The snow that had fallen steadily on the city the day before now crunched under the feet of 18-year-old Max Lazorovich Blank and his companion as they trudged through the frozen night. The security police must have been watching them, because as soon as they passed one of the kiosks outside the crowded sports arena, two men suddenly appeared and came up to them. Then, with little explanation, one of the men began running his hands through the pockets of Max's friend, 17-year-old Curtis Reed. As this scene unfolded, passersby averted their eyes. Inside the Spectrum, that night's game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Seattle SuperSonics was about to begin. Curtis wearily raised his arms to shoulder level and allowed the men to search him. Curtis, who had been waiting for a third friend to return from the will-call window with his and Max's tickets, was told by the men that he was suspected of being a scalper.
Max felt he was witnessing something that might have taken place in his hometown, Odessa, on the Black Sea in the Soviet Ukraine, which he had left with his father, Lazar, and mother, Asya, and eight other relatives five years earlier. Max claims that Jewish friends of his in Odessa had on occasion been detained and questioned for no other reason than that they were Jewish. He was surprised, but not horrified, to learn that something similar could happen in his new home of Philadelphia, too.
Just three days earlier, the 6'8½", 215-pound Max had gotten another lesson in civics—if not civility—while playing center for George Washington High in a Public League quarterfinal playoff basketball game between his school and Murrell Dobbins Technical High. The game was played in the Dobbins gym, a bandbox with curtains covering its large windows to keep the sun out of the players' eyes. Max, who had four fouls, had sat out much of the third quarter and Washington had fallen behind by 16 points. When he came back into the game, the Dobbins fans would derisively chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" every time he went to the free-throw line. Once, a Dobbins Tech fan yelled at him. "Hey Max, how about playing a little Russian roulette?" George Washington's Eagles made a comeback, but it fell short after Max fouled out with 4:57 left. Still, he'd had 35 points and 14 rebounds. "We threw everything at him but the kitchen sink," said Dobbins coach Rich Yankowitz, "but he was graceful, excellent and unstoppable."
That game ended a season in which Max Blank averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds for the Eagles, as well as a year in which the immigrant kid became an all-American—not on any popular list of blue-chip high schoolers, but as an adopted son. "People complain about everything that's wrong with this country," Max says, "and they tell me how much better things used to be. But to me, it is perfect. America is totally awesome."
April 29, 1984
Max has embraced the American, way—democracy, the flag, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, slam dunks—and he's sure that his own example is proof that anyone willing to work hard can make it here. "He loves life in America," says Gerry Gimelstob, the basketball coach at George Washington University, at which Max will matriculate next fall. "He loves all the opportunities that are here for him. In a way, Max is more American than a lot of kids I know." Also more famous. "Anywhere I walk on the street in Washington, D.C.," Max says proudly, "people know me. They come up and say, 'Hello, are you the immigrant?' I say yes, this is me."
"I think Max could be a very important person nationally," says Gimelstob. "He's a symbol of what's being oppressed in Russia, of the thousands of other lives and all the potential that's being wasted behind the Iron Curtain."
But Max is blissfully unaware of how miserable his life in the Soviet Union was supposed to have been. "I was very happy in Russia," he says. "I had a lot of friends there, and my stomach was never hungry. I never had it hard. I always had a pair of shoes on my back."
In Odessa, shoes were likely to be the least unusual thing Max had on his back. There were, for starters, 30 parrots in the Blank house on Fontana Street, 25 cats, and 11 dogs—including an Australian dingo. "Dat dog didn't understand anything," says Asya. "He was more like voolf." The Blanks also had 25 pet ducks for a while, "but then the rats came, so I killed the ducks and we ate them," says Asya.
"My father used to train large white rats for the circus," Max says. "They were like pussycats, those rats. My father also trained bears to ride bicycles and do lots of tricks. Those bears did everything but talk, especially the one named Marta that slept with my father. That was before my mother married him, of course." Of course. "We had a pet ape once, too," Max says, "but my father burned it on the butt with a soldering iron, and that ape tore up everything in our house."
Now the Blanks don't have so much as a goldfish in their northeast Philadelphia home, but for 30 years the Blank family presided over one of the most famous circuses in Russia, the Margotmax. "My grandmother was a magician," Max says. "She could make parakeets and balloons disappear from her hand, and put people in trances and make them rise up into the air. One of her best tricks was to spin a record on the tip of a sharp pencil and make the music play."
