Ralph Klein and Maccabi Tel Aviv ignited the hearts and imagination of an entire country with their 1977 win against CSKA Moscow (at a time when Israel and the former Soviet Union did not have diplomatic relations), that led to Israel’s first ever European title. It was a defining moment in Israeli history, a true celebration of talent, intelligence, skill and perseverance.
Inspired by the life of legendary coach Ralph Klein z”l (1931 – 2008), Director Eran Riklis’ new film Playoff premiered last night in the presence of the film’s star Danny Huston, and the stars of Maccabi Tel Aviv who came to honor Klein’s memory, together with Klein’s family, friends and admirers. Riklis said he felt drawn to the project from the first, “This story came to me, a man like Ralph, a national icon who took Maccabi Tel Aviv to an historic championship and on the other hand bore the burden of a secret that is somewhat dark, a Holocaust survivor who lost his father and returned twenty years later to coach the German team. Wow! That’s Hollywood!” Riklis worked with writers Gidi Maron and David Akerman to write a script based on Klein’s life, that “goes into the soul of the character” yet maintains a creative freedom, with its own dramatic narrative.
“I met with Ralph twice, to my regret it was very close to his death. He was an intelligent, somewhat cynical man with a wise perspective on life he’d say things like he wanted Arnold Schwartzenegger to play him and things like that…and I promised, of course,” Riklis said with a smile, “He understood that the film would respect him and on the other hand that it would move beyond the literal story of his life to tell a dramatic story because the film has a life of its own.”
The film focuses on an unusual chapter in Klein’s career: after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv through several impressive seasons, including two European championships, Klein accepted an invitation to coach the German national team in 1983. This decision generated surprise and speculation at the time, and is the point of departure for Playoff, imaginatively exploring the reasons a Holocaust survivor born in Berlin might have for returning to Germany, and his experiences in returning to the landscape of his childhood memories. Riklis recalled a poignant moment in his conversations with Klein, “It was a very dramatic moment, talking to a man who you realize will not be long with us, it was a strange feeling. Suddenly, he said ‘I have done many things in my life and I don’t regret anything, but there is one thing that I regret – that I went to Germany to coach the team.’ And I said: ‘Hey Ralph, can you tell me’…and I felt that this is the story, but he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Although sadly, Ralph Klein did not live to see the film inspired by his life and career, his presence was deeply felt last night in the minds and hearts of those who knew him as they looked forward to seeing the film. “Ralph was a guy that all the players loved playing for,” said Tal Brody, “I know Ralph from the beginning of his history [as a coach]. When I first came to Israel he was assistant coach to Yehoshua Rosen. In 1977 we won the European title for the first time quite an historic event and on the way we had to beat the Russian team – which was a great Russian team, with seven of their top players that beat the American team in the ‘73 Olympics. It was a tough game and very few people thought that we can do it – and we did it, and then went on to take the European championship for the first time for Israel.”
“I met Ralph Klein when I was 14 years old,” said Miki Berkovich, “he took me as a young kid with a lot a lot of talent, but with my talent and his help I achieved all my dreams. I’m happy that a lot of people give the respect and honor to Ralph Klein now, three years after he passed away, and I hope the movie will be the same as his life. Ralph Klein was my tutor, my father in basketball, in sports. He gave me the Bible – how to behave, how to work, and how to achieve, and I can say that I was lucky that I had Ralph Klein around me for almost twenty years.”
Talking to former Maccabi players, it is evident that through his coaching, Klein’s influence extended well beyond the basketball court, having a formative impact on their lives as individuals. Aulcie Perry said, “I have great memories. He was one of the best coaches that I played for; he was very special to me because he gave me my chance. He gave me the opportunity to really excel and to play basketball at a very high level. This is something that I will take with me until my last breath. I’m really thankful.”
Yet not only Maccabi Tel Aviv players have fond memories of Klein. Sportscaster and former HaPoel Tel Aviv player Shimon Amsalem said, “Not many people know this, but Ralph was a very funny guy. He had lots of funny stories and he was a very warm person, very affectionate, very positive, always positive.”
“He and I shared a common love,” said singer Yehuda Elias, “a love of watches. Once I wanted to buy a watch and he wanted the same watch. We argued a bit in the store over who would buy it, and finally I told the salesperson: ‘You know what, give him the watch, I respect the man and love him…but wait and see, this watch will be mine.’ The salesperson asked: ‘How can you know that?’ I said: ‘Just wait two or three days.’ Later Ralph returned the watch and exchanged it for another and I bought the watch and have it to this day.”
A generation of Israelis will always remember where they were on the night of the famous win against CSKA, and Ralph Klein played an important role in Israeli cultural history, but it is in speaking to those who worked and played with him, that the sense of gratitude and loss is palpable. “I have many memories of Ralph,” said Moti Aroesti, “the road we travelled together was a long one…when I look at the man and all that he devoted – to me personally and to the team…so much…it was tremendous, I got so much from him. How to look at life, not just basket ball…how to talk – everything…he was my mentor, my coach, he was a man…sometimes I saw more of him than my own father. He was a fascinating person. It’s hard for me to speak of him in the past tense, but God gave me something purely good, to have a coach like him.”
Playoff, directed by Eran Riklis and starring Danny Huston, will be released in Israeli theatres on November 24, 2011.