“On the Map” revisits Israel’s hoop dreams

Americans of a certain age fervidly recall the “miracle on ice” at the 1980 Olympics. Three years earlier, Israelis celebrated their own iconic sports moment – also involving the Soviet Union.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Dani Menkin grew up in Tel Aviv, so he was naturally a fan of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team. In 1977, as the undersized squad defeated one historically strong team in the European league after another, every Israeli became a Maccabi supporter.

“When Maccabi Tel Aviv was facing the Russians, who didn’t want to play against Israel, we understood this was bigger than basketball,” Menkin recalls. “If we beat the Russians, and back then the Russians symbolized everything that was against our country, it united us. It crossed politics. It crossed sports rivals. Even Hapoel’s fans were fans of that team because it represented Israel.”

The director of the feel-good documentaries “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy,” Menkin was approached by an Israeli TV station to research a potential film about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s remarkable 1977 run. (I’m being vague so as to avoid spoilers.)

Menkin was amazed that no one had already told the story, and gratified that he would be the one to do so. “I can almost say that I worked on it for 40 years, because this really was part of my life,” he says.

Entitled “77-78,” the film debuted on Israeli TV in the fall of 2015. Meanwhile, as Menkin traveled around the U.S. with his fiction film, “Is That You?,” he discovered that hardly any Americans knew about the Maccabi team – or its immense impact on Israeli national pride in the lingering aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the extensive casualties in the Yom Kippur War.

So Menkin paired up with L.A. producers Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg on a version of the film for American audiences. He had seen their documentary “Above and Beyond,” about the American Jewish pilots who joined the fight for the new Jewish state’s survival before and during the war of 1948. The legendary Maccabi Tel Aviv team had likewise benefitted from an infusion from the U.S.: It boasted six American players.

“On the Map” is a delicious compilation of archival footage, much of it from personal collections and never seen before, interwoven with new interviews with NBA retired player and commentator Bill Walton and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Far more insightful and pleasurable are Menkin’s interviews with the American players, who weren’t good enough to play major minutes in the NBA but achieved stardom, if not immortality, in Israel.

The film takes its title and spirit from Maccabi Tel Aviv star Tal Brody’s exuberant pro-Israel declaration, “We are on the map,” following an emblematic victory. One is tempted to conclude that Menkin, an effusively enthusiastic man whose positivity is reflected in his films, internalized the optimism of 1977.

“I call our company Hey Jude Productions,” he says, “not only because I’m a big fan of the Beatles, and Paul McCartney specifically, but because of the line, ‘Take a sad song and make it better.’ If you want hard stories, if you want to be depressed, you just have to [turn on] the news. What I’m trying to do is bring more optimistic stories, that have some darker layers but at the end of the day – and this is my philosophy not about filmmaking but about life – we are here to make it better.”

“On the Map” will be shown Jan. 17 at 7:30 pm at the Tucson Jewish Community Center as part of the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and Feb. 12, 19 and 22 as part of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival. Director Dani Menkin will be a guest speaker at the showing on Feb. 12 at 3 pm at Harkins Shea 14 theaters in Scottsdale.

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