NORTHBROOK — Inside a small boardroom, seated at the head of an oval wooden table inside the Jewish National Fund’s Chicago office, Tal Brody tells a story of why a 12th pick in the draft would pass on NBA fame to play point guard for a bottom-feeding, traditionless club in Israel.
It doesn’t make sense in today’s landscape.
The dozen JNF employees, who have taken a break from their daily responsibilities, bring extra chairs and crowd the table to hear Brody’s explanation.
They know that Jeremy Lamb, the 12th pick in last year’s NBA draft, is an instant millionaire despite spending the bulk of his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA’s Development League.
They gasp when Brody, who was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets after an All-America season at Illinois in 1965, explains the average NBA salary when he came out was $30,000, maybe $40,000. The minimum was $12,000.
“Today, the average salary is about $5 million,” the 69-year-old Brody said. “Maybe if it was today, you’re the 12th pick in the NBA, $2.7 million, no-cut contract, I probably make a different decision.”
The choice he made changed his life — and the way of life and thinking throughout Israel.
While a Jewish kid from Trenton, N.J., debated whether to join the Bullets’ loaded backcourt that featured another former Illini — Don Ohl — as well as Kevin Loughery and Wali Jones, he traveled to Israel for the first time and led the U.S. to a gold medal in the Maccabiah Games — the Jewish Olympics.
Things were tough in Israel. The country was going through a recession; people weren’t smiling.
They enjoyed their hoops, though.
“The Israeli government approached me and said, ‘We think a guy like you can come to Israel and take our basketball maybe to a different level,’ ” Brody said.
Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, whose photo Brody carries in his wallet today, and other national leaders pleaded with him to join Maccabi Tel Aviv, a franchise that had never advanced past the first round of the European Championships.
Between bites of the Dunkin’ Donuts holes in the JNF boardroom, Brody likened the decision to choosing Illinois instead of one of the 40 other schools that aggressively recruited him out of Trenton Central.
“Harry Litwack was the coach at Temple; they really recruited me,” Brody said. “When he came to recruit me, he asked what I wanted to go to Illinois for. He told me I could be a big fish in a little pond in the Big Five conference.”
But Illinois was moving into the brand-new Assembly Hall and had a roster that was to feature Skip Thoren, Bogie Redmon, Darius Cunningham and Dave Downey. Brody, the playmaking point guard whose East Coast flair was coveted in Champaign-Urbana, was the perfect complement.
“I told Harry Litwack I wanted to try to be a big fish in a big pond. I wanted to take on that challenge,” said Brody, whose No. 12 Illinois jersey will be raised to the Assembly Hall rafters in a ceremony Wednesday during the Illinois-Purdue game.
Brody committed to a year in Israel, figuring the experience would be worth more than the league-minimum $12,000 he’d be making in the NBA.
Maccabi thrived with Brody running the show that first year, reaching the European championship.
In the meantime, Brody was writing notes to his former Illinois teammates in the U.S., describing how one game got rained out and another was played during a sandstorm.
“I write back again and I say, ‘Guys, you won’t believe this, we’re playing a game in the north of Israel near the Golan Heights and there’s a sandstorm. We’re playing, you can’t see the basket and we’re playing basketball there.’
“We go up to Jerusalem in the winter and you’re playing outdoors, it’s cold. It’s cold in Champaign-Urbana, but you’re not playing outdoors.”
As the Six-Day War, an eventual Israeli victory, was beginning after that first season with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Brody often would talk with Israeli soldiers. They told him the success of the basketball club gave them hope that the country could do anything.
Brody’s initial commitment to Maccabi Tel Aviv was for one year, but the results were so much that he agreed to stay on board.
“I saw what playing basketball was doing for the country,” he said.
The second year, Brody fell even more in love with the social life in Israel and was seeing more evidence that basketball was changing the country’s mood.
“We were playing against countries that were very anti-Semitic, but basketball was changing the opinions of people in Israel. They all of a sudden saw Israel in a different light,” he said. “Basketball became a sport that you could not get a ticket for. Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, had to beg for tickets to the game. Moshe Dayan became a friend of Maccabi Tel Aviv.”
Brody’s goodwill in Israel took a break after the second year as he received a draft notice to return to serve in the United States Army during Vietnam.
After Brody’s two years of service, Dayan and other Israeli dignitaries urged him to return.
“This impressed me so much that I said this was what I’m going to do,” Brody said.
So he returned in 1970. In 1977 he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first European League championship, beating a heavily favored Russian team in the semifinals that featured six players who were on the Russian team that beat the United States in the 1972 Olympics.
The Israelis and Russians did not have a diplomatic relationship. Because of this, the CSKA Moscow team refused to play Maccabi in Tel Aviv and refused to allow the Israeli team entry into Moscow.
The game was played at a neutral site in Virton near the Luxembourg border in Belgium.
Israeli fans turned out in droves to support Maccabi.
“We were just picked up with the emotion of everybody waving the Israeli flags and the Russians were shell-shocked. They even thought they were in Tel Aviv,” Brody said.
As Brody, dressed in a denim shirt, jeans and white sneakers, rocks back and forth in a squeaky chair that no one seems to mind, one JNF employee speaks up. “Is this when you made the famous quote?”
In his English-accented Hebrew, Brody delivered what’s considered to be the most famous phrase in Israeli history on television immediately following the game.
