Legendary basketball coach and player Ralph Klein died of intestinal cancer Thursday morning at the age of 77. He was survived by his wife and three children.
Klein was considered one of the Israeli sport's inalienable assets. As Maccabi Tel Aviv's coach, he led the team to its first ever European title in 1977.
Klein was rushed to the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer on Tuesday after his condition deteriorated. Dozens of former basketball players, fans and close friends visited his hospital room over the past two days in order to bid farewell and encourage his family members.
Klein's coffin will be placed at 10:30 am Friday at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv, to allow his fans to pay their final respects.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
expressed his deep sorrow over Klein's death, saying "there is no Israeli who is not familiar with Ralph Klein’s lofty and modest image.
"His easygoing personality, nobleness and dedication to Israeli basketball influenced generations of athletes, and it is especially important to mention the project he promoted in the recent years, while contending with his difficult illness, the girls' team of Hadassim, Even Yehuda, which he led to great accomplishments,” said Olmert.
Ralph Klein was born in Berlin in 1931. His family moved to Hungary, where it spent the difficult years of World War II. His father Rudolph did not survive the war and was murdered in the Auschwitz death camp, while the rest of the family was rescued by righteous gentile Raul Wallenberg.
Klein became affiliated with sport after the war, when he followed in his father's footsteps and joined MTK Budapest as a football player. Several months later he shifted to basketball, joining VAC and playing in Hungary's national league.
He decided to immigrate to Israel
in 1951 following the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary. After arriving in the Jewish state, he joined Maccabi Tel Aviv as a player and over the years took part in 160 matches, scored 2,701 points and won six championships and six national cups. He also took part in 68 matches as part of Israel's national team, scoring 318 points.
In 1964 he was appointed coach of Israel's youth team, which he led to the seventh place in the 1968 European championship. In the 1969/1970 season he was first appointed coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
He led the club to its first ever European title in 1977, when Maccabi beat Varese 78-77 in the finals in Belgrade, Serbia. Years later he said, "I felt we were fighting for the State and with Zionist words I boosted the players' motivation."
In 1983, Klein surprised many in Israel and even his family members when he announced his appointment as coach of the German national team. He explained at the time, "I saw it as my victory over the Germans, with the great and strong Germany inviting an Israeli to coach its team."
In 2006, Klein received what was probably the greatest honor in his career - the Israel Prize for his contribution to Israeli sports in general and to basketball in particular.
Arale Weisberg and Roni Sofer contributed to this report