The grainy film clip begins in the basketball court and then segues into the arena of history. “On the Map” tells the story of Israel’s David-versus-Goliath victory over CSKA, the Soviet Red Army’s undefeated basketball team in 1977 through newly discovered archival footage. The game was a “before and after” moment in the national psyche of a country that was still reeling from the trauma of the Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur War. Israel had witnessed the murder of its athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games and a year later was caught off-guard by the Egyptian- and Syrian-led assault in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.
Given the country’s mood at the time, Israel not only needed the Maccabi Tel Aviv team to win, but it also embraced its charismatic captain, Tal Brody—an American transplant who turned down an opportunity to play with the NBA to come to Israel. In the euphoria of the Maccabi team’s stunning triumph, Brody exclaimed, “We are on the map, not only in sports, but in everything!”
Dani Menkin, the documentary’s director, was 7 years old when the Maccabi team won the EuroCup semifinals against CSKA’s powerhouse team. In a recent phone interview with JewishBoston, he recalled that night vividly. “When Tal Brody made his ‘We are on the map’ remark, it made such an impact on everyone in Israel,” he said. “It was like we were starting something new in our lives. Israelis were going to the next level, a new era.” Menkin noted that to this day Brody’s quote still reverberates in Israel. “It’s like the 11th commandment for us,” he quipped. He also pointed out that the evening was so monumental for the nation that Yitzhak Rabin, who was resigning as prime minister due to a scandal over an illegal American bank account, had to postpone his announcement to avoid conflicting with television coverage of the game.
Although CSKA was matched up against Maccabi, the Russian team refused to play their Israeli opponents on their home turf or in Yad Eliyahu Arena (now Menora Mivtachim Arena), Maccabi’s home court in Tel Aviv. The teams finally found neutral ground in Virton, Belgium. But Maccabi fans transported their arena to Virton. The Maccabi team walked in to find Israeli flags all over the gym and the crowd singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” Menkin’s historic footage captures the adrenaline-pumping scene.
“For us it was so much more than a game,” said Menkin. “It was during the Cold War and the Russians were suppressing so many Jews at the time. They also supported the countries that were fighting against us and didn’t want us on Tal Brody’s map. The fact that we beat them after they didn’t want to play against us and boycotted us put us on the map. The remark captured our hearts.”
It certainly captured Natan Sharansky’s heart. Sharansky, who is interviewed in the film, said that memories of Maccabi’s victory enabled him to survive the nine years he was imprisoned in Soviet labor camps. NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton also appears in the film and throughout he shares his warm recollections of the Maccabi victory and his friendship with Tal Brody.
When Menkin embarked on the project, he was amazed that he was the first to make a documentary about Israel’s “miracle on hardwood.” Menkin noted that, “everyone in Israel knew the story. We found so much footage that had never been seen and so many stories behind the event that had never been told.” One anecdote that Menkin mentioned was about CSKA’s star, Sergie Belov. Years after the game, he told Brody that “only the KGB was rooting for us that night.”
Menkin says that he and his producing partners were also surprised that Americans were not acquainted with the story. “Americans know about the ‘miracle on ice’ [from the 1980 Olympics], but they don’t know about the ‘miracle on hardwood,’” he said. “When we got Bill Walton to participate in the film, we felt we had the piece not only for people who were big fans of Israel or sports, but for people who appreciated a great story.”
The story’s greatness is due in part to Menkin’s adroit use of the archival footage. “The archive was very critical in bringing the film to life,” he said. And even though the audience knows the outcome—in fact, Maccabi went on to clinch the overall EuroCup title two months later in a nail-biting victory by a margin of one point against the Italian team that had defeated them twice earlier that season—Menkin skillfully recreates the tension of watching the game in 1977. “Even when I was editing the film,” he joked, “I was really hoping that they were going to win!”