What I remember most vividly was our apartment as a blaze of light, and every door on our floor, the fifth floor, opening. Then I noticed that the light on the fourth floor was on as well, and the doors were open. And then the other floors too; the entire building came to life. It was almost midnight, but everyone was beaming. People came out of their apartments into the stairwell, congratulating each other, smiling at each other, more joyful than I’d ever seen them. And I remember the neighbor from across the hall came into our house with a bottle of wine – or maybe it was whiskey or vodka, I don’t know – and poured a little glass of it for my father, and then for my mother, and maybe they even offered me a sip of the bitter stuff. And I remember the neighbor’s wife coming in with a glass in her hand, her face wreathed in smiles. And I remember the clinking of glasses, and the hand-shaking, and the night that continued deep into the night. Yes, yes, Maccabi Tel Aviv was the European basketball champion – for the first time ever.
I think about it today, my reality so different. I don’t have a clue who lives in the apartment below me, and what the apartment opposite looks like inside. And the stairwell is a place where each person gives the merest nod of recognition as he passes by and then gets on with his own life. I think about it now, when the Israeli dream is to own a private house, with no neighbors to drive you crazy, and no clinking of glasses in the middle of the night. Today, I think about what Maccabi Tel Aviv symbolized then, and the dramatic changes it has undergone since – an exhausted icon. I look at what has happened to it from 1977 to 2013, 36 years in which a club has been transformed from the ambassador of a nation, of an entire country, to nothing more than a basketball team, just another team.
In the championship final, Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Mobilgirgi Varese, the future Italian champions of the 1977-78 season, but the most memorable quote came after the final whistle of the victorious semifinal against CSKA Moscow two months earlier: “We’re on the map, and we’re going to stay on the map,” Maccabi’s American-born captain, Tal Brody, shouted excitedly, “not just in sport, but in everything!” That legendary declaration, which only gained in power over the years, was the real essence of those white nights and the stairwell that refused to go to bed before dawn.
The key word was “stay,” and buried within it was the explanation for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s transformation into such a vital component of the Israeli identity. The word “stay” masked the eternal Jewish fear (and therefore the Israeli fear) of disappearance, of extinction, of another Holocaust. Brody’s “stay on the map,” shouted in American-accented Hebrew, gave a Jewish foundation to the Israeli ethos then under construction. And it gave us a response to all the anxieties that sat heavy in our heads and hearts, our homes and stairwells.
The Israeli psyche had been deeply scarred by the experience of the Yom Kippur War four years earlier. One month after the European Championship victory, the social upheaval was complete when the Labor Party (in one of its former incarnations) lost the elections after three decades in power. In those years, it may be said, Maccabi Tel Aviv was not playing basketball on a parquet court so much as in the arena of history. It moved between the poles of fear of extinction and hope for peace, between destruction and rebirth, between anxiety and joy. The club’s role was to embody the yearning to remain, the determination to keep going, to survive – to be. Not just in sport, in everything. By the way, my father was actually a fan of the rival club, Hapoel Tel Aviv.