Israel Goes Mad for Hoops Champions — But Few Israelis Make Cut

Black Americans Lead Maccabi Tel Aviv to Crown

Cheers to You: American Tyrese Rice wades through sea of rapturous supporters after Maccabi Tel Aviv won Europe’s basketball crown.
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Cheers to You: American Tyrese Rice wades through sea of rapturous supporters after Maccabi Tel Aviv won Europe’s basketball crown.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 22, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
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The excitement was almost enough to kill Israel’s 90-year-old president.

Right after Tel Aviv’s top basketball team won Europe’s championship crown in Milan in a nail-biting 96–86 victory that went into overtime, President Shimon Peres told the team’s coach by phone, “I watched the whole game and nearly had a heart attack.”

“You are heroes and have brought incredible pride to the State of Israel,” Peres told the Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv team, lauding their May 18 Euroleague victory.

The team’s return to Israel the day after its win appeared to more than vindicate Peres’s assessment that something extraordinary had happened. Thousands of fans, many of them dressed in Maccabi’s shade of yellow, gathered in Rabin Square for an open-air party where the players were cheered on, and everyone sang along to “We Are the Champions.”

It was the same day that the speaker of the Knesset set the date for the presidential election. But it was difficult to find reference to this long-awaited announcement, as images of the victory and the celebrations dominated television stations and print media. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put other duties on hold to host the team. He told the coach and players: “You brought great honor to Israel. I tell you that it was uplifting for all Israelis. You set an example.”

For many Israelis, their country’s prominence in the international arena for a reason completely unrelated to diplomatic matters was a welcome change. The recognition of a positive, apolitical national accomplishment was music to their ears.

In an interview with the Forward, the star of the game, David Blu, who scored 14 points and grabbed four rebounds, emphasized the point evident everywhere in the air: This was no mere team victory, nor was it even just a sports victory. “We didn’t just represent an organization or a city, we represented a *people*,” he said, “the Israeli people.”

In the thrill of the brief moment, few dwelled on the fact that the 12-member team consisted of seven non-Jewish foreigners and only five Israeli citizens, including three *olim*, or immigrants. Soon enough, some said that the country was getting carried away over a victory that shouldn’t, in actual fact, invoke national pride. Their critique was bound up with the broader questions of national identity that Israelis face.

Amal Jamal, author of “The Arab Public Sphere in Israel: Media Space and Cultural Resistance,” said that the victory was an “irrelevance” to most Israeli-Arabs, who constitute 20% of the population. They prefer soccer to basketball and view Maccabi Tel Aviv as a Jewish team, Jamal said.

But post-game reflection was not limited to the Arab sector on the question of just what nation was basking in the aura of national pride.

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