When Paul Robeson, the black actor and singer, went to the U.S.S.R. after he was virtually hounded out of the U.S. for being a Communist sympathizer in the 1950s, Max's father served as Robeson's booking agent for several of his singing performances there.
The circus was named for Max's paternal grandparents—Margot, who is 73 and living in Philadelphia, too, and Max, who died the same day in 1966 on which the grandson who was given his name was born. In a way, the juxtaposition of those two events was typical of the kind of luck the first Max Blank had—which is to say, decidedly mixed. "My grandfather lost his first wife and his children because of his gambling," the second Max says. A scoundrel as well as a wretched cardplayer, the old man was a character equal to any born of Dostoyevsky's imagination. When Max says his grandfather lost his family, he doesn't mean to imply some tragic circumstance. "He had a very beautiful wife, but he got in a card game with a man who wanted her, too," Max says. "When my grandfather ran out of money, he bet his wife and kids, and he lost them."
After Max and Margot were married, their circus traveled all over the Soviet Union, even to Siberia. "My father used to go hunting polar bear a lot," Max says. "One time he was driving a dog team through the tundra and he heard a loud noise, then felt something slam into his arm. He saw a wisp of smoke coming from behind a tree, so he aimed his gun at the smoke with one arm and fired. He heard what he thought was an echo—wooo, wooo, wooo—and then a man fell dead from behind the tree." Although the circus disbanded when Blank's grandfather died, young Max grew up around show people. "With us used to live a little man, Ivan the dwarf, who was like a part of our family for 25 years," he says.
Max was 24 inches long at birth; the doctors thought his mother had been carrying twins. Even as a baby, Asya says, Max's arms were so long that when his cradle was put in the yard, he would reach out and pluck peaches from the branches of a neighbor's tree. As he grew, he moved higher. "In the summertime I lived on the trees," Max says. "I would swing from one branch to another, eating the fruit, and stay up there all day." One summer not a single apple fell from a tree that customarily yielded bushel upon bushel of them.
Not even an apple tree a day could prevent Max from contracting typhus at age seven. He remained sickly for two years, and then he took up boxing. "I was skinny, but I could dance," he says. "I didn't have any power, so I would throw my shots really quick and sting my opponents." He retired from the ring at 12 with just one defeat, but didn't stop fighting altogether.
Max had already become a member of one of the gangs of hoodlums that roamed the Moldavanka, the former lower-class Jewish ghetto. "Odessa is the most famous city in Russia for black market and crooks," says Max. "And the Moldavanka was the worst place, dirty and full of con men. I broke my left arm in a gang fight when I was nine," he says. "It was tough there to grow up good. My grandmother used to say I was going to be a gangster, one of the zhlubs in the Moldavanka."
That Max didn't grow up to become a thug was probably due in large part to the gentler attractions of Odessa. "I lived on a street so beautiful there were songs written about it," he says. "Fontana Street has its own very beautiful smell. If you blindfolded me and set me down on Fontana without telling me where I was, I would know. I would recognize the odor of my street and the Black Sea. It's the best."
In the springtime, a thicket of fragrant acacias, lilacs, lindens and poplars bloom along Fontana, "like cotton," Max says. "We had these big trees—we called them strippers—and in the afternoons I would fall asleep on a lawn under one of them. When I would wake up with the leaves falling all around me, it was like being in a dreamworld. If I would someday become successful, I would go back to Fontana Street and go to sleep on the lawn under one of those trees."
From the ascension of Czar Alexander III in 1881 until the revolution, Russian Jews were unremittingly persecuted. Yet the teeming, heterogeneous port of Odessa, where in the early 20th century Jews numbered an estimated 165,000 out of a population of nearly 480,000, was something of an exception. Although they weren't wholly immune from the terrible pogroms, Odessa Jews flourished, the lower classes in the Moldavanka being notably vigorous and vital, and the more affluent achieving a degree of assimilation and making their mark in the intellectual and artistic life. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the father of contemporary Hebrew literature, was born there, as was the writer Isaac Babel. The world's first Hebrew newspaper was published in Odessa in 1860.
Today the Jewish population is an estimated 200,000 (out of a total population of more than one million), and only one synagogue remains of the 11 that existed before World War II. It's usually open only on the high holidays.
