In a familiar site to Maccabi Tel Aviv fans, American player Maceo Baston goes to the hoop.North American basketball fans who think Israelis are only interested in soccer will be in for quite a surprise this week as Maccabi Tel Aviv, the country’s premier basketball team, takes on two NBA teams in pre-season exhibition games. And they may be even more surprised to find Americans like Anthony Parker and Derrick Sharp among the team’s leading players.
The legendary team, which made history by winning back-to-back Euroleague titles over the past two seasons, kicked off its mini-tour on Sunday, October 16, with a sold-out game against the Toronto Raptors which they won 105-103. On October 19 the Israeli team will play against Orlando Magic at the TD Waterhouse Center.
Maccabi is the superstar of the Euroleague, and has become the team that everyone wants to beat. It won five Euroleague titles in the past 10 years, and came in second six times. During the 2004-5 season, Maccabi became the first team in 14 years to win back-to-back Euroleague titles when it beat Spain’s Tau Vitoria 90-78.
Maccabi’s first European championship was in 1977. In the words of its American-born captain Tal Brody, this win put Maccabi on the map to stay.
In Israel, the Maccabi players are superstars. The team has won 45 of 51 domestic league titles since it was founded in 1954, and hasn’t lost an Israeli Club championship since 1992. When Maccabi brought back the Euroleague championship home for the second year in a row last season, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was packed with a sea of ecstatic fans dressed in yellow, Maccabi’s color.
As team captain Derrick Sharp put it simply, “We’re the Chicago Bulls of Israel. Everyone knows us.”
Sharp, an African-American who was born and raised in the southern United States, has played for Maccabi since 1993. He is one of several non-Israeli, non-Jewish players who have lived in the country for years and become national sports heroes. The other American players on the Maccabi roster include Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Will Solomon and Jamie Arnold, who join native Israelis like Tal Burstein to create a potent lineup, and a melting pot of Israeli society.
In fact, Maccabi is often cited as an example of Israel’s diverse and multicultural society.
Asked about his life in Israel, Sharp told ISRAEL21c, “Look, I feel totally Israeli. I’ve lived here for 12 years. My son’s Israeli, I speak the language, I have lots of friends here, and I own a home here. It’s great in Israel. Tel Aviv has a great nightlife, and my wife and I love to go out with friends to dance and eat at restaurants.”
Recently, Sharp became an Israeli citizen. He has a 9 year-old son by his first wife – who is Israeli; in 2002 Sharp married Justine Ellison, who was a star player for the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues during the 1990s. The couple lives in North Tel Aviv with their two small sons. Sharp says that he plans to divide his time between Israel and the States after he retires from basketball.
Sharp says he particularly enjoys playing abroad with Maccabi, because it gives him an opportunity to be a sort of roving cultural ambassador for Israel.
“People get a whole different picture about Israel when they meet me,” Sharp said with a chuckle in his voice.
Regarding the threat of terrorist attacks, Sharp said, “Well, my family has visited us so they know life in Israel is very different from the way it looks on TV. And Israel is no more dangerous than LA, where you can get killed in a drive-by shooting. I don’t see the security situation as a big deal.”
The lack of concern regarding political violence was echoed by Sharp’s teammate, Parker, who is also an African-American. Parker used to play for Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers, and is now shooting guard for Maccabi. Last season, he was voted Most Valuable Player.
Parker made the same comparison between the threat of random political violence in Israel and random criminal violence in large American cities.
Parker signed with Maccabi in 2000, “just two weeks before the Intifida started,” he points out with a rueful laugh. But he quickly fell in love with Tel Aviv, and found that he missed it when he was abroad. In 2002 Parker signed with the Rome basketball team for a season; six months later, he was ready to return to Tel Aviv.
“It’s the only place I’ve been that’s so easy for an American to get along in,’ Parker told ISRAEL21c. “Everyone speaks English, and the lifestyle is really great, really relaxed. My wife and I love the weather and the restaurants. We go out a lot.”
Parker, who has a three year-old son named Alonso, went on to speak warmly about the family-oriented atmosphere among the Maccabi players. He pointed out that since most of the non-Israeli players have lived in Tel Aviv for at least three years they’ve had time to develop close off-court relationships.
Sharp and Parker also have close relationships with their fans – especially with young Israelis, for whom the two are national heroes. They are frequently photographed sitting at the hospital bedside of sick Israeli children who have expressed a wish to meet them, and the players say that they are more than happy to oblige.
So what’s the difference between NBA fans and Israeli basketball fans? “Well,” said Parker, “You know that Israel is really casual and Maccabi fans are really strong supporters, so people mostly just smile and say something nice when they see me on the street. It’s not like the star treatment that NBA players get.”
Then he added with a laugh, “But since every Israeli has two opinions, you can be sure that if I didn’t play well in the last game someone’s gonna tell me about it.”
As for the games against the NBA teams, Parker said in an interview before the tour that he did not expect any easy wins – even though the Raptors are currently ranked very low in the NBA.
“Actually,” he said, “I see Maccabi as the underdogs in these games. The rules between the NBA and the Euroleague are so different that it’s a big adjustment.”
In general, American NBA fans do not tend to be very aware of the Euroleague, despite its prestige in Europe and Israel. Raptors team manager Rob Babcock hopes that the exhibition games will raise awareness among North Americans of the excellent basketball played abroad.
When Babcock spoke about the Raptors’ enthusiasm for hosting Maccabi, he said that the team planned to host more international teams in the future.
“It’s good for the health of the world,” he said. “Sports transcends politics and religion, and allows competition with honesty and integrity on a neutral playing field.”
As for Maccabi, the team hopes the games will help raise awareness of Israel – beyond what North Americans see on the nightly news.
Cobie Brosch, Consul General of Israel to Toronto and Western Canada, said, “People know so little about Israel. It’s not just about war and conflict. Israel is so much more diverse and tolerant than people think. It’s a multicultural, multi-ethnic country with a booming high tech industry and huge achievements in sport. I hope these games will show people that Israel is much, much more than conflict in the Middle East.”