Coaches in the United States think they have trouble with referees. In Israel, we played one of our games in Narryiha, a kibbutz in the north, just two days before the Palestinian Liberation Organization made its initial attack. Any sooner and we would have had real trouble.
That was the only unnerving part of the trip. In the end we felt it was a tremendous experience, from the opening and closing ceremonies to seeing the people of Israel to the games as "two weeks to experience, a lifetime to remember." Which it was.
I think it is underestimated just how big the Maccabiah Games are. It's the third-largest sports gathering or a U.S. contingent in international competition, behind the Olympics competition, behind the Olympics and the Pan American Games. There were Jewish athletes from all of South American, Europe, Australia, Canada, Mexico; everywhere but the Iron Curtain countries.
Seeing all the athletes in their countries' uniforms for the opening ceremonies was impress. Few of us had ever been a part of something like that.
The Games started at night in a stadium in Tel Aviv with 60,000 people in the stands. Thirty parachuters, all with flares, dropped into the stadium from three or four miles away. I didn't think that they'd come near the stadium, but they had amazing accuracy. They dropped onto a five-by-five patch. It was incredible.
For the closing ceremonies, the athletes marched through the streets of Jerusalem into Sultan's Pool, the giant pool built by a Turkish emperor. There were speakers and dancers, a nice end to the competition.
And the competition was good. We beat our opponents by an average of 30 points, but we didn't think about that. Some of the teams were obiviously not very good -- we beat Uruguay, 129-17, and Israel beat West Germany, 150-50. But part of the Games was the spirit in which the different teams came: to learn more about their sport and the Jewish bond.
We happened to have a good team, with Willie Sims of LSU, Dan Schayes and Hal Cohen from Syracuse, Dave Blatt of princeton and Steve Steckls, our 6-foot-8 center from Manhattan.
We had 12 players in all, chosen fronm regional tryouts and then final cuts in New Jersey the last week in May. We had two weeks of practice, when we were most concerned with putting together a good team.
Friendships came after the practices, when we were in Israel. I really think all of us grew close in that little time. When we left each other in New York, Sims and Schayes said they would be glad to talk to players if I needed help recruiting. And they had never seen GW.
Having Sims and Schayes with us shows a bit of what the Games were about. Both of them, and Coehn, had played on the last Games team four years ago. Schayes and Sims had been NBA draft picks in June -- Schayes in the first round by Utah and Sims in the fifth by Denver. Neither had signed contracts yet, and both guys knew if they got injured during the games, they might be out of contracts. They come anyway.
We didn't talk about it much at the start, but going to Israel was a personal thing for everyone. We got to play some of our games around the country because we were Americans -- the people of Israel wanted to see us.
Some of the bus rides to our games were two and three hours, but that wasn't a difficulty. Once we got traveling the guys started speaking up about the Israeli state of affairs.
We toured quite a bit. One night the team went to see the Israeli Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta and Itzhak Perlman. The next day at the hotel pool we saw the two men and introduced ourselves. It turns out that Perlman is a great basketball fan -- when he performs in New York he likes to go to Knick games.
I also got a few lessons from Nat Holman, the great coach who is now the president of U.S. Sports for Israel. He's 84, but he made the trip and watched our games.
Holman, of course, is the man who introduced the sport to Israel in 1948. I had been impressed with the number of basketball courts in Jerusalem. It gave me the feeling that there is less strife there than we read. Basketball, and gatherings like the Games, can bridge the differences.