Jewish Film Festival: ‘Aulcie’ is a touching story about basketball, regret and rebirth

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Hey Jude Productions

DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“I was sitting in a North Carolina jail, but my heart was in Israel.”

The words of Aulcie Perry should echo around the chamber of anyone who has ever experienced loss and made a few mistakes along the way, but they will feel especially special to the longtime fans of the Maccabi Tel Aviv. When Perry was cut by the New York Knicks back in 1976, Maccabi Tel Aviv was the name of the international basketball team that he helped win two titles during a decade of play that redefined what basketball meant not only to fans of the team, but anyone in that country.

Dani Menkin’s “Aulcie” is the story of how a larger-than-life figure sought out rebirth in finally meeting the daughter he had never met.

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As Sports Illustrated journalist Alexander Wolff put it, Perry was “Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Michael Jordan all in one package,” a basketball hybrid that the United States couldn’t find a spot for, but one that Israel adopted as their own son. Signing an initial contract for $6,000 (chump change in the USA but big money overseas), it didn’t take long for Perry to transform the game and become a household name.

A decade of play that started out in grand fashion ended rather ugly due to injuries, drug addiction and one too many brick walls. It was a cell that Perry built himself with poor decisions that hit him as the prime of his career started to fade. A nagging knee injury led to pain pills and lesser performance on the court, which led to addiction and a scary yet short brush with criminality that derailed his life.

Menkin’s film is about Perry’s journey to get it all back. The director uses creative animated imagery to support archival footage and interviews with teammates such as Earl Williams and friendships forged from Perry’s time in Israel. Perry’s high-profile relationship with Israel’s top supermodel, Tami Ben-Ami, gets introspection that goes beyond the headlines. A rich life — one that many will feel connected to within minutes and should endure itself to even the most cynical stranger to choose this story — can still hold plenty of heartache. For basketball historians, it’s a bittersweet tale with more sweetness in the end, but not one without its pratfalls and low moments.

The director doesn’t try to deeply explain the rougher aspects of Perry’s life, but he doesn’t avoid them either. The film is tightly edited and easy to move emotionally, making it touching and inspiring. Perry was this close to being a Knick, but it would have paled in comparison to all the lives he touched in Israel. There’s a scene about an hour into the film that shows you how rugged and tough true love can be. That’s not the romantic kind between two people; more like the endurance of a nation with one particular player.

If anyone knows how regret can grow like a tree inside one’s soul if left unattended, it’s Aulcie Perry. Born into racism that he didn’t understand, “Aulcie” found love in another corner of the world that he didn’t quite understand, one that turned him into their own Tiger Woods.

If that isn’t a tale for the times, I don’t know what is.