Tal Brody is used to being asked to put Israel in a good light.
He did it for years on the basketball court; now he’s doing it officially for the government as Israel’s first goodwill ambassador for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He began his new role back in July and has already begun making the rounds, talking to groups, visiting college campuses and sharing what his life in Israel is like.
“I started in Miami with various groups and that was very interesting,” Brody said recently during a conference call hosted by The Israel Project, a non-profit organization that strives to provide accurate information on Israel to the media. “In my Boston visit, it was hosted by Alan Dershowitz and his students. I’ve been hearing from student bodies about how they feel about Israel, what they have to deal with in terms of propaganda [on campus].
“As a goodwill ambassador, I’m presenting things about Israel many people don’t know. I talk about daily life in Israel.”
Brody knows a thing or two about being young and Jewish in the United States. He was born here and went to the University of Illinois. One of the top basketball stars in the country, Brody joined the NBA Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the 1965 Draft — 13th overall.
But before he ever donned a Bullets uniform, he went to Israel for the first time, playing for the U.S. team in the Maccabiah Games and leading the squad to a gold medal. He came back to the States with much more than a medal around his neck.
“Because of the Games, I received my first opportunity to go to Israel,” Brody said. “I [went recently] to a Washington Wizards (formerly the Bullets) practice to meet with general manager Ernie Grunfeld, [owner] Abe Pollen and others who drafted me. They gave me permission to go to Israel. That’s when all my goals in life changed. My culture, my history opened before my eyes. Basketball is a small story in relation to the large story of being a part of Israel.”
Brody made aliya and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israeli professional league. He played with the club until 1980 and helped Israeli basketball reach new heights. Maccabi Tel Aviv won 10 domestic titles and six cups. He served as captain of the team from 1970-1977.
It was that 1977 campaign that really put Israeli basketball center stage. Brody led Maccabi Tel Aviv to an improbable European Championship. The “little team that could” prevailed over a juggernaut Soviet team that had beaten the United States in the Olympics and had bested European power Real Madrid.
Brody said right after the game, “We’re on the map.”
“It was spontaneous,” Brody said of the now-famous statement. “Many people in Israel didn’t think we had a chance. It came out of the heart. After the game, people were dancing the hora. It was a beautiful atmosphere of the excitement of our little country going against the big bear, beating an unbelievably good Russian team.”
It was on the basketball court, in many ways, where Israel first connected with the Soviet Union — now Russia.
The same could be said of Yugoslavia. There were no relations between the two nations until Israel went to Belgrade to play in that 1977 championship run. The Yugoslav government let people in for the game and Israel had roughly 5,000 people come cheer on Brody and company.
It’s this kind of experience, Brody said, that makes him well suited for his current role as a diplomat.
“I think [with] sport, the natural thing is diplomacy,” he said. “The U.S., with China, used ping pong. With Russia, we first met over basketball. Little did I know how much it meant to the country until we met with the prime minister in a special reception; there were 150,000 people waiting [for us when we returned]. Sports won over politics. When you’re talking about sports, it goes farther than any politics can go.”
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)