On an overcast afternoon in October, I went with a friend to Madison Square Garden to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play an exhibition game against Armani Milan. Exhibitions, or “friendly games,” do not count in a team’s standing. Exhibitions entertain folks who have no other way to see the teams; they are performed for charities; and they give new players on the roster time to adjust and strut their stuff.
I like basketball, and I love Israel. My Facebook posts are often about Israel, occasionally about sports, and mostly about feminist issues. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an organization which aims—among other things—to reach unaffiliated secular Jews, had emailed me an invitation to celebrate Israel by cheering for Maccabi Tel Aviv in New York. Tickets ranged from $500 for courtside to $30 for the bleachers. My friend Evan, also a feminist and a sports and Israel fan, took a look at the seating chart and suggested we buy $100 tickets. (Oh, how I yearn to sit courtside at the Garden once in my life.)
Tel Aviv and Milan play in the EuroLeague, the wildly popular European equivalent of our NBA. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euro championship several times, prompting boycott/divest/sanctions activists for Palestinians to win notoriety by disrupting Israeli matches. These activists even tried–and failed—to get Israel banned by the EuroLeague. Nothing involving Israel is ever out of bounds, apparently.
Outside the arena on the appointed Sunday, some Hasids in 18th-century garb invited me to shake the lulav and etrog. Huh? I recognized the palms and fruit but was unaware that this was the last day of Succoth. I shook my head no politely.
Our seats, when we finally found them, were right above the press box; the binoculars in my bag could have stayed home. A bunch of Israelis in front of us unfurled a huge Star of David banner for waving; they promised to sit down when the action started. Some native New Yorkers behind us were gushing about “Dragon.” Who or what was “Dragon”?
We all stood up to sing the national anthems. I held my own for “The Star Spangled Banner.” Next came “Hatikvah.” Despite childhood lessons three times a week at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, plus Jewish summer camp in the Poconos, the only lines I recalled were Kol ‘od balevav penimah at the beginning and the rousing Eretz-Tziyon viyerushalayim at the end. I was mortified by how much in between I‘d forgotten. But hearing the beautiful “Hatikvah” float over Madison Square Garden was thrilling. Exalting. A smattering of Milan fans in the house raised their voices shyly for the Italian Anthem.
Tel Aviv was in yellow and blue. Milan was dazzling in red and white dotted with sparkles—I guess that was the Armani touch. From the first toss I sensed trouble: Milan scored an easy five points. True, I am a worrywart with a critical mind but I am not an ignoramus about basketball. I’d played it at summer camp, chafing under the sexist rules of the era that didn’t let girls dribble—one bounce was the limit. Decades later I used to watch the Knicks on TV. I know about defense, turnovers, two-pointers, three pointers, fouls and free throws, rebounds and assists, jump shots and dunks. I know the fourth quarter can be a twist of fate.
Milan’s players were taller and quicker. They completed their passes. Their layups seldom bounced off the hoop. To my horror, Tel Aviv seemed hesitant on offense and kept turning over the ball. “DE-fense, DE-fense,” I shouted. Do I have to tell Israelis about “DE-fense”?
And “Dragon”? An 18-year-old from Croatia, Dragan Bender is a tall, lanky, fluid, undeniably adorable power forward for Tel Aviv whom the NBA is scouting. EuroLeague teams can have a few players who aren’t nationals on their rosters. Some are starting their careers, like the hottie Bender, while others—Americans from the NBA—are stretching their careers as long as they can. Maccabi Tel Aviv employs some aging Americans. There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching NBA games with an added thrill of bets, right? You can bet on your favorite NBA teams now on W88.
Tel Aviv lost, 72-76. Two days earlier in Chicago they beat Milan in a squeaker. If ever there was a venue outside Israel where an Israeli sports victory would have been greeted with pandemonium, it was Madison Square Garden. “Next year,” someone said.
I’ll be there. And I’ll know all the words to “Hatikvah.”
Susan Brownmiller is an American feminist journalist, author, and activist best known for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.