Under blue,scudless skies, the El Al flight from Brussels arrived at Tel Aviv's Ben GurionInternational Airport last Friday afternoon, swung open its door and safelydelivered Israel's most celebrated sports team.
The Maccabi TelAviv basketball team, the nation's perennial contender for the EuropeanChampions Cup, was back home again from yet another exhausting road trip. Thenight before, at Wembley Arena outside London, the team had lost aheart-stopper to Cadbury's Boost Kingston of England, 64-62, and the very nextmorning, after barely four hours of sleep, the players had dug themselves outof bed to catch a dawn flight to Brussels, where El Al, Israel'sgovernment-owned airline, had delayed its 8:30 a.m. flight to Tel Aviv to waitfor the basketball team. Gathered for security reasons in a small waiting roomin Brussels, looking at once harried, hurried and tired, they might have beenone of the lost tribes, found at last, trying to make a final connection backto the homeland. What was waiting for them at home, two days after PresidentBush announced a suspension of hostilities in the war in the Persian Gulf, wasfar more than a celebration of their safe return. For the first time in sixweeks, since the war started and Israeli citizens started carryinggovernment-issue gas masks, there was a palpable sense of relief in the air, apromise of peace in a land that had endured the imminent threat of war for sixmonths, and then the actuality of incoming Scud missiles.
"It's a loadoff my back," said one of Maccabi's American players, Donald Royal."It's nice not to have to carry those gas masks around anymore. Idefinitely feel relieved. I'm sure I'm going to sleep better tonight knowingthat no missile will be coming this way. I'm also looking forward to gettingout of the house tonight."
For theIsraeli-born members of the team, what gave this day even broader meaning wasthat it was Purim, a holiday that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from aPersian plot to kill them 2,000 years ago. "It was a victory over Persiansthen," said Izik Cohen, a 6'8", 240-pound center. "Now the victoryis over Saddam. It is like the past come true again. Everybody is talkingpeace. The war is over. No more air raid sirens. No more hiding in sealedrooms. The plastic sheet to protect from gas is coming off the windows. Now wecelebrate Purim for two reasons. Freedom then. Freedom now."
There had beenother symbolism at work with these Israeli basketball players. Throughout thelast six weeks the Maccabi Tel Aviv team—promised a $500,000 government grantto help it meet its considerable travel expenses—was visible,continent-trotting proof that the hardships wrought by war had not brought thelife of the nation to a halt. For the team, the most difficult hardship of allstemmed from a decision—made by the Fèdèration Internationale de Basketball(FIBA) after the Scuds started falling—to prohibit any European Champions Cupgames from being played in Israel. As a result, Maccabi Tel Aviv would have toplay its scheduled home games on the road. Despite the threat of terroristattacks—any Israeli sports team, but particularly its most prominent one, isregarded as a prime target of terrorism—the team flew out of Ben Gurion Airportusually on a Tuesday, played a basketball game in Europe on Thursday night,then flew back to Tel Aviv on Friday so the players could observe the Sabbath,from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and be with their families for atleast part of the week.
The playersviewed their decision to continue playing as a statement of Israeli resolve."We want to keep playing," said Tel Aviv-born Nadav Henefeld, 22, whoperformed for the University of Connecticut's NCAA championship contender lastseason. "It's important for us to play. Sports is something everyone canfeel close to. Sports can unify. When we are on the road, people outside Israelcan see we are still living, still working as a society, as a people, and thatis important. Israel is not shut down. Israel still works. The situation for mycountry has never been easy, but we still have our lives and we want to make astatement to the world."
Politicalutterances aside, most of the 13 members of the team are professionalbasketball players, some in the six-figure salary range, and running around inshort pants is how they make a living. It is not the Israeli national team, onwhich six Maccabi members also happen to play, but something more. Maccabi TelAviv is a member of the 11-team Israeli Basketball Association, the country'sanswer to the NBA, and it has won the league championship 21 years in a row.The league champions represent the country in the annual European ChampionsCup, in which 32 teams began competing last fall. Eight remain in competitionfor the final four in April; in addition to Maccabi Tel Aviv, the teams are FC.Barcelona (Spain), POP 84 Split (Yugoslavia), Aris Salonika (Greece), ScavoliniPesaro (Italy), TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Germany), Limoges (France) andCadbury's Boost Kingston (England). Maccabi has won the European Cup twice, in1977 and 1981, and has made it to the finals on four other occasions. No otherIsraeli team has performed so consistently well in this difficult internationalcompetition; every Thursday night millions of Israelis sit transfixed in frontof their television sets, watching with the fervor of Bostonians viewing theCeltics.
