born July 29, 1931 in Berlin – died August 7, 2008 in Tel Hashomer/Israel
“I saw it as a victory over (Nazi) Germany, when the strong (Post-war) Germany invited me to coach its national team” – these are the words of Ralph Klein as he reflected on his decision to return to the country of his birth to fill the post of coach for the German national basketball team.
Born in Berlin to wealthy parents, him and his family fled to Hungary to escape Nazi terror. In 1943, his father and his sister Ruth were deported to Auschwitz, where his father was killed. Ralph Klein survived in Hungary along with his mother and his brother. The Kleins belonged to a group of more than 20,000 Jews saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Given the ongoing anti-Semitic climate in Hungary, Ralph Klein immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951. After his studies he worked as a lecturer at the Wingate Institute/Netanya.
Ralph Klein wore the Maccabi Tel Aviv jersey for 160 games scoring a total of 2,701 points. Following his successful playing career with the club and the national team, he went on to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv, guiding them as they earned their place among the best European teams. The high point of his coaching career was Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory at the European Cup in 1977, and winning the silver medal with the Israeli national team at the European Championships in 1979.
In the words of Mickey Berkovic, one of the team’s stars, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s triumph at the European Cup “is comparable to the German national football team’s appearance in the World Cup final in Bern in 1954. It was an incredibly important event for Israeli identity.”
Klein’s decision to return to Germany, to train the German national team as coach, became a source of bewilderment among Israelis. In Germany, on the other hand, he was faced with residual anti-Semitism. At both the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and at the European Championships in 1985, Klein led the newly-developing German team to capture fifth place. Ralph Klein was an exceptionally gifted tactician and an excellent motivator. In anticipation of games between Germany and Isreal, he put his assistant-coach in charge, in order to further prevent emerging political attacks and accusations.
In 2006, Ralph Klein or rather “Mr. Basketball”, as he is known in Israel, was honored with the Israel Prize for his life’s work. Ralph Klein passed away on August 7, 2008.
His life story was the inspiration for the film Play Off, which centers around Ralph Klein’s time coaching the German national basketball team.