Also see: The Passion of the Maccabi, Part 1
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Maybe God does play favorites when it comes to basketball.
After the trial by fire. After hope came when all hope was lost. After miracles shaped like orange basketballs fell from the heavens. After years of yearning, praying and believing, Israel got its Euroleague championship Saturday night.
Maccabi Tel Aviv won it in epic, even biblical proportions.
Maccabi blasted Skipper Bologna in the Euroleauge championship game, 118-74. In the process, they shattered almost every record in the Euroleague books. The performance was, in a word, perfect. Almost God-like.
Maccabi scored more points than any team in a Euroleague Final. In fact, they were the first Euroleague champs to break 100. Their 44-point margin was the largest in the history of the event. They nearly doubled the record for most assists with 31. Most amazingly, they shot a stunning 74 percent on two-point shot attempts, missing just 10 from inside the arc, and 61 percent on 3-pointers (14 of 23).
After the game, a stunned Skipper coach, Jasmin Respa, couldn't find the words, muttering "impossible" several times as he looked over the stat sheet.
Maccabi coach Pini Gershon wasn't as surprised. "Everything is written in the sky. ... People prayed all week for us to win the cup, and I thank all of you, because your prayers helped. Thank you, Israel."
Outside, an Israeli security guard hugged another guard and then summed up the mood of much of the country Saturday night. "God not only gave us the victory ... he decided to show off."
As 10,000 joyous Maccabi fans flooded into the streets to join another 300,000 revelers in a downtown park in Tel Aviv, drops of salty, warm rain began falling from the sky.
"The tears of God," a young Israeli called it.
JERUSALEM (May 1) -- The most holy city in the world is quiet in the early morning. Today is the Jewish "shabbat," or sabbath, and only a handful of people dot the narrow streets of old Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, the city founded by King David on a mountain many believe was the creation point of the world, is both the most sacred and the most fought over piece of real estate in that world. It has changed hands hundreds of times over the last 3,000 years.
The city is in a key position both politically and spirtually, and conquerors over the years have used both motivations to occupy it.
Upon moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, David desired to build a holy temple in which to worship God and house the ark of the covenant, a sacred gold box that contained the remnants of the stone tablets upon which God's finger carved the Ten Commandments. The temple eventually was finished by David's son, Solomon, then later destroyed during a war. The second temple was rebuilt in the sixth century B.C. and stood for more than 600 years before being ransacked by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Today, all that remains of the temple is the western retaining wall, the Ha-Kotel-ha-Maaravi in Hebrew. People come from all over the world to pray here. To Jews, it is the most holy place in Israel. Lines of rabbis stand before the wall bowing, praying and inserting written prayers on tattered strips of paper between the rocks on the wall.
The kotel, many Jews believe, is the ears of God. A prayer offered here has more power than a prayer offered anywhere else in the world. The wall, over the years, has become the extension of the desires of all religious Jews. It is the most direct line to God.
Israeli journalist Yoav Borowitz, a native of Jerusalem, whispers in my ear after inserting a prayer scroll in a small crevice in the wall.
"My guess is that some people are here praying for Maccabi to win tonight," Borowitz says with a wry smile. "We take our religion very seriously in Jerusalem and our basketball very seriously in Tel Aviv."
People in Jerusalem take their basketball pretty seriously, as well. Jerusalem's team, Hapoel Jeruslaem, just won the Uleb Cup, the second-most distinguished basketball tournament in Europe.
The first quarter
If the Euroleague Final Four is the ultimate nirvana for the European hoops fan, then Tel Aviv must be center of paradise. This is my third consecutive Euroleague Final Four. In all three events, the hometown team has played for the championship. Last year, F.C. Barcelona won in Barcelona, Spain, and the city erupted with joy. But nothing I've seen in all my travels in Europe has come close to this.
A sea of yellow and blue chants so loudly, 20 minutes before the game starts, that it's literally impossible to conduct a conversation with the person sitting next to you.
When Maccabi takes the floor, the decibel level doubles. As the team begins warming up, the crowd spontaneously breaks into the national anthem of Israel. Gershon, Maccabi's coach, is stunned and quickly runs onto the floor to instruct his players to quit shooting.
The Euroleague bans the playing of national anthems at their events. They can do nothing, however, to stop the booming, electric rendition by the crowd.
Maccabi comes out on fire. Point guard Sarunas Jasiekvicius gets things rolling with two big 3-pointers coming out of the gate. A huge dunk and a fall-away shot by American Anthony Parker, with a foul and ensuing free throw, put Maccabi up 13-4 just minutes into the game.
Skipper, the youngest team in the Euroleague, looked intimidated. The roar of the crowd and the ferocity of Maccabi's match-up zone had them settling for bad shots. Even their free throws wouldn't go in.
