Cory Carr, a Fordyce, Ark., native and Texas Tech alumnus, played one season for the Chicago Bulls, then joined Maccabi Ra’anana in Israel in 2000. He became an Israeli citizen in 2009. After playing for many years, he now coaches the Bnot Herzliya women’s team.
David A. Goldstein, a sports executive and journalist in Toronto, Canada, said he “grew up a basketball fanatic who visited Israel every year, and yet I’d never put the two together.”
That changed over a decade ago when he was visiting his grandparents in Jerusalem. It was when Anthony Parker, who previously had played in Israel, was playing for Toronto in the National Basketball Association, and his grandparents’ friends couldn’t stop talking about him — and they were incredibly well-informed.
He knew basketball was big in Israel, but “I never understood the scope, the depth, the emotional parts of it,” and the connection that Israelis had with African-American players in the Israeli basketball leagues.
He started to research that passion “with a blank slate,” curious as to what he would uncover. He figured the story would be a few former NBA players who went to Israel for a brief time, enjoyed their experiences and then headed back home. “When I dug further, that’s when I started to see the depths of the phenomenon.”
He saw stories of players who stayed in Israel after their playing days, and “their depth of commitment to the country,” in many cases even serving in the Israeli military.
Even for those who don’t stay, “Israel is a part of them, they are advocates and ambassadors, years after they came back to the U.S.”
He chronicles their stories in “Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land.”
He said the book is “their perspective, my best effort at describing how they view the country,” and it is “a completely different perspective” that comes from “people with no discernable history with Judaism or Israel.”
Goldstein spoke to a “variety of players” from different levels of Israeli basketball, so he would not get “10 versions of similar experiences.” He spoke to NBA veterans who played for powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Division II players that “scratched, clawed their way.”
A lot of them had some trepidation in going to Israel, and family members expressing concern about what they perceived as going to a war zone. “They weren’t expecting much, didn’t know much about the country.” Some players expected it would be like going back in time, he added. “And then, wow. The word ‘wow’ came up over and over again.”
Unlike many European countries, almost everyone in Israel speaks English, and since Israel has a great relationship with the U.S. “being an American is something to be proud of,” unlike in much of Europe.
With so many cultures represented in Israel, it wasn’t difficult for the players to feel at home. “You can go into a nightclub and hear American hip-hop” or find whatever kind of foods they are used to.
Still, being in Israel does mean having to be constantly aware. Goldstein relates the story of Donald Royal from New Orleans, who arrived in Israel in 1990. While shopping with a friend, it didn’t faze him when an elderly Arab woman put her shopping bag on the floor in the mall’s food court. But as she shouted “Allahu akbar,” his friend grabbed his arm and told him to run. He heard the explosion behind him.
When the Gulf War broke out in 1991, Royal was given permission to stay in Switzerland and meet the team for games on the road — because of the war, all of the Israel team’s international games had to take place outside Israel. But within two weeks, he was so concerned about what was happening in Israel that he ignored family pleas and headed back.
Numerous other African American players could have left, but they decided to stay and show they were “in this together.”
Many of the prominent players have Southern roots, which can be a problem in adjusting to life in Israel. While there is great hospitality and warmth one-on-one in Israel, “people are very upfront, can be very abrasive or rude,” and that comes as culture shock to those of a Southern mindset.
Goldstein said Fred Campbell, who has ties to Florida and Georgia but remained in Israel, said he had to learn the “Israeli mentality,” and now he is able “to switch back and forth” between Southerner and Israeli.
One of the more prominent basketball families is the Dawsons. Joe Dawson is from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and played at Southern Mississippi. He went to Israel in 1987 and played for 14 years. He now lives in Rehovot, and his two sons both play in Israeli leagues. Goldstein said son Shawn Dawson “is widely considered the most likely Israeli to next make the jump to the NBA.”
In 2016, Shawn Dawson signed with the New Orleans Pelicans, appearing in three preseason games before being waived.
