Tal Brody’s impact surpasses basketball

Being Jewish and Israeli, I have known of Tal Brody’s heroics for a long time.

My dad, a huge sports fan who was born in Israel, would always tell me stories of the man he calls “the greatest basketball player ever.” This is coming from a Chicago fan who witnessed all six of the Bull’s NBA titles with Michael Jordan in the ‘90s. That being the case, listening to Brody’s speech Saturday at the Illini Hillel was a humbling experience.

The name Tal Brody probably doesn’t ring a bell for many of you. However, to the Jewish community and the nation of Israel, he is considered a national hero.

Brody is not a more prominent figure in the states because of a life-changing decision he made 46 years ago.

Brody could’ve played at any college in the nation after his illustrious career at Trenton Central High School in Trenton, N.J. Brody led Trenton Central to a state championship his senior year, finishing the season 24-0. Brody was offered a scholarship from more than 40 colleges, including powerhouse North Carolina. Brody instead chose to play at the University of Illinois, saying he wanted to be “a big fish” in a big pond. Brody never shied away from a challenge.

Brody continued his winning history at Illinois, where he led the No. 3-ranked Illini to the Sweet 16 his sophomore year after replacing Illini legend Jerry Colangelo at point guard. The only non-senior in the Illinois starting lineup, Brody was named First-Team All-Big Ten and also received All-America accolades in 1965.

Brody’s college success led to his being drafted 12th overall in the 1965 NBA draft by the then-Baltimore Bullets and current Washington Wizards. After a one-week Bullets camp, Brody asked to travel to Israel for the 1965 Maccabiah Games to represent the United States. As Brody described it, “I asked if I could go for two weeks, it ended up being 45 years.”

Brody led Team USA to a gold medal during the Maccabiah Games and immediately fell in love with Israel. “I was not only meeting so many Jews from around the world, but traveling to the Messiah and going to Jerusalem, visiting up north, going around Israel, everything which I learned in Hebrew school unfolded,” Brody said. “All of a sudden I saw a part of that history, a part of that culture, a part of that religion that I see in front of my eyes. When Maccabi Tel-Aviv came up to me and said, ‘you could go back to the NBA and be one of so many players,’ I decided to go to Israel.

“They gave me a challenge. They said you could take a team that’s never gone past the first round of the European basketball championships to another level. For me that challenge to take it to another level was to take it all the way.”

To get things straight, NBA money back then was nowhere near the same as NBA money now. The average NBA salary during the 1965 season was $20,000, and for rookies it was even lower at $12,000. Wilt Chamberlain was the highest paid player in the NBA during the 1965 season with a salary of $120,000. In comparison, Chicago Bulls benchwarmer Brian Scalabrine was paid $854,389 last year.

Brody’s decision to join the Euroleague’s Maccabi Tel-Aviv was not a money decision anyway — it was about the challenge ahead. As Brody said, “It was a bigger challenge to help a country rather than one team.” At the time Maccabi Tel-Aviv had never won any European titles. Brody would change the culture quickly, ultimately leading the team to its first European cup finals in 10 years in 1977, at which point he uttered the famous words: “We are on the map. And we are staying on the map, not only in sports but in everything.”

Israel has since become a European powerhouse. Maccabi Tel-Aviv has the fourth most European titles with five, only CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid and Panathinaikos have more. Maccabi Tel-Aviv lost in last year’s finals to Panathinaikos 78-70.

Maccabi Tel-Aviv has produced numerous NBA players in recent memory as well. Omri Casspi was drafted in 2009, becoming the first Israeli player to ever play in the NBA. Anthony Parker, Carlos Arroyo and Will Bynum are among numerous NBA players who have played for Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

Tal Brody’s impact goes far beyond Champaign or Israel; Brody has changed the lives of the entire Jewish community. Brody was honored for his career in a big way in 1979 when he was awarded the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Brody was the first athlete ever to win the award.

Yes, Tal Brody is a basketball player, but as he said, sometimes sports are exactly what a struggling nation needs.

He said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than to see what basketball has done to Israel in the most difficult of times.”

_Michael Wonsover is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at_ [email protected]_