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Alley-oop to the Holy Land: 40 years of African American hoopsters in Israel

A new book by author David Goldstein explores some of the 800 black Americans who have come to play professional basketball in the Jewish state since the 1970s

TORONTO — In May 2007, David Goldstein, then a young Toronto lawyer, was in Israel visiting relatives. One afternoon, near the end of his trip, he went to see his grandparents in Jerusalem. Little did he imagine it would be the genesis of a project that has occupied much of his past 10 years.

“When I got to my grandparents, they had invited a few friends over for coffee and to meet their grandkids,” says Goldstein, speaking in his Toronto apartment. “Their friends were these 80-something year-old women with Eastern European accents. We were chatting when my grandmother mentioned I was from Toronto. Immediately, her friends went bananas about [former Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball star] Anthony Parker who was then in his first season with the Toronto Raptors in the NBA. They spoke about him with terms of endearment in a Hebrew/Yiddish mix, saying ‘eizeh mensch’ [what a mensch] and ‘eizeh zeeskite [what a sweetie].’”

Basketball player Cory Carr in action for Israel

After a difficult five-year process, Cory Carr finally earned his Israeli citizenship in 2009. Here he represents Israel in the FIBA 3-on-3 World Championships in 2012.

Goldstein couldn’t understand why these elderly ladies not only knew who Parker was but spoke of him with such affection.

“They were talking about him like someone they knew well,” says Goldstein. “I was totally blown away, as I never would’ve guessed they were sports fans. I’d never have thought they’d be so fanatic and that they’d even know where Parker was playing after leaving Israel. I remember thinking that if these women are this much into it, what’s the rest of the country like?”

That encounter with those unlikely followers of Israeli basketball would eventually trigger an epiphany in Goldstein which would be the catalyst for a book that, a decade and many challenges later, will be published next month.

If books about Israel are extremely common, Goldstein’s is not. In “Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land,” he presents the Jewish state from an original angle — through the experiences of the many black Americans who’ve come to Israel since the 1970s to play basketball, from the legendary Aulcie Perry to present-day figures such as Amar’e Stoudemire.

David Goldstein, author of ‘Alley-Oop to Aliyah,’ with Fred and Toi Campbell in Tel Aviv.

Based on lists he received from the Israel Basketball League, Goldstein says some 800 black Americans have come to play over the past 40 years. What makes the story more compelling is that a small number of them chose to remain in Israel, became Israeli citizens, married Israelis, and converted to Judaism. In a few cases, they’ve served in the IDF and raised Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking children who are now accomplished Israeli basketball players in their own right.

As part of his exhaustive research, Goldstein traveled to Israel seven times. He introduces readers to more than 50 players by name, (most of whom he interviewed), citing aspects of their respective experiences in Israel. Among them are two women who came to play in the Israeli Female Basketball Premier League.

Goldstein took a particular interest in those who stayed after their careers on the hardwood ended, of which about 10 are still in living in Israel, including Fred Campbell, Joe Dawson and Cory Carr.

While Goldstein faced many challenges with the project — especially on the publishing side and balancing the research and writing with his day job as a lawyer — the players proved a delight.

Stanley Brundy with his eldest son, Nadav, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 

“Here I am, a complete stranger calling from Toronto, asking for an interview for something they didn’t know would necessarily see the light of day and yet almost all agreed to speak with me,” says Goldstein, 38, who was born in Toronto to an Israeli mother and Canadian father.

“Keep in mind, I was asking them mostly about their personal life, how they met their wives, how they raise their kids, their religious identity, racism they faced in the US before coming to Israel, things that have nothing to do with their acumen as basketball players. Yet they were completely open and welcoming of the questions. It was remarkable,” he says.

The result is a captivating book that shines a light on a little-known side of Israel. You don’t have to be a basketball aficionado, or even a sports fan, to appreciate this eminently human story that draws on elements of race, religion, nationality, politics, business and sports.

