Remembering Maccabi Tel Aviv's Quiet American

He wasn't the biggest star, but the legendary shooter who died this week was the most important player on Maccabi's best basketball team ever.

Miki Berkovich and Tal Brody were the most admired players, Motti Aroesti was the engine, and Aulcie Perry the main attraction, but the most important player on the Maccabi Tel Aviv team that won the European title in 1977 and 1981 was Jim Boatwright, who passed away on Tuesday. When we were in seventh grade, back in 1977 we had yet to be familiar with the term “pure shooter,” but we already knew the best shooter was in Israel and Europe. Bob Morse of Varese was also excellent, Wane Bravender of Real Madrid was also up there and one can’t forget Oscar Schmidt.

But Jimbo was the man.

He was an extraordinary shooter sometimes it seems he wasn’t aware of the concept of passing the ball but in real time he was as cool as could be, famously sinking the last three shots (and four of the last five) in the fabled final in Belgrade against Varese. On that night in April 1977, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced his resignation, when all the other players suddenly had cold feet, Boatwright didn’t waver, sinking 26 points before three-point era in Europe. Jimbo’s points were scored in money time, securing Maccabi’s first European Champion’s Cup. Without him, Alex Giladi would have never uttered the line that drove a whole nation wild: “The European Cup is coming to Tel Aviv.” Without Jimbo, the legend and dynasty that is Maccabi Tel Aviv would have never been.

National team convert

Boatwright wasn’t only a great player and world-class shooter, he was also a good man, an intelligent and humble person who enjoyed playing. He connected to Israelis in the simplest way, and had no problem converting to Judaism so he could get Israeli citizenship and play for the national team. Few still remember the 1980 pre-Olympic tournament in Switzerland, where Israel secured its place in the Moscow Olympics (only to later join the silly, U.S.-led boycott of the games). Jimbo was unstoppable and won games almost single-handedly, shooting from incredible distances with his famous half-turn that every child in Tel Aviv later tried to emulate.

Still, Boatwright was the odd man out at Maccabi, in Israeli basketball, and among the foreign players who came to Israel. When he returned for Miki Berkowitz’s testimonial, for example, his most distinct memory of Tel Aviv was the peddlers driving horse-drawn carriages, a common sight in Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Jimbo left Israel more than 30 years ago, but ask anyone above 40, not necessarily a Maccabi supporter, and he’ll tell you about the amazing shooter. The quiet hero without whom the club’s history would have been far, far less historic.

Ya’acov Sa’ar / GPO