Behind the sharp shooting of former USC star David Bluthenthal, Maccabi continued to destroy Skipper. Bluthenthal hit another 3 at the buzzer, giving Maccabi a stunning 31-13 lead after the first 10 minutes.
For the quarter, Maccabi shot 57 percent from the field. Skipper was just 2-for-13 in the period.
Three worlds collide
Jerusalem is perhaps the only city in the world with the unique ability to divide and unite simultaneously.
Walking through the Jaffa Gate near the Western Wall, Christians head north, down a narrow pathway filled with merchants pawning Jesus trinkets, in search of the Holy Sepulcher -- the place Catholics believe was the site of Christ's death and burial.
Muslims head north, toward the Dome of the Rock, the most sacred Islamic spot in Jerusalem. Under the dome sits the stone where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son (Isaac, to those of Jewish or Christian faith; Ishmael, to Muslims) to show his devotion to God.
Jews head south, toward the kotel, to offer their daily prayers to God. Before we can get to the wall, we must negotiate our way through a maze of security barricades and metal detectors. The plaza near the wall always has been a huge target for would-be suicide bombers, and this area -- like other holy shrines -- is heavily guarded.
Despite the segregated nature of the city, the three groups can't help but bump into one another.
One of the most sacred sites for Christians, the room where Jesus ate the last supper with his apostles, sits two floors above one of Judaism's most sacred sites -- the tomb where King David is buried.
The main exit to the western wall, where many Jews come for daily prayers, leads directly into a Muslim bazaar filled with the smells of fresh falafel, kebob and sweet bread from merchants crammed into ancient nooks alongside the narrow alleyways.
Follow the alleyway farther and you pass through the ancient gates into a bustling Muslim neighborhood and market. Here Arab-Israeli taxi drivers, panhandlers and merchants sell everything from olive-wood crosses to cheap, plastic menorahs. Turn right, and the hustle and bustle dissolves into a serene garden, the place many protestant Christians believe Christ was buried and resurrected.
Every pathway leads to a new discovery -- and a potential confrontation. Three of the world's largest religions crammed inside this tiny, ancient city. They are on top of each other -- shoulder to shoulder, as if crammed onto a crowded, holy subway. Sometimes smiling. Mostly just co-existing. It's been this way for centuries.
The second quarter
The Maccabi fans already are beginning to feel it. While the mood in the first quarter was jubilation mixed with trepidation, the confidence of both fans and players is now soaring.
As Maccabi walks onto the court to start the second half, they are intense and confident. The Skipper team looks overwhelmed.
Maccabi starts the second quarter just as it left off the first. Between Bluthenthal's uncanny shooting and Parker's relentless drives to the basket, Skipper has no answers.
Maccabi's passing is unbelievable, with players whipping six or seven passes in each possession and picking Skipper apart for easy layups or wide open 3s. Skipper, on the other hand, still can't get a shot to go in. Players are settling for quick jumpers, and nothing is working. Shooting just 32 percent in the second quarter, Skipper trails 55-30 at the half.
The empty court
Just inside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, in the Muslim quarter near the Dome of the Rock, a basketball court sits on sacred ground.
The court, like several others we find scattered inside the old city, is empty.
Muslim children pass it by, soccer ball in hand, looking for a field (even an alleyway will do). Tonight, most of Israel will be screaming, imploring God for Maccabi to win. Ratings will peak at an unbelievable 47 percent (a record for the country). However for the 20 percent of the population of Israel that is Arab-Israeli, there won't be any such celebration.
The great I AM may be wearing yellow tonight, but the God the Arab-Israelis pray to, Allah, has more pressing matters.
To make sure nothing disastrous happens at the Final Four, Israel has closed all of its borders with the Palestinian territories, angering the Palestinians here.
We had planned to go the West Bank or Gaza, to see the other side of the story from people in the region who don't believe God wears yellow or waves the Israeli flag.
Right now it is impossible. Between the police barricades and intense security in the Muslim areas, it's tough to get around anywhere. At one point we approached the area around the Dome of the Rock but were rebuffed by two soldiers who claimed the situation was too tense to let an American or a non-Muslim anywhere near the area.
"You don't want to start a riot," the solider said in broken English.
The lack of access brings about a familiar problem here. The minority often struggles to have its version of the truth revealed. Barbed wire, tanks and soldiers not only preserve the peace, they also muzzle the other voices that need to be heard.
The truth is that most Arabs in Israel care little for basketball. For the most part they do not play the sport or watch it much. Soccer is their passion.
Over the past several years, however, several Arab professional basketball teams have begun playing in Israel. They have joined the Israeli pro league, and during the course of the season are pitted against Israeli teams.
Unbeknownst to both sides, at those critical games, the seeds of peace are being sowed.
The seeds of peace
Borowitz and I stop just outside the gate of Jaffa, in the old city, to eat a falafel. Borowitz is the basketball writer for Ha'aretz, an intellectual newspaper with a big following in Israel.
