- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Under blue, scudless skies, the El Al flight from Brussels arrived at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport last Friday afternoon, swung open its door and safely delivered Israel's most celebrated sports team.
The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, the nation's perennial contender for the European Champions Cup, was back home again from yet another exhausting road trip. The night before, at Wembley Arena outside London, the team had lost a heart-stopper to Cadbury's Boost Kingston of England, 64-62, and the very next morning, after barely four hours of sleep, the players had dug themselves out of bed to catch a dawn flight to Brussels, where El Al, Israel's government-owned airline, had delayed its 8:30 a.m. flight to Tel Aviv to wait for the basketball team. Gathered for security reasons in a small waiting room in Brussels, looking at once harried, hurried and tired, they might have been one of the lost tribes, found at last, trying to make a final connection back to the homeland. What was waiting for them at home, two days after President Bush announced a suspension of hostilities in the war in the Persian Gulf, was far more than a celebration of their safe return. For the first time in six weeks, since the war started and Israeli citizens started carrying government-issue gas masks, there was a palpable sense of relief in the air, a promise of peace in a land that had endured the imminent threat of war for six months, and then the actuality of incoming Scud missiles.
"It's a load off my back," said one of Maccabi's American players, Donald Royal. "It's nice not to have to carry those gas masks around anymore. I definitely feel relieved. I'm sure I'm going to sleep better tonight knowing that no missile will be coming this way. I'm also looking forward to getting out of the house tonight."
For the Israeli-born members of the team, what gave this day even broader meaning was that it was Purim, a holiday that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a Persian plot to kill them 2,000 years ago. "It was a victory over Persians then," said Izik Cohen, a 6'8", 240-pound center. "Now the victory is over Saddam. It is like the past come true again. Everybody is talking peace. The war is over. No more air raid sirens. No more hiding in sealed rooms. The plastic sheet to protect from gas is coming off the windows. Now we celebrate Purim for two reasons. Freedom then. Freedom now."
There had been other symbolism at work with these Israeli basketball players. Throughout the last six weeks the Maccabi Tel Aviv team—promised a $500,000 government grant to help it meet its considerable travel expenses—was visible, continent-trotting proof that the hardships wrought by war had not brought the life of the nation to a halt. For the team, the most difficult hardship of all stemmed from a decision—made by the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) after the Scuds started falling—to prohibit any European Champions Cup games from being played in Israel. As a result, Maccabi Tel Aviv would have to play its scheduled home games on the road. Despite the threat of terrorist attacks—any Israeli sports team, but particularly its most prominent one, is regarded as a prime target of terrorism—the team flew out of Ben Gurion Airport usually on a Tuesday, played a basketball game in Europe on Thursday night, then flew back to Tel Aviv on Friday so the players could observe the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and be with their families for at least part of the week.
The players viewed their decision to continue playing as a statement of Israeli resolve. "We want to keep playing," said Tel Aviv-born Nadav Henefeld, 22, who performed for the University of Connecticut's NCAA championship contender last season. "It's important for us to play. Sports is something everyone can feel close to. Sports can unify. When we are on the road, people outside Israel can see we are still living, still working as a society, as a people, and that is important. Israel is not shut down. Israel still works. The situation for my country has never been easy, but we still have our lives and we want to make a statement to the world."
Political utterances aside, most of the 13 members of the team are professional basketball players, some in the six-figure salary range, and running around in short pants is how they make a living. It is not the Israeli national team, on which six Maccabi members also happen to play, but something more. Maccabi Tel Aviv is a member of the 11-team Israeli Basketball Association, the country's answer to the NBA, and it has won the league championship 21 years in a row. The league champions represent the country in the annual European Champions Cup, in which 32 teams began competing last fall. Eight remain in competition for the final four in April; in addition to Maccabi Tel Aviv, the teams are FC. Barcelona (Spain), POP 84 Split (Yugoslavia), Aris Salonika (Greece), Scavolini Pesaro (Italy), TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany), Limoges (France) and Cadbury's Boost Kingston (England). Maccabi has won the European Cup twice, in 1977 and 1981, and has made it to the finals on four other occasions. No other Israeli team has performed so consistently well in this difficult international competition; every Thursday night millions of Israelis sit transfixed in front of their television sets, watching with the fervor of Bostonians viewing the Celtics.
During the war the Tel Aviv players were seen as national heroes, traveling in airplanes in spite of the dangers and regularly putting themselves at risk before large crowds in foreign lands. "Some Israelis serve in the military, and others, like the Israeli members of this team, serve by playing basketball," says Shimon Mizrahi, the club president. "They are serving the people, too. All our games have been televised. This has been important during the war, when most people go home at night. Millions watch us on Thursday night, according to the polls. In one very close game [a stunning 72-70 win over POP 84 Split] there was an air raid alarm, and many people wouldn't go to the shelter."
The team did not have an easy time of it in the course of the war, playing under stresses endured by few sports teams on the road. But it never missed a scheduled game and, in fact, in those six weeks played its best basketball since the season started in September. "There has been more passing, more screening for one another, more patience on offense," said Chen Lippin, a veteran guard. "But that is the Israeli mentality at work, always pulling together in times of crisis. One of Israel's problems is that some Jews come from Arabic countries, some from Eastern Europe, some from the Soviet Union. But in crises, it doesn't matter where they come from. War is never good, but it has pulled Israel together, and that is what happened to this basketball team."
It was only after President Bush announced the end of hostilities that the team let down, looking suddenly flat and spiritless against Kingston. The time spent on airplanes, on buses and on the telephone in the tour of European cities had begun to take its toll.