Over time, Stanley Brundy grew to enjoy Israeli food and other aspects of Israeli life. Here he celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, with his wife, Limor, and their sons, Nadav and Dorian. 

Goldstein begins the book with Aulcie Perry, the first African American to make a strong impact on basketball in Israel, playing a key role in an epic sports moment in the country’s young history. In February 1977, after joining Maccabi Tel Aviv the previous year, Perry was instrumental in the team’s historic upset of a Russian squad to advance to the finals in the European Cup, which they won against an Italian team.

Perry’s performance endeared him to Israel. The feeling was mutual, as he eventually converted to Judaism, married a top Israeli model, became a permanent resident and then a citizen of Israel where he lives today. He proved a trailblazer, leading to stiff competition among Israeli teams to recruit talented foreign players.

Goldstein has a good eye and ear for anecdotes players recount about their time in Israel. He also provides an informative background on the sometimes-contested use of imported players, and how regulations governing their deployment have evolved over the years. From the number allowed per team to loopholes that encouraged players’ convenient conversions to Judaism to escape certain restrictions, to rich teams using their bigger war chests to lure better players, the issue has not been without controversy.

Goldstein doesn’t gloss over two related topics that stand in sharp contrast to the players’ otherwise positive comments about Israel. One is the apparent exclusion of African Americans from becoming coaches of First Division teams. Although most players insist they didn’t suffer discrimination, Goldstein cites a few whose experiences show that Israel, like other countries, is not a race-blind nirvana.

As an Israeli citizen, Sylven Landesberg was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces, known as Tzahal. Here is the former McDonald’s All-American in uniform holding his standard issue M16 assault rifle. 

Players address a wide range of aspects of Israeli life — how they contend with the risk of war and terrorism, and the fears of their families back home; adapting to a different culture; being in a minority in a Jewish country; learning about the customs and rituals of Judaism; and their take on the shared history of persecution between Jews and African Americans.

Overall, the book presents an appealing portrait of Israel, which Goldstein defends as true to what the players told him.

“I know someone may cynically suggest I skewed my writing as a PR effort for Israel,” he says. “You can’t control what cynics may say. I spoke to 40 players, some of whom were in Israel for more than a decade, some who stayed on to live there, some who spent a few years there and played elsewhere and are happy in their lives back in the States.

“I spoke to superstars and Second Division players. I really tried to get as fair and vast a perspective as I could. I asked them repeatedly for any downsides or critiques of Israel. Any negatives that came up I address fully, such as the coaching issue and some examples of racism players said they faced. For the most part, it just wasn’t there,” he says.

He doesn’t spare the less glorious chapter of Perry’s life which included an eight-year prison sentence in the US for smuggling heroin following a suspended sentence in Israel in 1983 for buying heroin.

Chris Watson celebrating Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s 2014-2015 championship in Israel’s third division, or Liga Artzit, at the home of the team owner. Watson also memorably won a first division championship with Hapoel Holon in 2008. 

“I was focused on the book being a true, accurate perspective on the players,” says Goldstein. “I’ve tried not to have my voice in it. I wasn’t looking to write a book about Israel or to do diplomacy on its behalf. I didn’t spin it that way. It’s what I found after 10 years of digging.”

In 2007, when his grandparents’ friends ignited his curiosity about basketball in Israel, he had only a cursory knowledge of it. On the day before returning to Toronto, thinking it must be a big thing and coupled with his pre-existing interest in the sport, he googled “basketball in Israel” and printed articles to read on the flight home.

Fred Campbell and his son, Toi, at the family dinner table on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

“By the time I landed, I had read all the articles, made notes and scribbled out what I had in mind,” Goldstein remembers. “I thought this was a fascinating subject that might make for a book. I knew then I had something and was determined to learn more. As I did, I saw that African American players had retired there. Initially, I thought the book could include a couple of chapters specific to them. Having taken African American studies at university, this was an area of interest. I quickly figured out there was more than enough just on this and it was about much more than just Anthony Parker.”