Max's family suffered under both the Czar and, later, the German invaders "My great-uncle was killed by the Cossacks during the pogroms," Max says. "They came in [this was in a little village outside of Odessa] while he was eating dinner and chopped him up into a thousand pieces. He was 43 years old, and he asked them not to do this because he had eight children, but they chopped him up all the same. Before he left, a Cossack said, 'Good appetite' to the others in the room." All three of Asya's aunts and one uncle died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II; in all, 50 members of her family died in the camps. While her father fought in a special division known as The Black Cloud, Asya's mother took the children and spent four years living with the Uzbek in Middle Asia. "My mother, she took us with the vagons and horses, and we vas evacuate," Asya says. Uncle Vladimir, now 73 and living in Philadelphia, was in the armored corps until he got blown out of his tank by a rocket during the siege of Leningrad. "It broke both his legs and blew him up in a tree," says Max. "He was hanging there for days with a foot that looked like a hockey stick."
Just as one of Max's grandfathers was a charming rogue, the other was a deeply religious man. "It's incredible what he went through to believe," Max says. "He risked his freedom for that. It was harder being Jewish in Russia then than it was being black in America. The men in the community came to my grandfather's home on Saturdays, dressed in their best clothes. They would take their books from where they had hidden them and read from the Torah and pray."
Max's grandfather began teaching him to read Hebrew, but he died when Max was 10. "I never went to synagogue in Russia," he says, "but it doesn't matter how many times you go to synagogue, it's how you feel about yourself being Jewish. I was always very proud to be a Jew."
The members of the Blank family set out from Odessa on Feb. 10, 1979, a year in which a record number of Jews, 51,320, were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. (Since then the authorities have been more restrictive; in 1983 only 1,314 Jews were permitted to emigrate, while an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 more were refused exit visas.) It took two years from the time Asya requested permission for her family to emigrate until she got the required documents, and for the final eight months she stood in line every day at the immigration office, awaiting her turn. The Blanks had received a set of visas in 1970, but didn't leave then because of Lazar's fear of what might lie ahead. "A lot of people are afraid to change their lives so much," says Asya. Lazar was frequently depressed during the family's wait for the '79 visas. "My father had to quit his job as a television repairman for a while," says Max, "because if they found out you were leaving, a lot of times they put something in your locker, like you stole. Therefore you go to jail and cannot leave the country."
The first leg of the journey to the U.S. was a daylong train ride to Lvov. From there the Blanks proceeded to Chop, a major railroad center where the U.S.S.R. borders Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where they had to stop for four days for final processing. There Margot came down with pneumonia. "My dad was nervous that he had made the wrong decision because the propaganda in my country is so strong," Max says. "It's like buying a cat out of a bag."
In Chop, the Blanks were subjected to body searches—sometimes using X rays. "You're not allowed to carry anything out but your clothes," says Max. "They're there to make you feel humiliated, like you're a deserter." Frequently, after the inspections, the authorities give emigrants only a few minutes to put their belongings back together and get them on the train before it pulls out. Uncle Vladimir, the former tanker, was watching the Blanks' bags when their train suddenly began to leave. Vladimir, who spent his final years in Russia working on one leg in Odessa's open-air market unloading sacks of potatoes, threw down his crutches as the train began to move and started hurling the suitcases so hard at Max, who was on the train, that he nearly shot out the door on the opposite side of the car.
After a daylong stay in Prague, the Blanks went on to Vienna, where they were sought out, as are virtually all Jews leaving the Soviet Union, by representatives of Jewish agencies who hoped to persuade them to settle in Israel. "A lot of people changed their minds there," says Max. But the Blanks continued on to Italy; they spent eight months in the village of Ladispoli, west of Rome, waiting for a special waiver that would enable Max's younger brother, Yakov, a Down's syndrome child, to enter the U.S. A 1952 immigration statute prohibits the admission of aliens who are mentally retarded without such a waiver.
When the Blanks finally reached Philadelphia, on Oct. 15, 1979, Max's Aunt Rose was there to greet them. With the help of Jewish relief agencies, Rose Freemer, 73, has sponsored 37 immigrants—all of them her cousins. That her nephew hadn't been bar mitzvahed in the Soviet Union Aunt Rose could accept, but when she learned that Max had never been administered the ritual briss as an infant, she went into action. "She was the one who bugged my mother to get me circumcised," says Max, who was 15 when the surgery was finally performed. "I remember it like it was now. It was the worst day of my life. I don't even like to think about that anymore, but if you have to mention it, just say it was a lengthy operation." Aunt Rose was at his bedside for the ceremony, of course. "I was there measuring to make sure they didn't cut too much," she says. "But I'm not finished yet. There's one [cousin] in Passaic, New Jersey who still has to be done. How he got bar mitzvahed in Israel I couldn't say. They must not have looked."
