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Messiah boosters charm Israeli hoopsters from last to first

(ran NT LT CT COM CI editions)

Even high flying NBA superstar Michael Jordan might have some trouble going one-on-one with the messiah strategy.

A pro basketball team in Israel, Hapoel Upper Galilee, was in last place when it hooked up with two emissaries of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect. The two refer to themselves as "moshiach (Hebrew for "messiah') pushers."

Promising to publicize the concept of a Jewish messiah _ in particular, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson _ players began donning phylacteries.

They sent faxes asking for the blessing of Schneerson, the 91-year-old Brooklyn religious leader who has incited a worldwide messianic fervor among some Hassidic Jews. And they hung mezuzahs on the arena doorways.

Mezuzahs, small cases containing scripture and meant to inspire piety, are normally hung on the doorways of homes.

The players also hung banners on the stadium walls bearing the Lubavitcher rebbe's picture and proclaiming "Welcome King Messiah," and adopted a popular hit called Moshiach! as their theme song.

In just nine weeks the messiah-inspired team zoomed to the top of the league standings.

In the May 19 Israeli play-offs, they crushed Macabbee Tel Aviv _ the team which had held first place for 23 years.

Thousands of fans spontaneously ran onto the court and began singing, "Moshiach oy oy oy."

Come autumn the team will be tipping off in Europe as they play in international competition. They have pledged to promote the messianic effort there as well.

Hapoel Upper Galilee coach Pini Gershon, who has always been non-religious but now reportedly dons tefillin (phylacteries) each day, came to Crown Heights, N.Y., where the Lubavitcher Hasidim are based, on Wednesday to see the Lubavitcher rebbe.

One of the two Lubavitchers who first reached out to the basketball team, Betzalel Kuptchik, an emissary from the Northern Israeli town of Tzfat, said that he was just trying to reach a secular crowd when he was leafletting outside Hapoel Upper Galilee's arena in March.

"I'm not a basketball fan, but a moshiach pusher," Kuptchik said, in a telephone interview from Crown Heights.

As a result of the face-to-face contact Lubavitch has now had with thousands of basketball fans, Kuptchik said, he and the other Lubavitch emissaries are busy giving classes on moshiach and distributing brochures and stickers about the messiah on kibbutzim, or Israeli communes.

No doubt when the messiah does arrive, Gershon and his crew will have courtside seats.