Israeli basketball team's unknown underdog story opens Baltimore Jewish Film Festival

Dani Menkin’s documentary “On the Map” follows the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s unlikely European championship victory. (Handout photo)

Dani Menkin thought everybody knew about the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, how their improbable defeat of the mighty Soviets inspired a nation and helped, in the oft-repeated words of their star player, put Israel "on the map."

When he found out that wasn't true ... well, the Israeli-born Menkin knew a mission when he'd found one.

The exultant documentary film that resulted, "On the Map," opens the 29th Baltimore Jewish Film Festival on Sunday. Chronicling the team's achievements on the basketball court, the frenzied nationwide celebration that followed their victory and the circumstances that made it so much more than a matter of one team scoring more points than another, Menkin's film is one of those underdog-conquers-the-world stories that can't help but leave audiences cheering.

It certainly should take care of that anonymity problem.

"This was a great opportunity to tell the American audience, and to tell the world, a story they were not aware of," says Menkin, who remembers, as a 7-year-old, watching the team's storybook run to the European championship. "I could not believe there was not a movie about it yet."

Nor could executive producer Nancy Spielberg. Though admittedly not a big basketball fan, she saw something when Menkin screened an earlier cut of the film for her and happily signed on to help out where she could.

"Perhaps I am the typical American and I knew nothing about this story," Spielberg, Steven Spielberg's younger sister, writes in an email. "What I saw in this film and what I connected to was a message way beyond the sport itself."

That message is one that has resonated over four decades in Israel, where the team's victory served as a rallying point for not only national pride, but national identity. For most people in 1977, the idea of Israeli sports conjured up images of masked terrorists taking hostages at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. But when the Maccabi Tel Aviv team - a ragtag bunch composed largely of NBA rejects and given little chance against powerhouse teams from Spain, Italy and (especially) the Soviet Union - emerged as champions, the whole country went delirious.

The victory was made even sweeter for the Israelis by the Soviet team's initial refusal to play them, since the Jewish state had never been officially recognized by the country's leaders; eventually, the semifinal contest was played at a neutral court in a small Belgian town. American audiences, too, should enjoy a measure of sweet revenge watching the Soviets' defeat, since many of the team's members were also on the 1972 Olympics squad that was given three chances to engineer (some might say steal) a victory over the U.S. team in the final seconds of the gold-medal game.

"We were kind of fighting for our existence," Menkin says of the emotional weight the semifinal carried. "It's rewarding, it's refreshing, it's satisfying. In many ways, it's saying, 'Here we are. We're here, and we're here to stay. You may not want to play against us, but you can't ignore us. And when you face us, and you do not want to recognize us, you lose.'"

Defeating the Soviets, however, only got the Israelis to the finals, where they would have to defeat a strong Italian team that had beaten them handily earlier. So great was interest in that game that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, about to resign in the wake of a financial scandal, put off announcing his decision until the game was over.

"On the Map" brings together many of the players from that 1977 squad. Foremost among them is Tal Brody, a University of Illinois All-American who passed up an NBA career (he was picked 12th in the 1965 NBA draft, by the Baltimore Bullets) to play for Israel. It was apparently his offhand comment during the victory celebration, that defeating the Soviets put them "on the map," that became a rallying cry throughout Israel.

One thing the film does not do is offer any insight or reflection from the other side. Menkin says that interviewing players from the Soviet team and including their side of the story would have been beyond the project's scope, not to mention its budget. Plus, he added, many of the Soviet players and coaches are no longer alive.

Star guard Sergei Belov, for instance, had stayed in touch with Brody, Menkin said, but died in October 2013. "I think he could have been a great asset for our film," Menkin said.

Still, "On the Map," one-sided though it may be, is thrilling and uplifting in the best possible ways. It's a story that speaks to the possible, even against great odds, and movie audiences rarely get enough of such tales.

"Maybe this is our job as filmmakers," Menkin offers, "to tell those stories that people don't know about."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

If you go

A 3 p.m. Sunday screening of "On the Map" opens the 2017 Baltimore Jewish Film Festival at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills. Tickets are $5-$15. Other festival films include "Fever at Dawn" (7:30 p.m. March 23), "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story" (3 p.m. March 26), "Bogdan's Journey" (7:30 p.m. March 29), "The Outrageous Sophie Tucker at North Oaks" (3 p.m. April 2), "Mr. Predictable" (7:30 p.m. April 4), "A Heartbeat Away" (7:30 p.m. April 6), "Harmonia" (7:30 p.m. April 20), "Rock in the Red Zone" (3 p.m. April 23), "Hanna's Sleeping Dogs" (7:30 p.m. April 25) and "The Women's Balcony" (3 p.m. April 30). Information: jcc.org/gordon-center/film.

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