royal returned
to Israel on Feb. 1, to a hero's welcome, after playing in Leverkusen. The
security guard in the building where he lives shook Royal's hand when he saw
him. "He said to me, 'I'm proud of you for coming back,' " says Royal.
"I learned I had a lot of character. I know some people would not have made
the decision I did, to come back to Israel before the war ended. I'm proud that
I made the decision. Once I got here, I realized I had made the right decision.
To know what they're going through and to decide to go through it with them
made me feel good. I'm glad I came back."
He had returned
to Israel just in time to rejoin the team for the continuation of a road
schedule that was beginning to grind down players and club officials alike.
Their itineraries were complicated by events, the chief of which was that all
the major airlines, except El Al, stopped serving Tel Aviv after the war began.
It was no wonder they appeared listless at Wembley. After beating Limoges, the
players were supposed to catch a charter flight the next morning from Limoges
to Zurich, where they were to catch a 7 a.m. El Al flight to Tel Aviv. A
snowstorm made it impossible for the charter to land in Limoges. The plane
could fly out of Paris, however, so Mizrahi rented a train for $6,000 to get
the team there from Limoges. The players left after the game, with barely
enough time to take showers.
locomotive pulling one car," says Mizrahi. The train took 3½ hours. The
team caught the charter to Zurich and made the El Al connection on time, but
the whole trip took some 17 hours from beginning to end and left the players
exhausted. Besides disrupted itineraries, they had to contend with security
arrangements even more stringent than those that usually govern the team in its
travels. After landing at London's Heathrow Airport last week, the team stepped
into the main terminal. Suddenly several uniformed soldiers materialized,
carrying automatic weapons. In Greece, 50 policemen surrounded the team bus at
the airport, and it left with a police van in front and another behind.
The players laugh
at the memories today as they listen to Horton recall the almost cartoonlike
characters that have appeared to protect them along the way. "In Greece,
they assigned us Rambo one week," says Horton. "Remember that guy? Belt
of bullets across one shoulder, another belt over the other shoulder. Knives
sticking out of his pants legs. Stuff painted around his eyes."
Lavon Mercer has
been playing in Israel for 10 years, and he has seen enough of life there that
he looks at things now with a trained eye, seeing what he never would have seen
before. "You learn to watch things, to look for things that don't look
right," Mercer says. "Like a bag lying somewhere by itself. Or
strangers hanging around. Anything out of place. You become aware of
everything. Right now, it's very tiring. Very demanding. We've got no
home-court advantage. No matter where we go, we attract problems."
After being on
the road for five searching weeks, players were complaining of the toll that it
was taking. "There has been so much pressure," Lippin said in London
last week. "It never seems to let up. I was afraid to come here for fear of
Irish terrorists. If it is not one thing, it is another."
Maccabi's loss to
Kingston left it with a 4-6 record and nearly out of the race to make the final
four. On Feb. 14, in Maccabi's "home" game in Brussels, Scavolini
Pesaro defeated the Israelis 93-87. They can hardly afford to lose again. Their
only chance of advancing to the semifinal round appears to turn on the outcome
of their appeal to FIBA to allow them to play their four remaining games at
home in Tel Aviv. Four days before the fighting ended, the ban on playing games
in Israel had been lifted.
However far they
go, Maccabi's final game will bring to an end the longest, strangest, most
remarkable season in its history. No matter how it turns out, and long after
the last basket is forgotten, this was the year when Izik Cohen delivered
pizzas to four U.S. soldiers. It was the year when Kerry Daniel fled town
because her baby was too big to fit into a plastic tent. It was the year when
Donald Royal, in a town outside Frankfurt, discovered a part of himself that he
never knew existed.
It was also the
year in which Sharan Mercer flew to England, net her husband in the lobby of a
Wembley hotel and gave him a custom-made ring, crowned with a garnet and four
diamonds, to compensate for all the years spent playing basketball for teams on
which he never won a ring of his own.
"It's to show
how much I love you," she told him.