Joe Dawson, who has a laid-back Southern personality, said it took him a while before he understood that the abrasiveness of Israelis was because of the pressures they are under.
Stanley Brundy, a DePaul graduate, was born in New Orleans. After one year in the NBA, he went overseas, arriving in Israel in 1999. He eventually became a citizen of Israel and still lives there with his wife and children.
Cory Carr, from Fordyce, Ark., has played in Israel since 2000, married an Israeli and became a citizen in 2009.
One of the earliest players to go to Israel was Aulcie Perry. A New Jersey native, he attended Bethune-Cookman in Florida. In 1976, a scout for Maccabi Tel Aviv saw him in Harlem, and signed him. Perry led them to an historic season, then Maccabi Tel Aviv headed to the EuroLeague competition, where they had never done well despite all their success in Israel.
Usually mired at the bottom of the standings in pool play, Maccabi Tel Aviv found success at the 1977 tournament. They needed a victory over CSKA Moscow to make the champions round — a game the Soviet Union refused to host and would not play in Israel because diplomatic relations had been broken off in 1967. The game was played in Belgium, with all of Israel glued to their televisions.
When you are in a country that is routinely vilified on the international stage, “success in sports on an international level is a rallying point, whether you are a sports fan or not,” Goldstein said.
The Israeli team won by 12, setting off a huge celebration in Israel. That only intensified after Israel beat the Italian team for the championship.
For a country still trying to get over the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the massacre of Olympic athletes at the 1972 Munich Games, the victory “was a defining moment in the history of the country.”
Tal Brody, one of the team’s biggest stars, famously said that Israel was on the map, and would remain there, “not just in sports, but in everything.”
After 1977, the New Orleans Jazz was among the NBA teams interested in Perry, but he wasn’t interested in leaving Israel, which he called his “adopted home” in a 1978 Ebony interview. He added that though he was the only black player on the team, he had never experienced racial discrimination in Israel. Eventually, he converted to Judaism.
After Perry, many more African American players followed. The influx led to rule changes. Early on, only one non-Israeli could be on a team. In New York, “basketball rabbis” sprang up to do quick conversions, so players could move to Israel and immediately become citizens under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to any Jew who declares an intent to stay.
In the context of basketball, the player would then not count against the foreign quota. There were also “arranged marriages.” In all, about 40 players went those routes.
Before long, the rules were changed to close that loophole. The practice also cast a shadow on several players who converted “legitimately” and remain Jewish long after their playing days. Even Perry, who keeps kosher, faces some doubters among Jews, as well as a lack of acceptance by some of his Southern Baptist relatives.
In researching the book, Goldstein did not expect he would learn so much about conversion, the Law of Return and non-basketball religious aspects.
There is also a running debate about having foreign players in the league — do they crowd out native Israelis who do not have a chance to develop their skills to a higher level?
Goldstein found in many cases, having African American players has caused Israelis to step up their effort. The Americans often found a low level of off-season commitment to training and conditioning among Israeli players, who were mostly waiting to be told what to do.
The book comes across as so overwhelmingly positive, some readers have been skeptical. “I’ve been asked if the Israeli government commissioned the book, or if I got paid by the Israeli government,” Goldstein said.
“I had no objective, no plan,” he added. “I was curious. I dug, and this is the phenomenon. I didn’t create it. I didn’t spin it.” He didn’t shy away from negatives, and wrote about some players who did not have a perfect experience.
But overall, the experience of African-American players in Israel is “a rare thing you can be unapologetically proud of.”
Even the little things are noticed. Former Florida Gator Alex Tyus tweeted about losing his wallet in Israel in 2012. It was found, with all contents intact. He commented that if he had lost it in the U.S., it would have been “gone forever.”
When Tyree Rice signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2013, he got a text from another veteran of Israeli basketball — “Congratulations, you’re going to heaven.”
That season, Maccabi Tel Aviv won its sixth European title, and Rice was named the EuroLeague Final Four MVP.