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Follow the Bouncing Ball

April 13, 2011 By:
Jared Shelly
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Tal Brody (left) with Rabbi Ira Budow at Abrams Hebrew Academy

Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody has lots to say these days. But less than a year into his duties as the Goodwill Ambassador of Israel, he isn't just touting the Jewish state to Jews.

Widely considered one of the best Jewish athletes of all time, Brody spoke to a wide variety of audiences in Philadelphia and New York last week, from active Jewish congregants to African-American high school students.

At the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia on April 7, Brody's talk took a standard tone: He relayed his decision to forego an NBA career with the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) to live and play in Israel; how he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to an improbable run to the 1967 European Cup finals; and the jubilance in 1977 after he led Israel to a victory against the CSKA Moscow, the champions of the Soviet Union.

Earlier that day, however, at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, Brody simply wanted to expose the mainly African-American audience to Israel by discussing the similarities between black and Jewish cultures. Both, he said, survived slavery and used sports to emerge from poverty.

"Many of them maybe never met a Jewish person or they didn't realize that Jews play basketball or sports," said Brody, 67, who delivered similar talks to largely black audiences at Samuel Fels High School in Lawncrest and Science Leadership Academy in Center City.

"We have a common history. We had to get out of the ghettos -- and one of the ways we got out of the ghettos was by being good sportsman," he added.

Brody also told those particular audiences about African-Americans playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, noting that some, like Carlos Arroyo and Anthony Parker, had come from (and had since returned to) the NBA. If any in the audience have aspirations of pro basketball, Brody said, Israel is an option, just like Europe is.

Another reason that Brody reaches out to inner-city youth is to prevent them from believing the common myth that Israel is an "apartheid state" -- something that is sure to resonate with the black community. Instead, he wants to open their eyes to Israel's role in housing African refugees from war-torn Sudan, as well Israel's vibrant Ethiopian community.

"When I tell them we have 130,000 Ethiopians that are black, but also Jewish and speak Hebrew, some of them are very shocked," said Brody. "It's an education process."

He hopes that his talks (sometimes accompanied by basketball clinics) will provide a glimpse of social, cultural and sporting life in Israel -- something many Jewish crowds are familiar with, but inner-city audiences are not.

"Let them see a different side of Israel than they might see on TV news," said Brody.

When talking to Jewish students -- such as a group at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley on April 6, his message is quite different. He urges them to visit Israel -- or even to spend a year in the country between high school and college -- and to stand up to anti-Israel rhetoric when they reach college.

"I tell them, you're safe in Israel. It's a safe country," he said.

He seems to tell every audience, black or white, about the considerable sporting landscape in Israel: from Maccabi Tel Aviv winning five European championships (they hadn't made it past the first round before signing Brody); to women's tennis pro Shahar Pe'er earning a ranking of 11th in the world; to the 10- to 13-year-old boys ice-hockey team capturing gold in the Bernières-Saint-Rédempteur International Peewee Tournament in Quebec City in March.

"If you can find ice in Israel, you'd be very lucky," said Brody.

In his day, Brody was considered to be one of the best Jewish athletes in the world. Who does he think is the best one today?

Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA, he said without hesitation.

"I saw him in the [rookies vs. sophomores] game played on All-Star Weekend. He was one of the better players on the floor. He deserves to play more. He scores points and plays good defense."

In just the last few days, Casspi has said that he's upset by his lack of playing time with the Kings. Could he, like Brody, shun the NBA for Israel? "If he came back to Israel," said Brody, "he'd be very welcome."

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