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From Chukar to Israeli baseball team

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Sport

We can say without fear of contradiction that the Idaho Falls Chukars haven’t quite ascended to baseball’s fields of heaven just yet. How could they? As a minor league baseball franchise, they play in Idaho’s Eastern league, as far away from the hotbeds of United States (US) baseball as it’s possible to be. (To give you an idea of where Idaho is, roughly-speaking, San Francisco lies 1 300km to the south west, while Salt Lake City is three-hour drive due south. To all intents and purposes, Idaho Falls is in the middle of nowhere.)

Playing out of Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls itself, the Chukars count as their regional rivals in the Pioneer Baseball League the Billings Mustangs and the Missoula Paddleheads. Once upon a time, they were called the Spuds, before being re-named the Russets. They’ve also been called the Braves, the Angels, the Eagles, and the Padres before the club owners finally settled on calling them the Chukars in 2007.

Their mascot is called Charlie the Chukar, a chukar being a pheasant like game bird not unlike a grouse. They are much-loved but little known, although things in this regard are changing very slightly for the better.

This is because one of their players, a young New York investment banker by the name of Eric Brodkowitz, used his experience pitching for them in the minor leagues as a springboard to becoming a member of the Israel baseball team. Brodkowitz thought he had played his last game of competitive baseball in 2018, when he pitched for Yale in a losing cause in an Ivy League game against Columbia. He had given the sport his best shot, and was now off to Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. Baseball was something he’d tell his grandchildren about.

Fate had other ideas. Watching from the stands that day, was Eric Holtz, whose son played for Columbia but who, more importantly, was the manager of the Israel baseball team.

After the game, Holtz approached Brodkowitz. He liked his fast-ball very much, he said. Brodkowitz thanked him politely. Then came Holtz’ pitch, “He was Jewish, right?”

Intrigued and irritated in equal measure, the 25-year-old pitcher replied that he was.

Holtz sketched a proposition. Israel was forming a baseball squad to take to the Tokyo Olympics in a couple of years’ time. Would Brodkowitz be interested in taking out Israeli citizenship? More importantly, was he prepared to chase the dream? An arduous qualifying campaign in places as far afield as Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Germany beckoned. Oh, and before he forgot, would Brodkowitz be prepared to ask his employers if they could allow him to work remotely. Holtz rather fancied a furlough in Idaho with the Chukars would be good for Brodkowitz’s fitness and pitching arm. What did he say?

Brodkowitz said yes to all of the above as Israel set about gathering up a baseball team, mainly raiding the minor leagues of the US for Jewish players who weren’t yet Israeli citizens. During their odyssey, they have trained like demons, bonded like they didn’t believe they could, and beaten far more fancied teams like Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands. And they qualified for Tokyo with more than a year to spare, becoming the first Israel team to qualify for the Olympics in a team sport since 1976.

Truth be told, very few are expecting the Israelis to get a medal, but stranger things have happened. There are only six competing teams in the competition itself (the hosts, the US, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea) so Israel have to be in with a shout. Their first two matches this week (South Korea on 29 July) and the US a day later, will be crucial if Brodkowitz and his colleague are going to get any traction on the competition.

Baseball has a chequered Olympic history, a sport never quite sure of its foothold on the event. It was introduced as an official Olympic sport only at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, with Cuba taking gold from Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and Japan.

Cuba again won gold four years later, this time being followed by Japan and the US. The sport, however, hasn’t been included since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, not appearing in either London or Rio, so the Israelis’ qualification as the world’s 24th-ranked team is even more remarkable. It also has to be one of the stories of the games, full of the once-in-a-lifetime romance that Hollywood moves are made of.

Brodkowitz wouldn’t have it any other way. “I thought my baseball career was probably over,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton in talking about the punishing loss to Columbia when pitching for Yale in 2018. That was three years ago, and so much has happened in-between. Perhaps there’s a chapter or two left for the pitcher and his team.

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Sport

Bacher hit for six by Boucher outrage

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Former South African cricket captain and veteran administrator Ali Bacher has been criticised for defending Proteas coach Mark Boucher, who has been accused of racial discrimination during his years playing for South Africa.

Bacher has been steadfast in his support for Boucher, telling the SA Jewish Report this week that he’s not surprised by the flak he has taken as we live in a democratic country where everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

The accusations were made in Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) social justice and nation building hearings into racial discrimination. Boucher has since apologised “unreservedly for any offensive conduct, real or perceived, that has been attributed to me”.

Boucher went on to say, “We, the team, coaching staff, selectors and CSA, during the period in question, should have been more sensitive and created an environment where all members of the team could raise and talk about these issues without allowing them to fester, as they clearly have.”

In an article in the Sunday Times on 29 August 2021, Bacher said, “Let me simply put it like this: Mark Boucher is one of the best cricketers this country has ever produced. He has apologised for what he has said previously. We all make mistakes.”

In the “letters to the editor” section of the following week’s Sunday Times, Bacher was criticised. “Neither Bacher nor some of his teammates who have suddenly found their voices spoke out against apartheid sport or racism in society at that time,” wrote one reader.