During the warthe Tel Aviv players were seen as national heroes, traveling in airplanes inspite of the dangers and regularly putting themselves at risk before largecrowds in foreign lands. "Some Israelis serve in the military, and others,like the Israeli members of this team, serve by playing basketball," saysShimon Mizrahi, the club president. "They are serving the people, too. Allour games have been televised. This has been important during the war, whenmost people go home at night. Millions watch us on Thursday night, according tothe polls. In one very close game [a stunning 72-70 win over POP 84 Split]there was an air raid alarm, and many people wouldn't go to theshelter."
The team did nothave an easy time of it in the course of the war, playing under stressesendured by few sports teams on the road. But it never missed a scheduled gameand, in fact, in those six weeks played its best basketball since the seasonstarted in September. "There has been more passing, more screening for oneanother, more patience on offense," said Chen Lippin, a veteran guard."But that is the Israeli mentality at work, always pulling together intimes of crisis. One of Israel's problems is that some Jews come from Arabiccountries, some from Eastern Europe, some from the Soviet Union. But in crises,it doesn't matter where they come from. War is never good, but it has pulledIsrael together, and that is what happened to this basketball team."
It was only afterPresident Bush announced the end of hostilities that the team let down, lookingsuddenly flat and spiritless against Kingston. The time spent on airplanes, onbuses and on the telephone in the tour of European cities had begun to take itstoll.
Asrepresentatives of Israel, the Maccabi players always get their share of abusefrom rival fans, but a crowd in Salonika tested them sorely on Jan. 17, thenight after the war began. The players heard chants of "Saddam!" and"Ara-FAT!" while losing to the Greeks 93-81. But then, playing the nextweek in Yugoslavia, where they beat one of Europe's strongest teams, and againa week later in Germany, where they lost 102-101, they heard somethingdifferent. By then Israel civilian centers had come under missile attack, butthe government had chosen not to retaliate. "The crowds cheered and cheeredfor our players," said Lippin. "That never happened before. It made usfeel very good. We always represented Israel, but now it was different. Werepresented Jews everywhere, and we got cheered in Yugoslavia and Germany. Andin France, too."
In some citiesMaccabi games even began taking on the flavor of home. At Wembley more than6,000 people showed up for the game, and at least 5,000 were Israelis livingabroad. At the introductions of the Israeli players, they cheered thunderously,waving blue-and-white Israeli flags, and frequently broke out in throaty chantsthat swept through the arena: 'Mahk-ah-BEE! Mahk-ah-BEE!" It is notinappropriate as a fighting chant; Maccabi was the name of a priestly Jewishfamily that led the struggle to overthrow Hellenism and Syrian rule in thesecond century B.C.
"This teamsymbolizes strength and victory for Israel," said Sharon Hanein, a lawStudent at Essex University who was among a raucous contingent of Israeli-bornstudents attending the game. "They are beyond sport, really, speaking forIsraeli unity."
The strain ofplaying for Maccabi Tel Aviv intensified immeasurably after the game inSalonika when, with their usual security escort, they returned to their hotel.Suddenly word spread from room to room, with shouts up and down the corridor,that Tel Aviv had come under an air attack, that Iraqi missiles had hit thecity and that a number of civilians had been wounded. The Maccabi playerswatched CNN for the initial reports of damage. To a man they panicked, most ofthem grabbing for telephones to call their families, their wives and parentsliving in Israel. They spent half the night listening to busy signals.
Nothing he hadever experienced growing up in Louisiana—or playing basketball for DiggerPhelps at Notre Dame or for Bill Musselman with the Minnesota Timberwolves lastseason—had prepared Royal for that Scud attack on the city he was living in.Not even the drug wars of Washington, D.C., where he played for the Bulletslast year, were enough to steel Ed Horton for the reports he was hearing thatnight. Each European team is permitted to sign two foreign players, and Royaland Horton were Tel Aviv's. At one point, the two men exchanged glances.
