Home is where the Holy Land is: Book documents African-American players leaving the U.S. for Israel ‘Alley-Oop to Aliyah’ explores the lives of ballers staying overseas

It’s not unusual for American basketball players to spend part of their careers playing overseas, and Israel has successfully attracted many of these players.

What is it about the Holy Land that makes some African-Americans who play there want to stay? It’s a question that author and sports executive David Goldstein decided to investigate in his latest book, Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African-American Hoopsters in the Holy Land. It’s a labor of love that took a decade for Goldstein to piece together.

Many players are happy to spend a few months learning about new customs and cultures before returning to their friends and families in the United States. Some fall in love with their temporary homes overseas and decide to stay permanently. That’s the case for several African-American players, some of whom were reluctant to move to Israel at first but ended up never returning to America.

The book details the stories of players like Aulcie Perry, a New Jersey native who played college ball at Bethune-Cookman University before he became a standout in Israel. Perry was a bit hesitant when he received an offer in the 1970s to take on a new challenge in a foreign land. But after some consideration, Perry decided to pursue his career and what would ultimately become his new life.

“I felt completely at home as soon as I landed in Israel,” Perry told Goldstein. (After he ended his career in Israel, Perry was convicted on heroin distribution charges in the U.S. in 1987 and sentenced to prison.) Now 67, Perry converted to Judaism and has made Israel his home.

Another story that stuck out to Goldstein was that of Fred Campbell, a former basketball player at Fort Hays State University in Kansas who played in several different countries before landing in Israel in 1992.

“The one player story that I found most emblematic of the whole phenomenon was Fred’s, and I like it for a number of reasons,” Goldstein said. “One, he’s not particularly well-known. He never played for Maccabi Tel Aviv [one of the larger, more popular basketball clubs] or one of these huge teams. He wanted to use basketball to see the world, and he never thought he’d play anywhere twice.

“For literally four years, his agent was trying to get him to play in Israel and he said he had an opportunity for him, and for four years Fred said no because he only knew Israel from violence and conflict and negative things in the news. He didn’t want to go. The agent told him to try it for four days and if you don’t like it, he would fly him back. That was in 1992. He remains in Israel and has lived there for 25 years. He converted to Judaism and got citizenship. He served in the Israel Defense Forces, he got married and raised a son who’s going to serve soon. He’s as passionate of an advocate for Israel as anyone I’ve met and someone who has completely embraced the country. As he says, he doesn’t live in Israel — he lives Israel. To go from not wanting to show up in the first place to making your life there and staying there 25 years later, to me, that’s a perfect example of what I wrote about, and there are tons of stories like these.”

Goldstein’s book had its start in a conversation with a group of elderly women describing their love for some of Israel’s African-American players.

Goldstein, whose mother is Israeli, has visited the country frequently as both a child and an adult. In 2007, during one of his annual summer visits, Goldstein hung out with a few of his grandparents’ friends. The conversation turned to Toronto — where Goldstein is chief operating officer of U Sports, the governing body of university sports in Canada — and the women couldn’t contain their excitement. They associated Canada with one of their sports heroes in Israel: former Toronto Raptors guard Anthony Parker.

“I knew as a basketball fan there was an Israeli pro league in basketball, I knew that it was pretty high-level and that Maccabi Tel Aviv did very well in Europe, but I really didn’t know much beyond that,” Goldstein said. “I said something about being from Toronto, and they just started raving about Anthony Parker, who played for the Raptors at the time but who had played at Maccabi. And they were talking about him in terms of endearment in Yiddish and Hebrew — way more than a fan talking about a player. They loved him. I thought that was the most interesting thing and what got me Googling, and I started unraveling what became a much bigger phenomenon than I ever could’ve imagined.”

Even after the book’s November release, Goldstein is still learning more about his subjects and basketball culture in Israel.

“As I’ve been promoting [the book], I’ve been finding out really interesting things and learning about some of the guys that I didn’t know from all the research,” Goldstein said. “It was a couple of years of researching, and that was both reading what had been written but also doing a ton of interviews. Writing was probably the quickest process. In doing the interviews, you could see some scenes and sort of the structure and chapter breakdown seemed to flow pretty naturally from what players were consistently saying. And then a few months, close to a year, writing a draft. Then there was a long stretch of trying to find a literary agent for a couple years. While I was doing all of that, I was continuing to interview players and continuing to get to know them better. And one of the benefits of that stretch of time was that I got to meet more players and get to know them better than I would’ve had I just got this whole thing done in 24 months.”

This season, there are more than 50 African-American players competing in the first division and about 15 in the second division, and about 10 have retired and stayed in Israel, according to Goldstein. Some of those players have Israeli citizenship, and a small number of current Israeli players are sons of African-American fathers who came to play in Israel and stayed.

The one thing Goldstein hopes resonates with readers is the contributions of African-American players who stay in the country.

“One of the things I really wanted to stress was the contributions these players are making to the country. I’ve mentioned players who have served in the Israel Defense Forces or enlisted in the military, but when these African-American players are there, even in the events of conflict or violence, they tend to stay and not leave the country — even though they are literally a phone call away from being on a plane to anywhere. They’re not obligated to be there. For me, I saw that kinship being pretty extraordinary. They’re staying in there as Israelis and really representing the country. It’s such a huge sign of respect. … I don’t throw around the term ‘hero’ very lightly, but I think that this group of African-American basketball players — by going to Israel, by staying in Israel, by advocating for the country — I think they are very much heroes of the country. Even if it’s not a particularly known player or a former NBA player, they’re heroes of Israel. One of the main things I want to do with this book is make sure that this group of individuals gets the credit they deserve for that.”