The finger of God

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Belief is a powerful thing.

As history tells it, courtesy of the Torah, Abraham heard a voice from the heavens, stopped worshiping idols, packed his things and headed off into the desert looking for a promised land to be chosen by the one God.

He left behind the comfort of his homeland and the traditions of his forefathers and fled what is believed to be present day Iraq in search of a place where God's blessing was promised to all. Abraham wanted to be a prince of peace to mankind. God's voice was supposed to show him the way.

He came to a place that is now called Israel, and his legacy has shaped the world as we know it. Abraham is the shared ancestor of three of the world's largest faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which trace their roots to his decision to follow one God. Whether you believe in a single God, many Gods or no God at all, you have no doubt been touched at some point by the consequences of belief.

Abraham may have desired to bring peace to a weary world, but far too many times in the course of history, various interpretations of his legacy have brought anguish and war. For thousands of years people have fought over this land and over the idea that God has a chosen place and people. Today's battles are as bloody and as virulent as they've been in years. Despite the carnage, belief persists.


April 9, 2004: Maccabi, the most storied and successful basketball team in Israel's history, is on the verge of its most devastating loss ever.

Two seconds remain, and Maccabi trails Lithuania's Zalgris Kaunas, led by center Arvydas Sabonis and point guard Ed Cota, 94-91. The winner earns a berth in the Euroleague Final Four, Europe's equivalent of the NBA Finals. The loser goes home with nothing.

Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi sits, stone faced, watching a lifelong dream dissipate before his eyes. Mizrahi has been working for years to convince the Euroleague to bring the Final Four to Tel Aviv, despite the fact Israel has been banned from playing host to most international events since the Israel-Palestine fighting broke out again in 2000.

Mizrahi finally convinced the Euroleague in 2002, but with the increased violence following the assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March, league officials started to balk. Teams refused to travel to Israel for fear of terrorist attacks. When the Euroleague met in late March to determine whether to keep the event in Tel Aviv, Mizrahi held firm. He pleaded with the Euroleague not to shatter Israel's dream of playing the Final Four at home, especially with Maccabi on the verge of qualifying.

Mizrahi and his country held their breath as Euroleague officials weighed the risks and rewards. The headlines the next day in the Israeli paper Maariv said it all. "For the Glory of the State of Israel." The Euroleague Final Four was coming to Tel Aviv. Now all Maccabi had to do was live up to its end by winning one final game.

Trailing by three with two seconds to go, Maccabi fouled Zalgris sharpshooter Giedrius Gustas, who hadn't missed a free throw (18-for-18) in 18 previous Euroleague games. Making just one of the two would seal the victory and end Israel's dream.

Gustas stepped to the line and missed the first. The crowd began going crazy. Maccabi fans are, without question, the loudest, and most boisterous in the world. They make a high-pitched squealing noise akin to a horde of angry locusts. The ear-piercing sound can disconcert anyone. Gustas stepped back, composed himself, took another shot and missed.

Maccabi's Gur Shelef grabbed the rebound and threw a three-quarter-court outlet pass to teammate Derrick Sharp, who hoisted an off-balance 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded and swished it.

The crowd began chanting, "There is a God. There is a God!" in Hebrew. Maccabi went on to win 107-99 in overtime.

As the final buzzer sounded, Mizrahi cried.

Maccabi's coach, Pini Gershon, declared the shot a Passover miracle. "You have witnessed a miracle. I am a believer. And if this is not a miracle, I don't know what a miracle is."

The headline in Maariv the next morning read, "The Finger of God." A full-page spread inside the paper had "Hallelujah" printed in bold type. Underneath the headline, the paper declared, "Can you believe what one ball can do to an entire country, can you believe that one basket can change the national mood. Two seconds from the end, everything was lost and depressing. Suddenly God wore yellow [Maccabi's team color] ... God is yellow."

A Sort of Homecoming

NEW YORK (April 27, 2004) -- Making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land never has been easy.

For years everyone from dispersed Jews, Bedouin shepherds and Christian holy men have traveled thousands of miles to Israel on foot, on horseback or in planes or automobiles.

For much of the world's population, Israel is the Earth's navel. On a planet where many of us have been placed and displaced dozens of times over, Israel is the one place where billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims can call home. The common link? They all can trace their belief systems to Abraham.

It is said you're never alone in Israel -- even the stones know your father.

While modern travel has made it more convenient -- it's a 6,000-mile, 11-hour plane ride from New York -- traveling to Israel still isn't easy.

At El Al Israeli airlines, the national airline of Israel, they take security measures to new extremes. There's a reason no El Al flight ever has been hijacked. Even though I arrive four hours before my flight, I am the last person to board. In that time I am interviewed twice, have my bags searched, have my carry-on confiscated until after boarding and am even asked to remove some clothes when a pat-down doesn't go as planned.