"I ain'tgoin' back to Israel," Royal said.
"Me,either," said Horton.
Willie Sims is athird-generation Jew from Queens who played at LSU and moved to Israel in 1981.He became an Israeli citizen in 1982 and married an Israeli woman, ArielaSheffr. The couple had one daughter, Danielle, now three, and Ariela wasalready eight months pregnant with their second child. They had just bought anew apartment in Tel Aviv, where Sims had started an import-export businesswith another naturalized Israeli, Lavon Mercer, a 6'10" Maccabi center whohad played for Georgia. While there he helped recruit Dominique Wilkins, beforemoving to Israel. Over the Christmas holidays, Mercer's wife, Sharan, and theirtwo children, Dionn, 8, and Alex, 3, had gone to visit Sharan's parents inAtlanta. They decided she and the children should stay there as the crisisdeepened in early January.
But now, inSalonika, Sims did not know what was left of his home and family. "The TVsaid that Tel Aviv had come under a Scud attack," recalls Sims. "Canyou imagine what that's like, sitting in Greece, to hear that the city whereyour family is living just came under an enemy air attack? I panicked. I jumpedup and tried to call. I couldn't get through. There must have been millions ofpeople trying to call Israel. It was terrible. It was so frustrating. I wentnuts. I stayed up all night trying to reach Ariela. I kept worrying: 'Where didthey hit? Was Tel Aviv on fire? Were they using chemical weapons? There wereseven or eight Scuds that hit Israel. That's all I knew."
Sims finallyreached his wife at 4 a.m., hours after he had first heard the news, and hervoice on the telephone sounded distant and garbled. "Ever try to talk tosomeone with a gas mask on?" Sims says. "She had one on, and she wasscreaming, 'Everything is O.K. We're waiting for news, but I can't breathe withthe mask on.' I kept screaming back, 'Keep the mask on! Keep them on, whateveryou do.' We were having a baby. It was some night. Scared the heck out ofme."
In Atlanta thescene unfolding on American television scared Sharan Mercer, too. She wassupposed to fly back to Israel in early January, but Lavon and her parents hadpersuaded her to stay in Georgia at least until Jan. 15, the deadline set bythe United Nations for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. The missile attack endedall talk of her returning to Israel anytime soon. "Stay there with yourfamily," Lavon had urged her. "It's just not safe here." By thenshe had enrolled Dionn in an Atlanta school, and all she had to fear was whatshe feared most: that her husband would return to Tel Aviv. His own parentsurged him to come home to Atlanta.
"What are youtrying to prove?" his mother asked. "What are you doing over there?Explain it to me."
So he explainedit all. It was more than just making a living. "Of all the bad things thathave happened here, we have been one of the few good things," says Mercer,who has converted to Judaism. "We can't go anywhere and not be noticed.We're not just Maccabi of Tel Aviv. Or Maccabi of Israel. We are, really,Maccabi of the Jewish nation. It's an important thing we're doing. We'rehelping each other. We're giving something back. There is nothing like thisteam in the United States. No analogy. It goes a lot deeper than sports. We arelike ambassadors for Israel."
So there was nopersuading him to leave the team, but Sharan did persuade him to come to theU.S. for a few days. "I can get you a good ticket," said Sharan. "Iwant you to come home. I need to talk to you." So Mercer returned to Israelby way of Atlanta, where he spent three days with his family, not missing anygames. "I wanted to calm Sharan down," Mercer says.
She was not theonly American-born wife of a Maccabi player who watched in horror when thefirst wave of missiles hit Tel Aviv. Kerry Winter of Commack, N.Y., was ascholarship basketball player at George Washington University, in Washington,D.C., when she met and fell in love with Moti Daniel, an Israeli-born forwardat GWU. They moved to Tel Aviv in 1987, got married a year later and settledinto a penthouse in Holon, a suburb south of the city. "We had a son ninemonths and two weeks after we were married," Kerry says. She was in Israelas the United Nations' deadline neared, and he wanted her to stay. "Don'tworry about it," Moti told her. "Everything is going to be allright."
