Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin was 7 years old when his country’s miracle Maccabi Tel Aviv team overcame its underdog status to win the European Cup basketball championship. But like that team, and much of the nation, he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I was a small kid when it happened, but nobody who was there could forget that day. It was one moment that changed so much in our history,” says Menkin. “I was old enough to remember the excitement, not only throughout the game, but throughout the entire team.”
He has paid tribute to that milestone in Israel’s development with his new documentary, On the Map, opening this weekend at theaters in South Florida. “I love basketball, but one of my challenges was to make it appeal to everyone, not just sports fans,” he says.
He recalls watching the game at home, on a small black-and-white television. “We wanted our team to win, not only because we were cheering for our club, but also there was a feeling that this was something much bigger than basketball,” Menkin says. “They represented our country.”
The year was 1977, soon after the so-called Yom Kippur War, when, as Menkin puts it, “Israel was staggering for its existence.” The victory over an Italian team was a source of great national pride for Israel. But it was the semi-final game against CSKA Moscow — the powerhouse Red Army team — that truly lifted the country’s spirits.
“First and foremost, it was the first time that Israel had beaten Russia. Secondly, the Russians didn’t even want to play the Maccabi team,” Menkin notes. “So beating them made it even more sweet.”
Menkin, known for such award-winning films as 39 Pounds of Love and Dolphin Boy, began work on On the Map three years ago when Israeli TV approached his about the project. “I just found so much unbelievable material that had never been seen and then we found so many stories that have never been told,” he says. “That’s how it all came together.”
Following the film’s success in Israel, Menkin recut the film to appeal to American audiences. “I then joined forces with Nancy Spielberg — Steven Spielberg’s sister, a wonderful producer — to make a new version of On The Map. “We did it for the American audience, because we realized that in the United States people don’t know of this iconic story.”
Menkin senses that he could have a commercial hit on his hands. “I think so, yes. It’s very uplifting. Like The L.A. Weekly said, ‘It’s a classic Cinderella story.’ It’s like a Hollywood drama. Yeah, I’m really excited, and the fact that it comes now to Florida makes it amazing.”
Menkin downplays the difficulty of tracking down the players from that ’77 Maccabi Tel Aviv team. “It wasn’t that hard, I have to say, because they are in touch with each other. Once I had Tal Brody — the captain of the team — the others all came in.”
Brody, as basketball fans probably recall, was drafted 12th in the National Basketball Association, but chose to pass up a far more lucrative NBA career to play basketball in Israel. It is his quote in a 1977 television interview, after beating the Soviets — “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything” — that gives the film its title.
Today, Brody sheepishly concedes that he came up with the line on the spur of the moment. “It just came out of me at the time, my heartfelt expression of the importance of the win,” he says. “Then, it caught on as a description of how we all felt, how the country felt. But I had no idea when I said it that it would be repeated, over and over, let alone remembered 40 years later.”
So when the idea of the documentary came up, Brody did not hesitate to get involved. “I, like the rest of my teammates, jumped at the chance to have a record of those dramatic events, which felt like yesterday to us.”
A highlight of the film is when Menkin gathered the teammates in a room to watch a videotape of the victory over the Soviets. “I always like to put things together, to unite them. So we decided to put them together and to show them those games,” says Menkin.
Asked to describe the emotions in that room, he says, “Excitement. Sometimes tense. Certain plays, certain shots, they didn’t remember. Even for me, anytime I would look at the film in the editing room or in the sound mix, I’d get caught up in it. I forget about being the filmmaker. Maybe that’s how they felt as well.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv has continued to dominate in international basketball. “Maccabi Tel Aviv became one of the most important sports clubs outside of the NBA,” says Menkin, winning the European championship five more times, including two years ago. “But what’s interesting about 1977 is that except for one player, all of them married Israelis. And most of them stayed in Israel, including Aulcie Perry, the African-American who converted and became Jewish. He lives in Israel still today.”
Rather than trying to attract an American distributor, “We are self-distributing, with the support of the community,” reports Menkin. “We take it to theaters, which is very satisfying, because the reaction is fantastic.”
Those who see On the Map are “going to see a story that is much larger than basketball. They will see something that will move them, will make them laugh, maybe shed a tear,” offers Menkin. “It will make them remember how things used to be 40 years ago, and they will simply enjoy this wonderful Cinderella story.”
ON THE MAP opens today at Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and other area theaters.