Max had never played basketball in the Soviet Union, though he was certainly tall enough—6'4" at 13. "To me," he says, "the game, it was like a rumor." Rightly or not, Gimelstob believes that Max was never encouraged to play the game because he's Jewish. "Had he been someone else," Gimelstob says, "they would have placed him in their national program right away." Max says that Soviet sports officials are reluctant to recruit Jews for their national teams, but he's not so sure anti-Semitism is the reason. It might be that Soviet coaches are afraid that Jewish athletes might emigrate and that all the coaches' time and effort will have been wasted. Max himself thinks it's the traveling that the teams do. "They don't usually let my people go to America," Max says, "because when Jews see free land, they run." The coach of the Soviet basketball team, Aleksandr Gomelsky, is Jewish—and, in fact, there are a number of Jewish athletes on national teams and those of the various Soviet republics—but Max, and others, believe that Jews who are allowed to travel abroad are told that if they don't return, they will be denied further contact with their families.
When Aunt Rose's husband, Uncle Lou, gave Max a basketball on his first birthday in the U.S., Max wasn't sure what to make of it. "I had never seen a basketball before," he says. But he had an instinctive feel for the game. "I dunked the ball the first time I touched it," Max says. "The rim wasn't that far, so I just went up and gustoed it." An exceptional leaper. Max now dunks at every opportunity. "It has its own magic to dunk," he says. "It's sort of effortless for me to gusto the ball, and it's a pleasure to do it because it's so free." Some of the game's finer points have taken him a bit longer to learn. "I was getting crushed at first, of course," Max says, "because I didn't know the rules. So I went to the library and looked them up. After that I am totally awesome."
Max's progress was unspectacular during his ninth grade year at the small private school he attended, Abington Friends. Besides, he was having difficulty with English and wasn't doing well in his classes. But in time basketball became so important to Max that he wanted to transfer to a public school—and George Washington High was practically across the street from his house. Moreover, among the students were several hundred children of Russian immigrants. "I'm hearing from a couple of my players that there's this tall Russian kid in the neighborhood," says Hal (Hotsy) Reinfeld, the George Washington High basketball coach, "but they tell me he's kind of clumsy. Then one day he knocked on my door with a ball under his arm, and as soon as I saw his size and his body, I got a little excited. He could hardly speak any English at all, but you could see he had something." Reinfeld and athletic director Harold Zeitz watched acquisitively as Max repeatedly lofted feathery 15-foot jumpers into the basket. Soon after that, Max discovered just how easily doors can be opened in America when you can hit the turnaround jump shot. The next fall he was playing for George Washington.
The school is located in a mostly white area in northeast Philadelphia and is what is known as a magnet school. Among the 3,450 students are more than 500 black youngsters, most of them attracted by stronger curricula or better facilities than those available at schools in their own neighborhoods. A typical black student gets up at 5 a.m. and rides a bus for more than an hour to get to the school. Blacks predominate on the George Washington basketball team, as they do at all other largely while Philadelphia schools. Last season, Max was one of only four white players who started for public high school teams in the entire city.
Max had never even seen a black person until he came to this country. "The first time I saw a black man was at the airport when we arrived," he says. "I told my mother to look at the man with the dark suntan." And there were other surprises. The first time Max went to an American restaurant, after finishing his meal he picked up his dishes and started to carry them into the kitchen. He was horrified when he heard what was being served at his first team outing, a barbecue at Reinfeld's home. "It was just hamburgers and hot dogs," Reinfeld says. "But when we were about to serve the food, Max comes up to me looking very pale and says, 'Vat's a hot dog?' " Max still shudders at the memory of what he believed was a barbaric Western custom. "I thought it was a real dog," he says, "like they had shish kebabbed a cocker spaniel or something."
Max used to nosh unabashedly on such non-Kosher delicacies as frozen pig fat smothered with rock salt and spread on black bread, but no more—he has become accustomed to American vittles and, indeed, our way of life. Basketball helped smooth the transition, but not all the adjustments were easy ones. "I come from a totally different culture," he says. "I had never seen anything like what I saw here. It was like starting life all over again."