"I was upsetand torn," Kerry says. "I didn't want to pick up and leave Moti. If itwas just me, I would have stayed. But I was worried about our son, Sean."Kerry is 6'1", her husband 6'6", and their 22-month-old son, Sean,weighs 40 pounds. What concerned them most was that Scan was too young to weara gas mask and too large for the little plastic tent that the government wasissuing to the parents of all infants under two years old. They were supposedto put the children inside the tent, which looks like an incubator, during anattack. "Sean is as big as a three-or four-year-old," Kerry says."He's the new Toni Kukoc, I think, a 6-10 point guard. He was issued thelittle tent, but I was also afraid he would try to get out of it. God forbid hewould try, but he's too hyper. I was afraid he would try to stand up init."
As the deadlinedrew close, Moti began urging his reluctant wife to leave; she finally took offfor Commack on Sunday evening, Jan. 13, three days before her husband left withthe team for Greece. She had hardly touched down when the first Scud hit Holon."It hit two miles from my house," she says. "I was so scared mybody began to shake. My mother-and father-in-law live half a mile from us. Ikept calling them: busy, busy, busy. It was really difficult. I didn't know howbig a Scud was. Did it blow up a city block? Are my in-laws all right? Is myhome blown up? Moti called and said his parents were O.K. It was such arelief."
The rest of theteam returned to Tel Aviv, but Royal and Horton stuck to their vow not to goback to Israel. The two Americans stayed in Greece, and rejoined theirteammates the following week in Zurich. In the days leading up to the firstScud attack, Royal's mother, Barbara, had tried to talk her son into cominghome. "You're getting on the next plane, aren't you?" she asked him byphone. "They're going to bomb Israel. You need to come home." Royallingered as the U.N. deadline approached, but he grew increasingly anxious.
"I don't feelsafe here," he told Mizrahi. "I don't feel comfortable with thesituation."
Mizrahi had triedto reassure him. "Nothing will happen," the team president told him."If it does, we will make arrangements for you to live in Europe. You canmeet the team where it plays."
Royal and Hortontook him up on the offer. They said their goodbyes to their teammates at theairport outside Zurich, shaking hands all around, and moved into a Swiss hotel.For a week the two men rarely left their room, spending days and nights rivetedto the television set. "That first night of Iraqi attacks, when we were inGreece, was a scary, weird feeling," says Royal. "To have your hometownbeing bombed. I felt a stab of fear. I'm from New Orleans, and I never had myhometown bombed before. I had been in Israel since the summer, and I'd gottento know so many people there. I kept wondering, Is anyone I know hurt? Iwandered around in a daze. I couldn't go to sleep.
"I justdidn't think it was right for me to go back. I didn't feel I abandoned them. Iwas still gonna play. The only things I had back there were a VCR, a Nintendogame and a stereo. That was my commitment. I thought I could give those up inexchange for my life. All we did was watch CNN in the hotel. It was verylonely. I didn't know where to go. We read newspapers and just sat around. Veryboring. I had a lot of time to think, and I needed the time to put mypriorities in order."
While Royalruminated, the players who had gone home began witnessing the star wars beingwaged over their city. The day after he returned from Greece, Sims says, a Scudexploded 350 yards from his house, shaking his windows. "People had putplastic over their windows to protect against chemical weapons, but the plasticdidn't do any good against the explosions," Sims says. He moved his familyto the house of one of the Maccabi officials, just outside the city of Haifa."We sat there watching Scuds hit Haifa and Tel Aviv," Sims says."The Patriots were trying to catch them."
In his apartmenton the 24th floor of a building in Tel Aviv, Izik Cohen was talking to hismother on the telephone when he first heard the siren wailing. "It was anamazing sight," says Cohen. "I looked out a window and saw a Patriotmissile take off, and I saw it chasing and hitting a Scud. I was stunned. I wasin the air force three years, but I never saw a war in my life. Never. Istarted screaming to my mother, 'Oh, my god, a Patriot is going up!' It waslike fireworks in the sky. My windows started shaking. Boom! I was so proud ofthe Americans who had come from Europe with their Patriots."
