- February 2, 2017
Feb. 17, 1977. Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin remembers that day like it was yesterday. He was only 7 at the time. He wasn’t a basketball fan, but his eyes were glued to the flickering images of a basketball game on Israel’s solitary TV channel. The rest of the country was, too. It was the European Cup semi-finals and Maccabi Tel Aviv was playing against CSKA Moscow — the Red Army team. The Soviets were highly favored to win, but Israel beat the odds.
After the upset victory, a reporter asked Tal Brody, the Maccabi team captain, for a quote. He replied in Hebrew with a thick American accent: “We are on the map!”
“Hearing him say that, I felt goosebumps,” Menkin recalls. “For a young kid in Israel, that was like watching Neil Armstrong take the first step on the moon. Our nation had entered a new world. I was just a kid — but I knew it.”
As an adult, Menkin wanted to know more. He was surprised to discover no documentary existed on this triumph, so in 2013, he set out to make one of his own. Sarasota audiences will get a glimpse of his work in progress, “On the Map,” at this week’s dual screening at the 7th annual Milman-Kover Jewish Film Festival. The director and two former players, Tal Brody and Sarasota resident Eric Minkin, will participate in a Q&A. But we asked a few questions ahead of time.
An Untold Story
When Menkin began researching the game, he was surprised at the untapped potential for a documentary film.
“One of the players had passed away,” he says. “I started talking to executives at Israeli TV about his life. After a little research, it dawned on me there was a much larger story. Nobody had told the story of this game itself; no documentary existed. The story was untold, so I decided to tell it myself.”
His second surprise came in the form of source material. There was a treasure trove of footage — crucial, he says, in the unforgiving visual medium of film.
“It’s one thing to tell the tale of a basketball game,” he says. “It’s another to show it. Basketball moves, and moves quickly. To do the game justice, you have to show that movement.”
But that’s only possible if you’ve got something to show. If the footage has been lost or erased, you’re left with talking heads and voiceover narratives over shots of newspaper clippings. Instead, Menkin discovered an “unbelievable” wealth of material. Not only archival film and video footage from Israeli TV, but an abundance of clips, interviews and outtakes from European broadcasters and never-before-seen home movies from private sources.
The Weight of the Moment
Archival sources are great; first-hand accounts are even better. Fortunately, most of the players were still alive and eager to talk. Sarasota resident Eric Minkin is one of them. (No relation to the director.) He recently retired from a 22-year career as a registered nurse in Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s cardiac acute unit. In his younger days, he experienced the heart-pounding action of the historic game firsthand on the court.
Soon after graduating as a First Team Jewish All-American from Davidson College, Minkin got the invitation to join the Maccabi Tel Aviv team. He accepted the offer and flew to Israel in 1972 — only two weeks before the massacre of Israel’s Olympic athletes in Munich.
“We played all over Europe,” he recalls. “Security was just unbelievable. At the game in Madrid, we had 500 sharpshooters in the gym.”
The unspoken lesson was clear: The world of sports wasn’t safe from the ugly world of politics. The marksmen in Madrid drove that point home.
Minkin said the environment fostered his Jewish identity and also improved his game.
“I drove myself to play better than everybody else,” he says. “I was the smallest, whitest center in Europe. What choice did I have?”
Despite a Soviet boycott of Israel, the Red Army basketball team agreed to play Israel’s team in neutral Belgium. The game would be winner take all.
Back in Israel, the Maariv daily newspaper touted the match as “the fight between David and Goliath.” Minkin recalls there was a lot of buildup before the game.
“We knew it was going to be big,” he says. “We just didn’t know how big.”
The hard-charging Russians were odds-on favorites. They’d taken home the last four European Cup basketball titles in four undefeated seasons, and six players had been part of the team that defeated the U.S. national team in 1976.
“Nobody thought we could beat them,” Minkin recalls. “We thought we had a chance. We had a strong team — we were confident, but not overconfident. We felt the weight of the moment and did not want to be embarrassed.”
A Good Day
Game day finally arrived. Israel’s team knew Israel’s basketball fans would be watching. They didn’t realize the entire nation would be watching. More than 99% of the Israeli population stayed home to watch the game on television.
“The streets and cafés were empty,” says Minkin with awe. “No taxis. It was kind of like Yom Kippur where everything shuts down. On Feb. 7, 1977, every Israeli was a basketball fan.”
Blissfully ignorant of this ubiquitous attention, the underdog Israelis played their hearts out in a high-scoring, volatile game against the “unbeatable” Red Army team.
Final score: 91–79. Unbelievably, Maccabi Tel Aviv won.
And that’s when Brody famously proclaimed, “We’re on the map! And we are staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything.”
“Obviously ‘on the map’ has many different meanings,” says Minkin. “There was talk at the time of ‘erasing Israel from the map,’ and there still is. Brody was telling the world, ‘We’re still here. We will not be erased.’”
The victory had a profound effect on Jewish morale, and the players returned conquering heroes.
“When we went back, there were a million people lining the road from the airport to Tel Aviv,” says Minkin. “And 150,000 people in what is now Rabin Square. It was a very good day.”
Menkin’s spirited work in progress will screen this weekend at the culmination of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee’s 7th annual Milman-Kover Jewish Film Festival, and the director is eager to share the film with a large audience and get their feedback. He says just like any great sports movie, the heart of the story is about more than the action on the court.
“Every great sports movie is bigger than the game itself,” he says. “‘Rocky,’ ‘Breaking Away’— in so many movies, the hero is trying to win the heart of the girl. It’s the same with ‘On the Map.’ But what the team really won was the heart of Israel.”