"When he came to us it was another culture shock for him," says Reinfeld. "He had to absorb a new sport, a new way of life and a new language all at the same time, and he had a very hard time of it. He was uncomfortable with people because he didn't know whom he could trust, and when the other kids would tease him, he didn't have much of a sense of humor about it. He took everything personally because he didn't understand the language as well as he does now." Max says his command of idiomatic English today is "totally awesome."
By the end of his junior season, Max's game had become fairly awesome. He averaged more than 20 points and 12 rebounds a game his final two seasons and sprouted to his present height, which—taken together—made him irresistible to college recruiters. More than 100 schools got in touch, including such powers as Kansas and North Carolina State. Reinfeld discouraged Max from attending those schools because he considered them "factories." "He's barely scratched the surface of his potential, this kid," Reinfeld says. "What he needs is to be in a setting where he can gain confidence by playing right away."
Several schools offered that and more. In fact, Max didn't truly understand what it meant when he heard America described as "the land of opportunity" until some of the recruiters got tuned up. Almost all the schools that recruited him seriously located someone on campus who spoke Russian, to make him feel more comfortable, and also to impress him. West Virginia's Gale Catlett courted him vigorously but never really had a chance, though he didn't know it. "In Russian, catlett means something like 'meatball,' " says Max. "My mother, she wondered why I was getting letters all the time from a meatball." She was also concerned when letters came from Purdue and Drake; both words have an unsavory meaning when pronounced with a Russian accent.
Asya sometimes answered when recruiters called, as she did the night a Kansas assistant rang up. "She came to me looking very puzzled and said Jew Jew White was on the phone," Max recalls. "Perhaps a holy man with such a name. When I answered he said, 'Hello, this is Jo Jo White from Kansas.' There was a long pause, and then I told him I was sorry but I had never heard of him. This time he didn't say anything for so long I thought the line had gone dead."
When the time came for Max to visit the campuses of schools he was considering, he had narrowed the field down to West Virginia, Utah, Temple, Syracuse and George Washington. Of all the attempts to appeal to the immigrant Jew during these visits, Utah's was surely the most inspired. When Max arrived at the Salt Lake City airport, there to meet his plane were coach Lynn Archibald, his wife and children, a few players and a flock of folks carrying flowers. "They flew in some Jews from neighboring cities to meet me," says Blank. "I don't know where they got them. Maybe they found some Jews on a rock."
The schools that went after Max most assiduously were Temple and George Washington, and they were the ones he eventually chose between. If he had picked Temple, he would have been able to stay in Philadelphia and have his family come to games, but Asya and Larry (as Lazar is now known) aren't exactly hoop fanatics—Asya went to only a handful of Max's high school games, his father went to none.
Last November, Max announced he was going to GWU. In February, Temple defeated the Colonials 93-77 in Philadelphia's Palestra. At halftime of that game, which Max attended, he overheard a Temple athletic department employee arguing with GWU's athletic director, Steve Bilsky. Max says he saw the man turn and heard him angrily call Bilsky a "Jew bastard." That same man had been one of the people who had often told Larry and Asya how well Temple was going to take care of their son. The man apologized to Bilsky for his remark the next day and was reprimanded by Temple.
Max had already discovered anti-Semitism in the U.S. "A lot of times I get in fights because people call me 'kike,' " Max says. "I won't take that. Any time somebody would say that to me, I would jump in their chest."
Gimelstob is excited about the prospect of adding Max to a team that went 17-12 this year in the Atlantic 10, particularly because of just that kind of feistiness and Max's willingness to work. "He's really hungry for success," says Gimelstob. "Kids just don't play as hard anymore as he does. Max was unable to do a lot of the things he wanted to do in the Soviet Union, and now that he has the opportunity he doesn't want anything to hold him back, certainly not himself."
Much of Max's inspiration has come from a movie he watches every chance he gets on the family VCR. The movie is called The Frisco Kid, and it's about a Polish rabbi making his way across the Wild West on horseback, a meshuggeneh cowboy who dresses something like Wyatt Earp and talks like Myron Cohen. It's supposed to be a comedy, but Max considers it a veritable primer on the life of a Jewish émigré "You can learn much from this film," he says.
And you can learn much from Max. The high school player who challenged him to a game of Russian roulette should be grateful they never played, because Max doesn't shoot blanks. The immigrant kid imagines himself up there on horseback, with trouble hanging from both hips.