However, Bacher did make a stand in the apartheid era through his actions. In 1976, Bacher and the South African Cricket Union introduced “normal cricket” to playing fields across the country. With the cricket community split over the politics of race, “normal cricket” was an attempt to integrate the sport in South Africa, allowing black teams to play white teams on formerly whites-only playing grounds.

He soon realised that cricket had no long-term future in the country unless cricketers in formerly disadvantaged communities were encouraged to reach their full potential. As a result, he organised mass coaching clinics and development programmes in townships in the 1980s.

In 2009, Bacher told The Sunday Independent, “I never voted for the National Party, never supported apartheid. Many times I was castigated by state media for that.”

Bacher had the foresight to form a single, colour-independent body to oversee all cricket in South Africa. Asking Steve Tshwete to help get the parties to agree on such a unified entity, he became friends with the head of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) sports desk. This was followed by a London visit, in which South Africa was admitted to the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1991.

Another letter writer wrote, “As far as Bacher and his ilk are concerned, they need to be reminded of the role they played in trying to prop up apartheid sport with those rebel tours in the 1980s.”

With apartheid South Africa excluded from the ICC and test match cricket, Bacher believed that “rebel” tours were essential to maintain playing levels in South Africa.

Although six previous rebel tours had passed smoothly, the 1989-1990 one against England coincided with the unbanning of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Bacher was hit for six by angry demonstrators who simply hadn’t been allowed to show their frustration and resentment on previous occasions.

“That tour nearly finished me off emotionally,” Bacher told The Guardian in 2010. “When we had the previous rebel tours, there were packed crowds, mainly white people, no demonstrations. I thought that the country, the people, had no problem [with it]. I must confess that if I had known the anger and the hurt that those tours would cause, I would have thought twice about them. It was very hurtful for me. I had been a liberal all my life.”

Realising he had made a major political error, he negotiated to halt the tour, bringing an end to the “rebel” era.

Another letter writer claimed, “White people like Ali Bacher are still very arrogant. You don’t know the pain, Mr Bacher. You have never experienced that kind of pain and humiliation.”

A general practitioner by profession, Bacher’s work as a doctor at the teeming Baragwanath Hospital on the outskirts of Soweto made him painfully aware that the South Africa in which most of his countrymen lived and died was a vastly different place to that inhabited by suburban, privileged whites, who had access to superb sporting facilities at institutions like King Edward VII School, where he had been a prodigy.

Said Bacher this week, “Amongst the black community, in the 1970s and 1980s, I have no doubt that there were many fine, aspiring young cricketers who, if given the opportunities, encouragement, facilities, and coaching that our white cricketers experienced, would have come through too and reached international stardom.”

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The record-breaking, observant “Jewish Jordan”

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Although basketball seldom grabs the headlines in South Africa, SA Jewish Report readers have probably heard of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Lebron James.

Another basketballer who played in the prestigious Capital Classic All-Star Game, American-Israeli Tamir Goodman, is a religious Jew who, as a 17-year-old high-school junior at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore in the United States, was dubbed “the Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated magazine.

The 6-foot-3 (1.9m-tall) Goodman went on to become the first Jewish basketball player to play Division-1 college and professional basketball without playing on Shabbat. He also set the record as the first yarmulke-clad player in Division-1 college basketball history.

Excited by the upcoming movie about his life, Goodman believes that “basketball is a universal language”, and he offers physical, mental, and spiritual lessons in his book, Triple Threat. He described some of the qualities that stood him in good stead.

“I would like to share the messages of humility, resilience, strong identity, time management, organisation, dreaming big, listening, paying attention, and trying to learn each day. Do small things well all the time, which will eventually lead to big accomplishments. Don’t stay too down when you’re down, and don’t celebrate too much when you’re on top of your game.”

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1980s, Goodman had eight siblings, and began playing basketball at the age of five. His father, Karl, was an attorney, and his mother, Chava, threw the javelin and discus.

In spite of his dream of being an elite basketballer seemingly out of reach as most teams played on Shabbat, the sport was Goodman’s passion, and he could practice regularly as his family had a hoop in the backyard.

He gained national attention after averaging more than 35 points per game as a junior at the Talmudical Academy. In Grade 11, he was ranked the 25th best high school player in the country.

Frequently, Goodman’s religious and secular worlds overlapped. After completing a 24-hour religious fast, Goodman placed second in a local slam-dunk contest in 1998.

He didn’t know how he was going to be able to pass his SATs because not only was there high expectation of him as a basketballer, he had also been diagnosed with severe dyslexia.

“What G-d hindered him with, G-d blessed him with something else,” Goodman’s high-school coach, Harold Katz, later said. “His vision was honestly as good as anybody I’ve ever seen play basketball.”

Goodman received a scholarship from the University of Maryland, and his life changed completely. News of his plans to play in one of the top-ranked basketball teams in the country attracted more than 700 media requests that week, he said. “I remember going to services with my father on Friday night. There were reporters inside the temple. It was just completely indescribable.”