Apparently my passport, with visa stamps from Northern Ireland, Serbia, Croatia and South Africa, raised a few eyebrows.

Boarding might be a struggle, but the ride itself is pure adventure. Orthodox Jews, dressed in traditional black long coats and hats, stand up periodically during the trip to bow and pray. A Muslim rolls out a rug and prays facing Mecca. A group of about 60 evangelical Christians on their way to tour the Holy Land huddle, whispering quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) about spreading the good word to the people of Israel. The woman next to me, a self-described "liberal Jew," reads Cosmo and watches the Ben Affleck movie.

I talked to more than 50 people before and during the flight. Best I could tell, I was one of two people traveling to Israel to watch basketball.

I would find out later it wasn't a fluke. Last year, more than 100 NBA scouts, GMs and team personnel descended on Barcelona for the Euroleague Final Four. This year, only Rick Sund of the Seattle SuperSonics made the trip. Even scouts were in short supply. Word had spread pretty quickly throughout most NBA front offices that the games might not be safe. Several GMs I spoke with before the trip cited safety as the No. 1 reason they weren't attending. After all, we're only talking about basketball, right?

I'm not so sure. Everyone has personal reasons for visiting Israel. In the past I've traveled overseas to see players who could affect the NBA draft. But the talent crop at the Final Four this year is weak. Instead, there's a different mission this time. I want to see if God really does play favorites when it comes to basketball.

Arriving finally at the airport about 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, the real journey was just beginning. Grabbing my luggage, I hop in a cab and head toward the city.

The journey made me wish for the comforts of El Al. The driver, like many European taxi drivers, is in a hurry. He speeds, weaves in and out of traffic, drives in the oncoming lane to skirt the gridlock, bumps a moped driver off his bike and nearly kills us 10 times in the first five minutes.

Christians believe Jesus died and was resurrected in this country. I'm not ready to test the theory just yet. "I'm not in a hurry," I tell the driver, politely.

He stops the car, turns and smiles at me, raising one finger in the air.

"Interesting fact," he says with a thick Israeli accent. "More Israelis are killed every month in auto accidents than are killed by Palestinian terrorists in an entire year."


Ten minutes into what was supposed to be a 30-minute ride, we reach my hotel. I'm greeted at the door by two Israeli policemen with Uzi sub-machine guns draped around their necks. One of them is holding a metal detector. We're not in Bibleland anymore.

The God of Israel

Praised be thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in days long ago, at this season.
-- Excerpt from a prayer offered at Western "Wailing" Wall in Jerusalem during Passover

Here, even the name of God is a source of conflagration. He tells Moses, in the Bible, he is the great "I Am." Christians believe the God who spoke to Moses begat Jesus, who struck a new covenant. The Muslims call him Allah.

In Tel Aviv, I would venture he has a thousand different names. If God is the person or thing we worship in life, then, at least to some here, God's name is Basketball, with a capital "B."

Religious devotion may be taken to extremes here, but so is everything else. Passion and belief seem to be the hallmarks of the Israeli people. Of all the places I have traveled, I never have seen a people more crazy about basketball, even the NBA.

Basketball, along with soccer, has become a diversion from the daily struggles. NBA TV televises a game here every night. ESPN broadcasts several NBA games here each week. Combine that with Euroleague games and Israel's own pro league, and you can watch basketball up to five or six hours a night.

Some Israelis do. And with the international basketball world here this week for the Euroleague Final Four, and home team Maccabi Tel Aviv vying for the title, the city is positively buzzing.

"I think Israelis are more passionate about the NBA than Americans," Israeli sportswriter Yoav Borowitz told me. "We live and breathe it here. I know many Israelis are very disappointed when they come to the states and attend their first live NBA game. They all come back saying the same thing … 'Where's the passion?' "

The passion is in Israel. Maccabi flags are everywhere, flying proudly alongside the Israel national flag. They hang from every balcony and fly from every car antenna. Maccabi is one of a number of pro teams in Israel. But it has won the Israeli Championship 33 of the last 34 years. There isn't another pro team in the world that can touch that streak.

What's missing in Israel is a homegrown star. While several Israeli players have starred over the years at Maccabi and throughout the Euroleague, the country still is waiting for the first Israeli NBA player.

Over the course of 48 hours, I field more than 50 inquiries about the NBA potential of California senior Amit Tamir -- a native of Israel.

When I respond with the bad news -- Tamir is unlikely to be drafted this June or make an NBA roster next fall -- I get the same look every time. It's a look that says, "I knew that already, but it doesn't hurt to ask." Israel still is looking for its Dirk Nowitzki or Yao Ming.

In the meantime, the Maccabi roster is an interesting collection of Israelis, Americans and other Europeans. Former Indiana Hoosiers star A.J. Guyton once played here after being cut by the Chicago Bulls. He's now visiting as a key member of Skipper Bologna's team.