After Cohen hearda plea on the radio for Israelis to open their homes to the visiting Americans,to invite them for meals, he drove to a nearby Patriot missile site, befriendedfour American servicemen and brought them dinner. "I went to a DominosPizza place in Tel Aviv and got two large pies with everything," Cohensays. "We became friends. I will never forget seeing that missile goup."
The war over TelAviv brought a halt to all Israeli Basketball Association games, but Mizrahiworked to salvage Maccabi's season in the European Champions Cup, suggesting toFIBA that Israel find a neutral site in Europe to play its scheduled homegames. FIBA agreed. The problem was finding a city willing to play host forMaccabi. "We thought of playing in Holland, but local authorities said, 'Wecan't for security reasons,' " says Mizrahi. "Then we talked aboutplaying in Paris, but at the last minute the French said there were too manyArabs in Paris, and there might be trouble. If we had not been determined inour minds to play—even FIBA told us to quit—we would have had to give up,forfeit our games."
At last theorphans of the Champions Cup found a home of sorts when Brussels agreed to letthem play in a small gymnasium, in the middle of a forest, that seats 1,200people. Madison Square Garden it was not, but Belgium helped save the last legof Tel Aviv's season. The team had already played two "home" games onthe courts of their Greek and German opponents.
In Switzerland,meanwhile, Royal and Horton rejoined the team on its way through Zurich for thegame in Yugoslavia, but Royal was on his own when Horton chose to return toIsrael after the victory in Split. "I didn't want to get too out ofshape," says Horton. "And I wanted to practice with the team. So I wentback."
Royal got a hotelroom in Bad Homburg, outside Frankfurt. An Israeli gave him a car and a map sohe could get out of stir at the hotel, but there was nowhere he wanted to go."Now it was really boring," says Royal. "I didn't know anybody. Itwas very lonely. I watched television, drank beer and ate sausages andsauerkraut. I took out the car every once in a while to get lost and see if Icould find my way back. I had become an orphan, drifting and seeing my teamonce a week. I ran up a $500 phone bill every week, calling the States. Myfamily kept me going. It was a real strange experience."
By the secondweek Royal had never felt so isolated, so lost. "There are only so manytimes you can drive around Bad Homburg," he says. "Only so much timeyou can spend sitting around listening to CNN. Man, it was weird, but it helpedme grow up almost overnight. I wasn't used to being isolated. In grade school,high school and college, I was the center of the world. As an athlete, you'realways looked upon as that special person. Over in Europe, I was nobody in themiddle of nowhere. After all those years of being on a pedestal, I had onlymyself to look to, to answer to. I had time to think, to put things inperspective.... I overcame my fear."
So Royal returnedto Israel on Feb. 1, to a hero's welcome, after playing in Leverkusen. Thesecurity guard in the building where he lives shook Royal's hand when he sawhim. "He said to me, 'I'm proud of you for coming back,' " says Royal."I learned I had a lot of character. I know some people would not have madethe decision I did, to come back to Israel before the war ended. I'm proud thatI made the decision. Once I got here, I realized I had made the right decision.To know what they're going through and to decide to go through it with themmade me feel good. I'm glad I came back."
He had returnedto Israel just in time to rejoin the team for the continuation of a roadschedule that was beginning to grind down players and club officials alike.Their itineraries were complicated by events, the chief of which was that allthe major airlines, except El Al, stopped serving Tel Aviv after the war began.It was no wonder they appeared listless at Wembley. After beating Limoges, theplayers were supposed to catch a charter flight the next morning from Limogesto Zurich, where they were to catch a 7 a.m. El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Asnowstorm made it impossible for the charter to land in Limoges. The planecould fly out of Paris, however, so Mizrahi rented a train for $6,000 to getthe team there from Limoges. The players left after the game, with barelyenough time to take showers.
"Onelocomotive pulling one car," says Mizrahi. The train took 3½ hours. Theteam caught the charter to Zurich and made the El Al connection on time, butthe whole trip took some 17 hours from beginning to end and left the playersexhausted. Besides disrupted itineraries, they had to contend with securityarrangements even more stringent than those that usually govern the team in itstravels. After landing at London's Heathrow Airport last week, the team steppedinto the main terminal. Suddenly several uniformed soldiers materialized,carrying automatic weapons. In Greece, 50 policemen surrounded the team bus atthe airport, and it left with a police van in front and another behind.