Getting to know many of the players made an impact on Goldstein. He clearly has great respect for who they are and their identification with Israel.

“I always thought of Israeli heroes in a certain way,” says Goldstein. “They were military leaders, politicians, religious leaders. I’m not saying players are on the same level, but many of them make up a cohort of ambassadors of Israel I never imagined and many people aren’t aware of. They stayed in Israel during times of conflict when they could’ve left. They felt a kinship with Israelis, showed pride in Israel, and often sing Israel’s praises in the US when they’re back.”

His admiration isn’t limited to those who’ve stayed after their playing days were over. He cites Deon Thomas, who married an Israeli woman and knows Israel well but lives in the US, where he’s a staunchly pro-Israel advocate. Likewise, Chris Watson, who played in Israel for more than 10 years but now lives in New York where he’s an active supporter of Israel.

Cory Carr representing in an August 2013 photo posted to his Facebook profile. 

“Coming from them, their support of Israel means something different than when I say something positive about Israel,” says Goldstein. “Their word carries a different weight. When I talk to these guys about BDS and all the anti-Israel actions on college campuses today, their blood boils. They denounce what they themselves call misinformation and misguided views of people who don’t know anything about Israel. It really upsets them.”

In his youth, Goldstein often visited Israel as his mother’s family lived there. Every summer until he was 17, he enjoyed extended stays there with relatives in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Raanana, gaining a basic command of Hebrew in the process. Awareness and support of Israel was a big part of his growing up that included attending Jewish day schools in Toronto and Young Judea summer camps.

Fred Campbell and his son, Toi, pose (in 2013) with a single-hump camel they saw on the side of the road near Arad, a city in southern Israel bordering the Negev and Judean deserts. Camels are among the wildlife most commonly associated with Israel.

Sports has also figured prominently in his life. While attending Northwestern University in Chicago where he majored in journalism, Goldstein profiled NBA players in a regular sports feature for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He’s also written a book about Canadian NBA player Jamaal Magloire that he self-published. He’s an adjunct professor in sports law at the University of Toronto and often appears in the media to discuss sports-related matters. As a lawyer, sports law was one of his specialties. Last year, he left his law practice to become COO of U Sports, the national governing body of university sports in Canada.

The road to getting the book published was long and arduous for Goldstein. He worked on it for several years before knowing if he’d ever find an agent and publisher. Unlike most writers who first prepare a proposal and maybe also a sample chapter to see if they can interest an agent who in turn engages a publisher, Goldstein wrote an entire manuscript for the book before taking the next step.

Deon Thomas, his wife, Dafna (far left), and their daughters Gabrielle (far right) and Liel (kneeling), covered in mud and posing as statues at the Dead Sea. Also known as Yam Hamelach (Salt Sea), the Dead Sea is earth’s lowest elevation on land, and its mud is said to have a variety of health benefits. 

“I didn’t go the route most writers do,” says Goldstein. “I wanted to first make sure I had a book I was confident in before moving forward.”

In 2012, he began reaching out to agents, ultimately contacting 198 of them, mostly by email. Many never responded. Most who did politely declined, some saying it was an interesting subject but its potential audience insufficient. A few said it would make a great magazine article but didn’t justify a book. Despite this, he never wavered in his commitment to the project.

“I’m generally a very optimistic person but I admit at certain moments it got a bit nerve-wracking,” says Goldstein, who lives on his own in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto. “Although it took years to find an agent and publisher, I was always confident the book would come out.”

With the book slated for release on November 7, representing the culmination of a decade of work, Goldstein feels more upbeat about the project.

“The reaction I’ve received in recent months is such a contrast to what I went through earlier,” says Goldstein.

“Now, when I reach out to people for blurbs for the book or media coverage, it’s so much more positive,” he says. “People, especially Jewish journalists and African American sports writers who thought they knew everything about basketball are surprised about the subject and want to know more. It’s been really validating and inspiring.”

All of it is well deserved given the effort put into the book, its quality and the unassuming nature of its author.

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