“ ‘We are on the map. We are staying on the map, not only in sports but in everything,’ ” Brody said. “I said it from my heart, went to the locker room and I didn’t realize what my words meant until the prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) called our team to his office. He said, ‘Tal, you don’t know what this meant for the country at this time.’ ”
Maccabi would go on to defeat Italian club Mobilgirgi Varese to win the European title.
“People sold cows, took out loans from banks to see the finals of the European Championship,” Brody said.
When Maccabi Tel Aviv was the first non-American team honored by the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008, Brody represented the franchise. The name of Maccabi’s exhibit in the Springfield, Mass., Hall of Fame is “Putting Israel on the Map: The Maccabi Tel Aviv Story.”
Brody retired from basketball in 1980 but continued the work he started in the mid-1960s.
A year before retiring, he was given the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor for his work in society and sports.
“I’ve enjoyed everything,” he said. “It was something bigger than an ego trip, and I just saw what was happening because of the game and what it meant for so many people. It’s been a beautiful ride for me.”
Brody, who was inducted into the International Jewish Hall of Fame in 1996 and the U.S. Jewish Hall of Fame in 2011, was named by Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the first international ambassador of goodwill for Israel.
The position calls for Brody to travel to North America and spread the word about what’s happening in Israel.
“I’m presenting to them what Israel is, the cultural life, the sports, technology, medicine and what the daily life is,” he said. “Very few people in the United States and the world, when you see news about Israel, you don’t see what Israel really is.”
Each year, Brody hosts a group of former professional basketball players in Israel to conduct basketball clinics and to experience the culture for themselves.
“You see trauma, war, people getting killed on the news,” said Brody, whose wife Tirtza lives in Israel along with his three children and grandchildren. “That’s not really Israel; we’re a stable country.”
Former Illini Stephen Bardo made the trip to Israel last summer to see firsthand the message Brody was sharing.
“He’s (Michael Jordan) over there,” Bardo said. “We went to watch a game and they introduced all of us former players, and then they introduced Tal and the place went crazy. He’s the equivalent of MJ. These are kids and their parents are pointing at him and educating their kids and saying, ‘That’s the father of Israeli basketball right there.’ What he’s been able to accomplish over there putting basketball on the map, he’s a great ambassador for the sport.”
Brody can’t walk the streets of Israel without being recognized. He’s so famous that his less-than-perfect Hebrew has been mocked on a television show similar to “Saturday Night Live.”
“They wait for me to mess up, especially the high school kids,” he said with a laugh. “They usually go after the politicians, the prime minister, but they get me sometimes. I’m OK with it.”
His fame extends beyond the streets of Israel.
Years after they left Illinois, Brody and his college roommate Don Freeman planned to meet in the middle of Times Square.
When they met, Freeman couldn’t believe the reception Brody received.
“He says, ‘Tal, I played ABA ball in the States, we played together at Illinois and we’re standing in the middle of Times Square and I can’t believe all these people are coming up to you asking for your autograph.’ ”
One of Brody’s projects in Israel was building a basketball school in Herzliya, where 1,000 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 18 got to learn the game.
He’s viewed as a hero to many in Israel.
“I’m very balanced. I don’t get blown up by it,” he said. “I don’t think hero is the right word, but I utilize it for good.”
The dedication to the game is so strong that when Saddam Hussein was sending scud missiles into Israel, the students showed up every day wearing gas masks, ready to play ball.
“We didn’t know what was going on, whether there would be gas or not,” Brody said.
In Champaign, Brody’s good deeds are celebrated.
When Brody returns to campus this week to be honored, the Illini Chabad is hosting a reception for him at the iHotel.
“The idea that Tal was being recognized with his jersey being raised to the rafters is not only that it’s happening but the message that it sends to the youth today,” Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of the UI Chabad Center for Jewish Life said. “We felt it would be wonderful for every person, a student, community member, professional, anyone to come and meet Tal personally.
“College campuses are the battleground for the next generation. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, so somebody like Tal, who not only was a leader as an athlete at Illinois but since he’s graduated, has taken on strong leadership for the sports world and a center of Jewish life in the Jewish world.”
Brody’s is the third Illinois jersey going up at the Assembly Hall this season. Mannie Jackson and Govoner Vaughn were recognized earlier.
“Mannie Jackson influenced the world basketball scene. All the guys up there were special. To be honored by Illinois, I think it’s great,” Brody said.
Brody is also a finalist this year for the Naismith Hall of Fame as one of 13 international nominees for induction. One player from the list, which also includes former NBA star Vlade Divac, will get a Hall of Fame nod. Brody will be on hand for that announcement at the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17 in Houston.
“Just to be one of those 13 guys is special,” he said. “Whoever gets it is going to be very deserving.”
Brody’s thankful for his time at Illinois.
“Illinois prepared me for life. Harry Combes, Howie Braun and Jim Wright were the three coaches. We used to go to high school award banquets and speak. By doing that, it gave me confidence in everything after that,” Brody said. “Whether it’s Harvard, UCLA, the White House, it gave me that confidence, and I’m always indebted to Illinois for that. I was shy coming to the Midwest from New Jersey. That was one of the greatest preparations for life that contributed to everything I’ve done after that and being in front of the public.”
Brody soon will turn 70. He’s in great health and plans on spreading his goodwill for as long as he’s capable.
“As long as I can influence the younger generation and they can enjoy the same way of life I did, I’ll be very, very thankful,” Brody said.