The players laughat the memories today as they listen to Horton recall the almost cartoonlikecharacters that have appeared to protect them along the way. "In Greece,they assigned us Rambo one week," says Horton. "Remember that guy? Beltof bullets across one shoulder, another belt over the other shoulder. Knivessticking out of his pants legs. Stuff painted around his eyes."
Lavon Mercer hasbeen playing in Israel for 10 years, and he has seen enough of life there thathe looks at things now with a trained eye, seeing what he never would have seenbefore. "You learn to watch things, to look for things that don't lookright," Mercer says. "Like a bag lying somewhere by itself. Orstrangers hanging around. Anything out of place. You become aware ofeverything. Right now, it's very tiring. Very demanding. We've got nohome-court advantage. No matter where we go, we attract problems."
After being onthe road for five searching weeks, players were complaining of the toll that itwas taking. "There has been so much pressure," Lippin said in Londonlast week. "It never seems to let up. I was afraid to come here for fear ofIrish terrorists. If it is not one thing, it is another."
Maccabi's loss toKingston left it with a 4-6 record and nearly out of the race to make the finalfour. On Feb. 14, in Maccabi's "home" game in Brussels, ScavoliniPesaro defeated the Israelis 93-87. They can hardly afford to lose again. Theironly chance of advancing to the semifinal round appears to turn on the outcomeof their appeal to FIBA to allow them to play their four remaining games athome in Tel Aviv. Four days before the fighting ended, the ban on playing gamesin Israel had been lifted.
However far theygo, Maccabi's final game will bring to an end the longest, strangest, mostremarkable season in its history. No matter how it turns out, and long afterthe last basket is forgotten, this was the year when Izik Cohen deliveredpizzas to four U.S. soldiers. It was the year when Kerry Daniel fled townbecause her baby was too big to fit into a plastic tent. It was the year whenDonald Royal, in a town outside Frankfurt, discovered a part of himself that henever knew existed.
It was also theyear in which Sharan Mercer flew to England, net her husband in the lobby of aWembley hotel and gave him a custom-made ring, crowned with a garnet and fourdiamonds, to compensate for all the years spent playing basketball for teams onwhich he never won a ring of his own.
"It's to showhow much I love you," she told him.
On Feb. 12,Ariela Sims gave birth to a boy, named Itai, in the middle of a war. "Therewas a missile attack on her due date," says Sims. "I think the sirengave the baby a push." It was the morning of March 1 when Sims awoke from anap in an airplane, on his way back home, and smiled and said, "Maybe wecan find peace now in Israel."
THE LONG WAY HOME
Forced to play all of its European Cup basketballgames on the road during the Persian Gulf war, which began on Jan. 16, MaccabiTel Aviv spent a harrowing and grueling six weeks.
1/16 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-Athens-Salonika
1/17 Lost to Aris Salonika 93-81
1/18 [Airplane] Salonika-Athens-Tel Aviv
1/22 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-Zurich
1/23 [Airplane] Zurich-Belgrade-Split
1/24 Beat Pop 84 Split 72-70
1/25 [Airplane] Split-Athens-Tel Aviv
1/29 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-Athens-Frankfurt, [Bus] to Leverkusen
1/31 Lost to TSV Bayer 102-101
1/31 [Bus] to Brussels
2/01 [Airplane] Brussels-Tel Aviv
2/05 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-Paris, [Bus] to Limoges
2/07 Beat Limoges 114-95
2/07 Chartered train Limoges-Paris
2/08 [Airplane] Paris-Zurich-Tel Aviv
2/12 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-Paris-Brussels
2/14 Lost to Scavolini Pesaro 93-87
2/15 [Airplane] Brussels-Tel Aviv
2/26 [Airplane] Tel Aviv-London
2/28 Lost to Cadbury's Boost Kingston 64-62
2/28 MILITARY HOSTILITIES SUSPENDED
3/01 [Airplane] London-Brussels-Tel Aviv