He was born in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv as a teenager. Like all Israeli males, he spent three years in the military upon graduating from high school. He served his tour of duty in Lebanon at a time when Israel was occupying part of it's northern neighbor. After his service, he got an unbelievable offer.
Brandeis University in Boston offered Borowitz the first ever "co-existence" scholarship funded through Allen Slifka, president of the Abraham Fund. The fund provided enough money to bring one Israeli and one Palestinian student to Brandeis for four years. Borowitz and fellow student Forsan Hussein roomed together, studied together and, according to Borowitz, became like brothers.
The experience was an unusual one for Borowitz. Before attending Brandeis with Hussein, he had never had a friendship with a Palestinian-Israeli.
"The whole experience changed the way I perceived others, myself and the whole state of Israel," Borowitz said. It also loaded him down with lofty expectations.
These co-existence scholars usually are expected to go on into politics. Hussein stayed in the states and is currently working on a PhD in conflict analysis and resolution. Borowitz came home to follow his other dream -- sports writing. Some frowned on his decision. Borowitz claims he doesn't have the make-up or desire to be a politician. Still, when things get bad here, he wonders if he made the right choice.
"Sometimes I'll be sitting in a game and just start feeling that it's not what I'm meant to be doing," Borowitz said. "Am I really doing something important?"
He tries, as do others in sports world. Borowitz's education and co-existence activities have given him a different perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and it shows up in his writing. He recently wrote a couple of features in Ha'aretz Magazine on Palestinans who are trying to make a difference in the peace process -- an unusual and potentially unpopular move for an Israeli sportswriter.
A short distance from where we eat sits the Jerusalem center for a program called Seeds of Peace. It was founded as a place where young Israelis and Palestinians could gather to discuss and share the problems they faced. Several years ago, NBA agent Arn Tellem got involved and brought an interesting new facet to the program.
Tellem rented out a camp in Maine and brought a select group of Israelis and Palestinians there to work together, bunk together and play basketball together. With the help of clients like Antawn Jamison, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford and others, Tellem's goal is a lofty one.
"The only way to lasting peace is to create an environment where stereotypes are broken down and mutual respect is achieved," Tellem said. "We give them an intense sport experience that promotes teamwork and acceptance among a group of kids that have perceived each other as the enemy before an event like this.
"I'm not naive enough to believe that a program like this, alone, can bring about peace. However, for peace to endure you have to talk to your enemy. Sports can break down those barriers and make such a thing possible."
So far the program has been a success, in large part because of the center here in Jerusalem that allows the kids to keep talking after the summer camp ends.
But can sports really bring peace?
Professor Marc Gopin at George Mason University thinks so. Gopin is the director of Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in Fairfax, Va., and also a Jewish Rabbi. He has been a major consultant in the Middle East peace process.
Gopin believes sports doesn't have to be just a force for zealous nationalism. He thinks it also can provide the arena for reconciliation and healing. Sports can be an entry point into culture.
Before schools became desegregated in America, professional sports did it first. As white Americans began to first tolerate, then accept and eventually idolize African-American athletes, the walls between the two began to break down.
"Sports is not your typical non-violent reconciliation," Gopin said. "It's aggressive. But because it's aggressive it can have a powerful impact. It's a constructive way to channel conflict. It creates dialogue. It pushes things to more constructive venues.
"The biggest misnomer about conflict resolution is that dialogue is the key. But dialogue alone isn't enough to change relationships. What changes relationships are shared experiences that create bonds. It happens when any two groups enter into a symbiotic relationship to care for something together."
Even the euphoria of a nationalist experience, like Israel is going through with Maccabi, can have its upside. There's a theory in conflict resolution that states the better an individual or group feels about itself, the more likely it is the group will be willing to build positive, constructive relationships.
"For so many years, it has been Israel against the world," Gopin said. "Israel has been unsure of itself and it's place in the world. It has reacted out of fear and pain. The more positive experiences it can attain in the international arena, the better for all of Israel."
Skipper comes out strong in the third quarter and provides Maccabi's only real challenge of the night. A 10-0 run fueled by Milos Vujanic gets Skipper to within 19, but Parker turns on the afterburners and leads a rally of his own for Maccabi.
As the fourth quarter begins, the fans begin chanting, "The Cup is ours!" as the players take the floor. With less than four minutes to go and the team now routing Bologna 101-61, Gershon begins taking his stars out of the game one by one.
First it's Israeli forward Tal Bernstein, who is serenaded with the Israeli national anthem as he leaves the floor. Soon Jasikevicius, Vujcic, Parker and Bluthenthal join him on the bench.
Second-string guard Derrick Sharp, the guy who hit the buzzer-beater to force overtime and enable Maccabi to advance to the Final Four, steps onto the floor to a cascade of cheers. In the next three minutes he knocks down three 3-pointers.
