When God gets off the bench
The coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv has always insisted on enlisting God's warm hand in his victories, as if God rises from the bench at the last minute in order to win the game, when it looked as though all was lost - a brilliant replacement.
There has never such a large army of believers here as after the basketball victory of Maccabi Tel Aviv over Zalgiris Kaunas on April 8. I too rooted for the team when it seemed to have zero chance of making it to the Final Four. If an American team that comes from Lithuania plays against another American team that is based in Tel Aviv - I'm from Tel Aviv. But after the victory I almost changed my mind: Being forced to watch over and over again those same two or three miraculous last minutes and being forced to listen repeatedly to the broadcasters' screams - "Unbelievable, unbelievable, it's in, it's in" - it's coming out of my ears by now.
The main reason for the creeping change of mind is the annoying arrogance of the coach, to which I prefer the caring fury of another Tel Aviv coach, or the polite pondering of the Jerusalem coach, who last week won the European championship even without God's participation in the game.
The coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv has always insisted on enlisting God's warm hand in his victories, as if God rises from the bench at the last minute in order to win the game, when it looked as though all was lost - a brilliant replacement. Too many victories this year have been tantamount to miracles from heaven, and for this God has been given many minutes of play by the coach.
One of the players followed his coach: He, a believing Christian, finds it not at all extraordinary and only natural that "miracles happen in the Holy Land," as he said, and he no doubt remembered the last miracle that happened here during the days of Passover when Jesus rose from the dead.
And the newspapers - yes, the newspapers - they of course did not miss the opportunity and in great awe collected the offhand statements by the coach, before whom all the preachers of repentance pale: "The finger of God" was the headline in one newspaper above a picture of the coach as we waved the V-for-victory sign with his fingers, and it is no longer clear to whom it referred - to Our Father in Heaven or to the man in the picture. And as if one headline in huge letters were not enough, another page was sanctified by another headline - "Wow, there is a God."
If there is any doubt as to who is God here, there is not doubt as to who the finger of God is: Derrick Sharp is the finger who shot from endless distances into the basket of salvation. For many years I have had a lot of sympathy for this basketball player, Sharp: he has never sprinkled himself with stardust, but he has always been the talented black worker for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Yes, black, even though the coach once again took the trouble to stress that he is in fact "mocha-colored" and not really black in order to remind us, most probably, of his racist statement of not too long ago when he graded his team members by their colors.
In a vulgar paraphrase of the famous poem by Yehuda Amichai, I will say that had God not been so exaggeratedly busy with Maccabi Tel Aviv this year, maybe he would have found time to deal with some of our own troubles as well as the team's interests. How is it that at nearly every game they rise up against Maccabi Tel Aviv to annihilate it and the Holy One, blessed be he, rescues us from their hand, but he never saves us from disasters even worse than losing a basketball game - if there is any worse disaster?
As someone who wished Maccabi Tel Aviv only well in its long journey to the Final Four, I feel that I also have the right to warn the coach of what is to come: If, heaven forbid, Maccabi loses in the semifinal or the final game, what will happen then? There will be among us people who will reach the eternal but inevitable conclusion that there is no God, and the large army of believers that arose because of Zalgiris Kaunas could be defeated and dispersed to the four winds because of CSKA Moscow; and if, heaven help us - defense, defense - Maccabi loses by a large difference, too many people are liable to draw the conclusion that while there is indeed a God, he has withdrawn from Maccabi because its coach took his name in vain.