Born: August 30, 1943
Town: Trenton, New Jersey
Talbot Brody was born August 30, 1943 in Trenton. He began playing basketball in youth leagues around the age of 8. In 1957, Tal enrolled at Trenton Central High School. Trenton Central was a racially mixed public school with a very competitive sports program. While Tal played point guard for the basketball team, Elvin Bethea was on the football team and Al Downing pitched for the baseball team. Neither was in Tal’s year.
In 1960–61, Tal led the Tornadoes to an undefeated season and state championship. After sorting through scholarship, he accepted the offer from Illinois. After joining the varsity as a sophomore in 1962–63, he led the team to the Big Ten Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini lost to Loyola in the Mideast Regional final. As a senior in 1965 he earned All-America recognition and was First-Team All-Big Ten.
Tal was selected by the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft. That summer he traveled to Israel and represented the US in the Maccabiah Games, sometimes called the “Jewish Olympics.” Tal led the American basketball squad to a gold medal. Although this was his first visit to Israel, Tal’s family had lived in Palestine before he was born and had a keen interest in the country’s development. During his stay in Tel Aviv, general Moshe Dyan prevailed upon Tal to pass up the NBA and help jump-start the country’s basketball program.
Tal decided to take Dyan up on his offer. First he returned to the U.S. to get his masters in Physical Education. When he returned to Israel he played for Tel Aviv in the European League. Tal was one of the best players in the league, and he put basketball on the map in Israel. He transformed the sport from a deliberate, plodding game to an exciting fast-break style.
In 1969, Tal returned to the US to fulfill his military obligation. He did so as a member of the Armed Forces All-Star Team. In 1970 he was discharged and became an Israeli citizen. He continued his pro career, playing for Tel Aviv until 1980, and led Israel’s nation squad in international play.
Tal’s greatest triumph came at the 1977 European Championship, when Tel Aviv defeated the USSR’s vaunted Red Army squad 91–79 in a game billed as David vs. Goliath. The fans carried Tal off the floor on their shoulders after the final buzzer. In the tournament final, Israel beat the best team in Italy, Mobilgirgi Varese, 78–77.
Within a year, basketball surpassed soccer as Israel’s most popular sport. Tal is still revered by Israelis as the country’s greatest athlete. He is still deeply involved in business, sports and philanthropy in his adopted country, and works as a goodwill ambassador.
Tal never studied Hebrew formally. He speaks with a heavy American accent and often translates American saying word for word. He is often the butt of some good-natured jokes. After winning the European title in 1977, he declared to a TV interviewer that “We are on the map.” The phrase had no meaning in Hebrew, but it soon became part of the national lexicon, and to this day it is used by politicians and business people in speeches and slogans.