He chose to play for Towson University, which better accommodated his religious observance.

“I realise G-d gave me this talent and if I use it the wrong way, he can take it away from me just as fast as he gave it to me,” Goodman said at the time.

The first freshman to start at Towson in more than a decade, Goodman was presented the Coach’s Award for his performance on the court and in the classroom.

Once, when the team was on the road and sundown was approaching, Goodman got out of the van and walked three blocks to a house where he was staying for Shabbat.

“My teammates see me fasting on some days, and they learn about havdalah and kosher food,” Goodman said. “It’s a great opportunity to teach them about Judaism.”

After Goodman and his Towson teammates finished seventh on the 2000/2001 America East Conference standings, the university changed its head coach.

Goodman and the new incumbent didn’t have the best relationship.

“I thought to myself, ‘What clearer message could I have had from G-d telling me it was time to leave Towson?’” said Goodman. “I just picked up and went on to Israel.”

He joined Maccabi Tel Aviv, a powerful force in European basketball.

“It was a pretty easy choice for me. I wrote in my seventh-grade yearbook that I wanted to be a professional basketball player in Israel and serve in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].”

In 2004, he took a break from the sport to accomplish the latter. He was named the most outstanding soldier of his platoon in boot camp, and did guard duty right in front of Gaza.

Since retiring from professional basketball in 2009, he has evolved into a successful coach, educator, motivational speaker, and entrepreneur.

Goodman has spoken via Zoom to communities around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to inspire them. “I’ve spoken to different synagogues and community centres across South Africa,” he says. “Hopefully one day I will come on a basketball speaking and clinic tour in the country.”

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Powerlifting dad-son duo head for Sweden

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When Ian Furman and his son, Justin, participate in the World Powerlifting Championships in Sweden at the end of September, they will become one of the rare father-son duos to compete alongside each other in the same sport.

Cricket fans in South Africa might be vaguely familiar with another such duo. Dudley Nourse, the captain of the country at the halfway point of the 20th century, played alongside his father Dave on six occasions.

Although Ian and Justin will be competing in different categories at the two-week long championships, they are looking forward to their first-ever trip to Sweden.

Had tragedy not struck in 2019, they would have already visited this Scandinavian country. With his dad accompanying him as coach, Justin was about to travel to the World Powerlifting Championships that year.

However, his hopes for competing ended when he broke his ankle while playing for King David Victory Park’s 1st rugby team in its final rugby league match. On a positive note, King David won the game, giving Justin a lot of impetus for his recovery.

The BCom Business Management student at the University of Pretoria is ranked 449 out of the 1 402 South Africans on openpowerlifting.org and, like his dad, trains at a gym called Barbell Bullies in Sunninghill at least four times a week.

Asked about the record amount he has lifted in the three powerlifting disciplines, Justin said, “I squat 272.5, bench press 160, and deadlift 275 – so the total is 707.5.” His dad’s speciality is the bench press. “My South African record stands at 255kg in the equipped division, and 200kg in the non-equipped,” said Ian.

Several factors explain why Ian has always competed in powerlifting instead of weightlifting.

“I started too late in the sport. You need to start weightlifting at a very young age. I never experienced weightlifting at all, and neither has Justin. Weightlifting is a very technical sport. It’s a sport you’ve got to do every single day of your life, sometimes twice a day. We don’t really have the regime in this country to produce world-class weightlifters because we don’t have the sponsorship or the backing to do it on a professional level.”

With Ian being involved in the sport since 2000, Justin was exposed to powerlifting throughout his upbringing. “But I was more into rugby and then my dad said, ‘Listen, just come do a little bit of weight training, get a little bit stronger for rugby.’ I eventually realised that I really did enjoy the sport and wanted to start doing it competitively. I never really thought, ‘Should I do powerlifting or weightlifting?’ It was just that powerlifting was always there.”

After all, his dad not only competed in countries like New Zealand, Luxembourg, and Slovakia, but has also coached many powerlifters.

“My highlights have been more as a coach than a lifter,” said Ian. “I’ve taken South African teams to world championship events, and various lifters have won medals at these competitions. I’ve been a coach of Paralympic lifters to world championship events as well.”

Ian said the upcoming championships would probably be the highlight of his powerlifting journey. “I’m going with my son not only as his coach, but as a fellow powerlifter. That’s more special than anything I’ve experienced so far. I suppose it’s testament to all the hard work and longevity that I’m still able to compete at an international level.”

Although Justin qualified by winning his category with a total of 637.5kg, Ian will compete in Sweden even though the total of 585kg that he lifted at the SA Classic Powerlifting Championships was good enough only for second place in his category. “The guy who won isn’t going, so I’m going instead,” said Ian.

If Ian or Justin are victorious in their category in Sweden, they won’t be the first Jews to do so. Shachar Head, once dubbed by the Daily Mail as “Britain’s strongest schoolgirl”; Ellen Stein, who had a successful running career before even picking up a weight; and Naomi Kutin, the subject of the 2016 documentary Supergirl, have all tasted glory at the championships at least once.

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