It is with great sadness that the Center for Sport and Jewish Life shares with our readers the news that legendary Israeli basketball coach Ralph Klein has passed away at the age of 77. Klein served as one of two Honorary Presidents of the Center, along with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Klein had spent the past week in the hospital with health complications. Three years ago he battled cancer, and had subsequently been in remission. Klein has been recognized on numerous occasions for his many accomplishments. In 1998, he was chosen as Israeli Coach of the Half-Century. In 2006 he received the prestigious Israel Prize (something like the Congressional Medal of Honor), which is awarded each year on Yom HaAtzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) to a dozen or so individuals from the arts, education, industry and other arenas. Klein, who served as the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv for many years, led the team to 14 Israeli championships, and was at the helm when the club won its first-ever European Cup in 1977, after beating then-powerhouse CSKA Moscow in semi-final play. The win prompted American-born Israeli captain Tal Brody to proclaim "We are on the map - and we are staying on the map, not only in sports but in everything." Klein was born in Berlin in 1931, but the family moved to Budapest, Hungary shortly before the outbreak of World War II. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, Klein's father was taken to Auschwitz, where he perished, but the rest of the family, Ralph, his mother, brother and sister, were among those who were saved through the efforts of Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg. Klein made aliyah in 1951, and was one of the premier players of his day, earning a spot on the national team that took part in international competition. In the mid 1980s Klein served as head coach of Germany's Saturn Koln club as well as the German national team.
In 1989, Klein was back in charge when the Israeli national team toured the U.S. to play against teams from the Big East Conference. This tour was organized by Center for Sport and Jewish Life director Rabbi Mitch Smith, and it was at that time that an association began between the two. In recent years, Klein had left the world of professional sports but took great pride in his work as coach of the ASA (college) basketball club at Rupin College near his home outside of Netanya. His guidance propelled the team to European university-league competitions. During his time with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Klein mentored many of Israel's greatest players, among them Brody, Mickey Berkovich, Moti Aroesti, Lou Silver, and (with the national team) Nadav Henefeld. Berkovich, who was named in a poll on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary as the top Israeli sports figure of all time, said, "Ralph was the greatest of them all. I hope that a fitting way will be found to perpetuate his memory and his legacy, both what he did for Maccabi and for Israeli basketball." Dino Meneghin, considered the best Italian basketball player and one of the best ever in Europe, played for the Varese team that lost to Maccabi that 1977 European Cup final game. When he learned of Ralph's passing, Meneghin commented: "Ralph was always a gentleman. I never saw him really lose his temper with his players. It is because of how he related to his players, the spirit of cooperation that he engendered, that produced the results he achieved. That is what I remember from our loss to Maccabi in '77. He was the same after wins and after losses, always pleasant. Definitely one of the greatest coaches in Europe of all time. In basketball it's results that matter, and he got results. He did a lot for Israeli basketball." On Friday, thousands of Israelis, former players, coaches, and just plain fans and admirers, made their way to the Nokia Center in the Yad Eliyahu neighborhood of Tel Aviv to pay their last respects to Ralph, whose casket was brought to the court where Maccabi Tel Aviv plays its home games. Klein is survived by his wife and three children. Yehi Zichro Baruch - May his memory be a blessing.