“Ok you can have £200.” I was trying to get a basketball club going at the City of London Polytechnic and the Student Union accepted my pitch. Next task was to find a coach; and, after calling around, I got a call from some guy with the unlikely name of Mookie who barely spoke English but hooked me with his cheery enthusiasm. We met and created an instant friendship. These were early days for basketball, in the UK, and without any likelihood of finding anyone else I agreed – knowing only a bit about our new coach.
Mookie learned to love Basketball in Israel where he grew up. He lived on a kibbutz until he got kicked out because he became too friendly with the Arabs labourers who worked on the farm. Mookie was a humanitarian trying to protect spring water that the Israeli government was diverting away from the nearby Arab village that had always used it. Being labeled as a renegade Arab sympathiser he was eventually ostracised, left his homeland and moved with his English girlfriend to live in London and start a new life.
During the three seasons Mookie coached us we did amazingly well and had a lot of fun on the court and off. He and I both had unorthodox renegade approaches to the game and we worked well as a team. As the manager and captain I befriended and then recruited four visiting students from the U.S. who became our path to success. Basketball was only just beginning to be played in the UK and, as a kid, I was lucky to have had a good trainer and played for my school and my county. Our American guest students, on the other hand, raised on basketball, were way ahead of us in skills and experience. They showed us tactics and tricks and we introduced them to pubs.
Apart from regularly winning or placing high in several London leagues we went on to win the National Polytechnic Colleges championship in 1972. This was almost unbelievable for a City of London Business Studies college with a tradition of no interest at all in sports. Unsurprisingly, our victory raised quite a few eyebrows not only because of our star players from the U.S. but also for Mookie’s unconventional coaching techniques which included yoga stretches and group shoulder rubs during timeouts and all the breaks.
As I was about to depart for my second trip to volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel in 1973 Mookie asked me to deliver a gift to an Arab friend of his. I agreed, not knowing how drastically it would forever change my views about middle eastern life and politics.
First, the Ashkelon family of my Jewish girlfriend were horrified that I wanted to go to a village in Galilee to visit an Arab man. I insisted and they arranged a taxi to take us. When we found Josf he was lying in a stable on a bed of straw, dozing. He was a blind student who spoke English because he attended a special school run by foreigners and paid for by funds raised by Mookie in London. I was delivering his tuition fees for the next year.
Josf lived in Sheikh Dannun (Arabic: الشيخ دنون, Hebrew: שֵּׁיח’ דַּנּוּן) a village located on a hill overlooking the plains of Acre. It was built around a tomb for a sheik and since the 1967 war had been receiving waves of displaced Arabs from several depopulated villages. It’s population has risen from only 100 in 1930’s to 2,851in 2018 and it’s residents have slowly grown to become more radical and unsettled living in occupied Palestine.
While visiting his home in the ancient village I learned that all the conspicuous piles of building materials lying around each decaying house had been collected by Arab labourers over many years. They were employed constructing Israeli homes but were not permitted to use any of the materials they acquired to improve their own homes. Josf’s sister, who was visiting from a Lebanese refugee camp for the first time since the Israeli invasion, shocked me by saying that she preferred to stay in the squalor and danger of her camp rather than return to her oppressed village. These thoughts haunted me as I returned to the home of my Israeli hosts and compared their opulent lives with those of their nearby Arab cousins.
After leaving the UK and losing contact with Mookie we reconnected after 37 years. He lives with his wife in London and is still playing and coaching basketball at the ripe age of 79. He grows vegetables, exercises daily, enjoys the same renegade love of life and possesses the same cheerful chuckle. Sadly, he’s lost touch with Josf, who apparently, has grown more bitter and angry over the years struggling to live under a regime of oppression.
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