"It's intense man," Guyton said. "You've got to have a thick skin to play here. The weight of the world is on your shoulders, man. If you win, the country rejoices. If you lose, it's not good. It wasn't for me."

You would be hard-pressed to find a country where nationalism, religion and sport combine in such a deep and potent way. In many situations the mixture could become lethal. So far it hasn't gotten to that point here. However, whenever someone's identity is tied, even in part, to a sports team, the potential for disaster looms with every game.

"God loves Israel. God loves the people of Israel. And, God loves Maccabi," another Israeli cab driver tells me on the way to the Final Four's opening games Thursday night.

That's all great if Maccabi wins. What happens if they lose?

Six blocks from the arena, a police barricade stops our taxi. They've blocked off the area immediately surrounding the arena for security. It's not clear if that is to keep the terrorists out or to confine the damage wrought by distraught Maccabi fans should the home team lose. But neither scenario is particularly appealing.

Outside, an orthodox rabbi prays to God, imploring him to give Israel the victory. Inside, the Youth of Zion break-dance team is performing hip-hop numbers for a raucous crowd.

Only in Israel.

For the glory of Israel

That was Wednesday afternoon. A day later, with the Final Four semifinals only hours away, we were told the U.S. embassy, citing threats by Hamas to American interests in Israel, was asking U.S. citizens to go home.

What did they know?

I mention my concern to another Israeli journalist, Yaron Talpaz, who shakes it off.

"I don't know why they do that," he says, matter of factly. "The truth is that they [Hamas] are planning a major terrorist attack every day. They are always trying to kill us. What's so different about today?"

It's a common response here.

The perceived threat actually is much greater than any real danger. Israel is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world. Crime is very low (much like other terror-riddled societies, ironically), the police presence is everywhere, and terrorist attacks are sporadic enough that they don't leave a large body count, at least when compared to, say, traffic accidents.

Still, we'll hop in a car without blinking an eye. But you won't catch me on a public bus or in an outdoor café right now. I don't care what the oddsmakers say.

One cab driver, when told that many Americans skipped the Final Four out of fear, had a classic response: "Afraid of what? I visited my sister in Miami last year. You want to talk about dangerous? I couldn't wait to get back here. That's the crazy place. Do you Americans skip Miami too?"

No, we don't.

By the time I arrive at Nokia Arena for the semifinal games, my heart is pounding. The six-block walk may have something to do with it, but it's not the only thing.

The arena is lined with military men in green berets carrying automatic weapons. Bomb-sniffing dogs are everywhere. Magnometers, helicopters and surveillance balloons are conspicuous. There are 2,670 policemen and 600 soldiers patrolling the arena. It should be comforting, but it's not.

Once inside the arena, though, the fear melts away. A joyous, celebratory mood fills the air. The fans have arrived hours early. Dressed in all yellow and blue, they already are singing, hugging and praying for another miracle.

In most Final Fours, the crowd is evenly split between the supporters of the four teams. Not this year. Two teams, Montepaschi Siena and Skipper Bologna, are from Italy, and reports in various publications in Italy and Israel indicate fans of both have vowed to boycott the event over security concerns. Instead, the Italian teams' cheering sections consists of a small delegation of Italian journalists who, at one point, egg the crowd into cheering for Montepaschi Siena.

After the crowd warms up on the opening game -- a thrilling, 103-102 overtime victory for Skipper Bologna -- the real game is on. The crowd begins chanting "Tel Aviv" and "Maccabi" in unison. It sounds as if a 747 is taking off from center court.

Even the journalists are standing and chanting. When I ask one why the journalists join in, a definite no-no in the U.S., he smiles and says, "We've got to make sure God hears us."

Tonight's opponent is CSKA Moscow -- widely regarded as the best team in the Euroleague this year. CSKA sports two NBA prospects -- Sergei Monya and Viktor Khryapa -- along with a host of veteran American and international players. They are strong, athletic and are coached by Dusan Ivkovic, a legend in European basketball.

CSKA went 16-4 on the season and previously beat Maccabi 87-84 in Tel Aviv.

The noise is deafening as the game tips off, but CSKA jumps out to an 11-point first-quarter lead and quiets the crowd. From there the game gets tight, and the roller coaster of emotions is almost too much to bear.

Every 3-pointer made is manna from heaven, every foul blasphemy. The reactions, to both the good and the bad, are equally virulent. In the fourth quarter, though, the divine intervention they seek appears to step in. An invisible lid forms over CSKA's basket. Every free throw and jump shot CSKA takes is in, then out.

As Maccabi, behind 27 points from former Bradley star Anthony Parker, begins to pull away in the fourth quarter, a sense of relief sweeps over the crowd. As the seconds tick down to a fairly easy win, they begin chanting in Hebrew again, "There is a God."

On Saturday, Maccabi Tel Aviv will be playing for the Euroleague Championship.

Israel holds it breath.

Maybe the world should too.

The Passion of the Maccabi, Part 2