To be the man who singlehandedly brought together a country in turmoil through sports is no easy feat, but Israel’s Ambassador of Goodwill and former basketball player Tal Brody is frequently credited as being that man. Brody visited Stuyvesant High School on Thursday, March 29 to speak about his life to audiences ranging from senior government and economics classes to members of the boys’ varsity basketball team.
The visit was organized by social studies teacher Michael Waxman who once idolized Brody. “I knew of him when I was a little kid in Israel. He was our hero—every Israeli kid knew of Tal Brody,” he said. Waxman recently ran into Brody on the street, and immediately thought to invite him to speak at Stuyvesant. “For me to meet him so many years later in the United States […] and to have him speak to Stuyvesant students? It was an opportunity I could not pass up,” he said.
Brody, Israel’s first Goodwill Ambassador, was asked to help out in this unofficial position in 2009 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was later officially appointed by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman. As the Ambassador of Goodwill, Brody travels to schools and community events around the world to speak to people about Israel in hopes of showing that life in Israel is different from how it is often portrayed in the media. Brody was considered a fitting choice for the position of Goodwill Ambassador due to his contributions to increasing the popularity of basketball in Israel.
Brody, though of Israeli descent, was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey. He began his speech at Stuyvesant discussing the roots of his basketball career in 1961, when he led the Trenton Central High School basketball team through an undefeated season and ultimately to the state championship. Brody continued playing basketball in college for the University of Illinois, then ranked third in the nation, on an athletic scholarship. In his senior year, Brody was selected as one of the 10 best college players in the nation by the Big Ten Conference, Converse, and Sporting News Magazine. He was also voted an All-American and was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets later that year as the 12th overall pick in the 1965 NBA Draft. But the NBA, typically the final goal of a basketball player’s career, would never see Tal Brady play on its courts.
A visit to Israel for the Maccabiah Games, where Brody and the United States Olympic team won gold, changed Brody’s mindset and goals. “The coach of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team approached me and said, look, our team never went past the first round of the European Basketball Championships. If you would come to Israel, maybe you could take us to another level, and by doing that you could bring a lot of pride and a lot of joy and a lot of happiness to our country,” Brody said.
Brody took the coach’s offer and joined one of Israel’s most famous basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv, leaving his dream of the NBA behind. Not only did the team get past the first round of the 1977 European Championships, but with Brody’s assistance, the Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow, the Soviet Union’s Red Army team known to defeat most European teams with ease. “There was pandemonium when we won that game—it was like Independence Day,” Brody said. “I saw what it was doing for the country, just turning Israel upside down, turning basketball into the number one sport.” In the finals, Tel Aviv went on to win against the heavily favored Italian Mobilgirgi Varese.
After two years with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Brody’s successful professional playing career was put on hold when the United States drafted Brody during the Vietnam War. “I didn’t think twice, and I went back and did two years [of service],” Brody said.
When Brody returned to Israel, he captained the Israeli national team, after being encouraged to do so by the country’s Defense Minister. Brody continued on a successful path by winning the European basketball championships in 1977 and 1981, officially putting the team on the international basketball radar.
The essence of his Stuyvesant speech was captured in his final words, “I’ve seen a lot in my life—what sports can do. I’ve seen sports go where politics can’t go. Sports [are] one of the only things out there that can bring nations together. And that’s basically what it’s doing,” Brody said.
After he was done speaking and the lecture hall emptied, Brody took some time to personally talk to senior Roy Vlcek, captain of the boys’ varsity basketball team, and the two exchanged contact information. Vlcek has been recruited by Division III Occidental College, where he will continue playing basketball this fall. However, he hopes to transfer to Division I Columbia University in his sophomore year.
“Seeing what he’s done, that’s definitely been a dream of mine especially ever since I realized I would probably not be playing in the NBA. But just being able to continue playing basketball and being able to help other people [by] playing basketball, I think that’s very inspirational,” Vlcek said. “[What Brody does is] the best possible profession you can get out of playing basketball. Playing basketball should not be for selfish reasons, and Tal Brody embodies that very well.”