As the game ends, Israeli military rings the arena. The team and much of the Israeli cabinet flood the floor. Maccabi has done the impossible. They have won the Euroleague Final Four in Tel Aviv. Parker is named the MVP and, in his acceptance speech, sets the tone for the rest of the evening.
"I just want to give all the glory and the praise to God," Parker, a Chrisitian, says to a cheering crowd.
Jesus. Jehovah. Allah. Basketball. All are blurred into one.
Maccabi coach Gershon walks into the post-game press conference 10 minutes later to a standing ovation from the Israeli press. Before he can offer an opening statement, he's interrupted.
"Coach Gershon, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon is on the phone."
The phone call is piped in over the PA system.
"Pini, you have fought and won," Sharon says. "You have brought tremendous honor to Israel."
Gershon's response is stunning.
"We have done our job and won. Now it is up to you to do your job," Gershon says.
The Israeli press corp erupts in applause.
On Sunday, Sharon would submit to his cabinet a peace plan calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops (and, in some cases, settlers) from the occupied areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It will be an uphill battle for Sharon. Despite winning President Bush's approval at the White House two weeks ago, Sharon has struggled to convince his own party that the move is the right thing for Israel.
Israel has been negotiating the withdrawal of troops since the war of 1967, when it seized the territories. At different times in Israeli history, peace had seemed possible. But after the assassination of popular prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the two sides have struggled to come to an agreement.
Sharon's plan is far from perfect.
Conservatives in Israel believe it's unfair for Sharon to uproot Jewish settlers from the area and are planning massive protests.
Palestinians claim the plan doesn't go far enough. The move doesn't remove all of the Jewish settlers from the occupied lands, nor does it guarantee the right of return to millions of Palestinians who were displaced from their homes in Israel during the war.
For moderates on both sides, however, the move is seen as a small miracle. Sharon has been the most hawkish prime minister in Israel's history. No one believed he was capable of agreeing to anything with the Palestinians. While the troubling state assassinations of Hamas leaders has just about everyone up in arms, most people in Israel want peace, and many believe the steps Sharon is taking are in the right direction.
Despite the enormous ramifications of the proposal, it has received little press inside Israel. When Maccabi won it's semi-final game against CSKA on Thursday, the Friday papers devoted the upper three-quarters of the front page to the victory. Only a small paragraph at the bottom addressed the peace plan.
"Ari, I'm asking you to guard the safety of Israel," Gershon continued. "Be strong like us. Our wars are small in comparison to yours. I wish you success tomorrow and hope your field goal percentage will be better than ours."
Less than 24 hours later, the hopes of Gershon, Sharon and many Israelis were dashed. In the midst of joyous euphoria, the country of Israel suffered a real defeat. Sharon's Likud Party rejected his peace plan by a 25 percent margin. A family of Jewish settlers was murdered by two Palestinian gunmen in a raid on the Gaza Strip. Israel responded by lobbing missiles into the West Bank.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis pour into the streets of Tel Aviv. The roads are clogged with cars. Young Israelis hang out windows, waving flags and signing Queen's "We are the Champions." Some of them stop their cars in the middle of a five-lane highway, the busiest road in Israel, and begin dancing.
In the ensuing hours, scenes will play out across Israel that will have a more profound effect on the future of the region.
Sharon must try to convince the Likud Party that withdrawal from the territories is the only way to ensure peace in Israel ...
In Gaza, armed Israeli settlers prepare to defend the settlements against the army that will come to evict them. ...
In Jerusalem, Jews touch their foreheads to the kotel, praying. Some pray for a Messiah who will bring with him the peace that's so elusive here, others for a Messiah, cloaked in red, who will come with a sword and defend Israel from her enemies. ...
At Golgotha, Christians touch the rock upon which Christ was crucified and pray for the Prince of Peace to return and set up his kingdom here. Others pray for Armageddon, based on a belief that Christ cannot return to the Earth before then. ...
In a mosque in East Jerusalem, an imam implores Muslims, Jews and Christians to look beyond the details in which we all disagree and focus on the principles of truth, morality and faith that are the bedrocks of all three religions. In the West Bank, if the Hamas promises are to be believed, another Muslim is strapping dynamite to his body and waiting for a crowded marketplace in which to end his life and countless others. ...
For one night, all Israelis are united. But inside Israel, its citizens remain worlds apart. Still they do have one thing in common -- the same yearning to be God's favorites.
In Israel, God can part seas, move mountains, heal the sick, raise the dead and maybe even win a basketball game or two, when the prayers directed heavenward are powerful enough.
But can a God that does all of those things bring peace to the spiritual melting pot of the world? Perhaps, with the same fervent belief and prayer that Israel afforded Maccabi, miracles still can happen.
Belief can be a powerful thing.