Monday, November 21, 2016

On the Map: The Miracle on Hardwood

1972 was the worst year ever for international sports. During the notorious Munich Olympics, eleven members of the Israeli delegation were killed by Black September, a terrorist organization later revealed to be under the control of the Fatah wing of the PLO. At the same Munich Games, the final seconds of the Men’s Basketball Gold Medal match were rigged to allow the Soviets to eke out a one-point victory. In contrast, 1977 was a great year for international sports, for reasons also involving Israeli and Soviet athletes. Dani Menkin chronicles Israel’s unlikely championship run in the 1977 European Basketball Championship and analyzes its historic legacy in On the Map (trailer here), which opens this week in Los Angeles (and early December in New York).

Maccabi Tel Aviv was a scruffy club with a fraction of the resources of their European counterparts. However, they scored a coup when they lured highly touted NBA prospect Tal Brody away from the Baltimore Bullets. His storied career would be interrupted by stints of military service for both the U.S. and Israel, but in 1977, he still had the skills and prestige to attract the kind of local talent and just-missed-the-NBA American players Maccabi needed to compete with the Europeans.

Obviously, Maccabi did well in 1977, because nobody would make a documentary about a mediocre season. Many players and commentators compare their European championship drive to U.S. Hockey’s “Miracle on Ice,” which is particularly apt considering both teams had to win emotionally-draining, symbolically-charged victories over the Soviets just to reach the championship matches, but neither story ended there.

Menkin assembled all the surviving Maccabi players, including Brody, to re-watch their celebrated games. They clearly enjoy each other’s company and the sense of fun is contagious. It is also quite moving to hear from the widow of Jim Boatwright, Maccabi’s leading scorer. Maccabi center Aulcie Perry is also an engaging screen presence, but Menkin really does him a solid by omitting mention of his subsequent issues with drugs and crime. For extra added attitude, Menkin gets some characteristically colorful color commentary from Bill Walton, who sounds like an old school Cold Warrior when discussing the Soviet team.

Maccabi’s 1977 season is a great story just in terms of scrappy underdogs overcoming adversity. It is indeed a David versus Goliath story set in the nation of King David. However, it takes on far greater significance when considered in the context of 1970s Israel, particularly with respect to the Soviet boycott, the lingering pain of the Yom Kippur War and the Munich Massacre, and the resurgence of national pride following the Entebbe Raid. In an era when FIFA and the IOC have become synonymous with corruption, it is refreshing to revisit a time when athletes like Maccabi Tel Aviv could unite and inspire their country. Very highly recommended, On the Map opens this Friday (11/25) in Los Angles at the Laemmle Royale and two weeks later (12/9) at the Cinema Village in New York.