The Auburn University men’s basketball team made its first-ever whirlwind tour of Israel on Sunday, which will see them face off against three Israeli national teams.
During the trip, the top-ranked American team will hone their skills against top competition in front of Israeli fans, visit spiritual sites, bond as a team, and learn about Israel’s culture and history.
The visit by Alabama’s top-ten program marks the first time a freshman men’s team has toured Israel in more than two decades and the first time a program from a Power Five conference has visited the U.S. college sports rankings.
The Auburn Tigers met Israel’s under-20 national team on Tuesday, taking a dominant 117-56 victory before back-to-back games against Israel’s All-Stars and national teams early next week. All games will be broadcast live to US viewers SEC Networkand called out by commentators Jay Bilas and Roxy Bernstein.
The quest for a “birthright for college basketball” has been years in the making. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said he had long dreamed of bringing his team to Israel on an international tour, which the NCAA allows college teams to take once every four years.
Pearl, who is Jewish, has made four previous trips to Israel and credits his experience coaching Team USA at the 2009 Maccabiah Games as one of the two “best coaching experiences I’ve ever had.”
Now, the veteran coach said he will try to bring his players to Israel to see for themselves the historically significant and politically complex country. “We want them to go there with their eyes open and their ears open,” Pearl said. “This will be a part of them forever.”
Above all, Pearl hopes the trip will become a regular feature for participating players and teams considering visiting Israel.
“The best thing to do is to walk outside the hotel and walk around Jerusalem,” Pearl said. “We want it to be normal.”
Pearl Sports also said that the ability to bring people together is an integral part of the journey. Pearl recounts his experience of anti-Semitism as a child in Boston and describes how conflicts and differences melt away when children meet in court.
On their first full day in Jerusalem, the Auburn players were joined by retired American-Israeli professional player Tamir Goodman, the “Jewish Jordan.” Enes freedom He led a basketball camp, and a skills clinic for campers from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze backgrounds.
Pearl called the group’s compromise a teachable moment: “We’d all get along better if people followed their lead on sports and kids.”
The group plans to host Palestinian national basketball coach Paul Koghter at his home in Bethlehem. Although the trip Criticism From the Muslim-American group CAIR, Pearl emphasized the non-political nature of the trip. “If possible, we want this to be normal — a Jewish basketball coach from Auburn taking his team to Israel and having lunch with the Palestinian national basketball coach,” Pearl said.
More than 1,000 fans flocked to Jerusalem’s Malha Arena to watch the team in action for their first game on Tuesday. The excitement of the crowd was incredible, with one spectator on Israel’s home court saying how impressed he was to see such enthusiasm for the American university team. After the game, the players stopped with the energetic crowd for high-fives and selfies that lasted long after the game was over.
Also in attendance were loyal Auburn fans who came out to support their team away from home.
“When the game schedule came out, I knew I had to go right away,” Auburn University senior Alexa Kotel said. Kotel Pearl, a member of the school’s small Jewish community, said he was always a prominent figure in campus Jewish life. “He is a role model for me and many others, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to see him play in Israel.”
Apart from the three exhibition games, the main attractions of the trip were visits to religious sites throughout Israel. Other stops in the Holy Land include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Sea of Galilee, and the baptismal font in the Jordan River.
The tour shows the group’s characteristic religious devotion to New Testament sites, a staff member said. “Growing up in Georgia, I never thought I’d go across the ocean to Israel,” said sophomore center Dylan Cardwell. “Spiritually, this is the closest I’ve ever been to God.”
It showed the same spiritual scandal of the trip. Pearl opened the tour by sharing his Jewish heritage and introduced the players to a Kiddush ceremony and shehecheyanu A blessing in the background of the Old City of Jerusalem. The interfaith spirituality continued after the team’s first game, when the player joined Israel’s under-20 team in silent prayer.
Beyond the content of the visit, Auburn’s coaching staff emphasized the importance of preseason travel to the team’s development. International tours have been an opportunity to bond as a team and teammates, Pearl said. With 2022 top players Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith taken in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft and fresh talent coming from this year’s freshman class, solidifying the team is a priority for the Southeastern Conference regular season champions.
“I think this has the potential to be the most important trip I’ve ever heard,” said Bilas, one of the team’s game commentators. “And the program will have long-term benefits and harms to get closer and closer to a background like Israel.”
Promoter Bernstein echoed Bilas, and expressed the potential benefits of fighting the mighty Israeli national team. “There’s a lot of talent on the Israeli national team,” Bernstein said, possibly including the Washington Wizards’ small forward. Danny Avidia. The game gives Auburn an opportunity to play a formidable opponent ahead of the regular season, Bernstein said.
“I think it will be good for both parties,” he said.
Pearl agreed with Bernstein, saying that the Israel tour will be far more competitive than previous international tours. Perl called Israel “probably the second country to play professionally,” citing the talent, enthusiasm for the sport and the support of local fans.
Pearl is well acquainted with the Israeli basketball scene through his touring and coaching experience in Israel. Some of his players may go to Israel to play professionally, he said, adding that the trip has the dual benefit of exposing the team to foreign play and exposing Israeli clubs to Auburn talent.
One member of the team has already seen the game’s stake in Israel. Auburn senior Lior Berman, the team’s only Jewish player, joined his teammates as he arrived at this year’s Maccabiah Games, the quadrennial international competition known as the “Jewish Olympics” after Team USA won a gold medal. This year’s Maccabiah Games concluded in Israel at the end of last month.
The tournament marked Berman’s second straight Maccabiah win, and he fondly remembers both experiences. Despite missing some practice with Auburn, veteran Pearl Berman was “blessed” to play. The 6-foot-4 (1.93 m) guard said he was excited for his teammates to experience the familiar Israeli culture and the opportunity to play “real professional players” as part of the Israeli national team.
“I know Bruce [Pearl] He’s been working on this forever … It was great to be the first team to do this,” Berman said. “Hopefully it will be something they do for colleges.”
Pearl said fans can expect more college basketball in Israel in the coming years. He and other organizers described Auburn’s visit as the first of many birthday-like visits, and hinted that Jewish head coaches like Duke and the University of Florida would be similarly interested in sharing their heritage.
“We don’t want this to be a one-time wonder. “We want to bring teams every year,” said Leah Miller-Tully, president of Complete Sports Management, the sports agency that put the trip together. Miller-Tully said teams are drawn to experience the land of the Bible, but they bring with them exposure to the people of Israel and an education on anti-Semitism. “From Israel and the United We want to connect with the States through the sport of basketball,” Miller-Tolley said.
The athlete fighting anti-Semitism for Israel founder Daniel Posner pointed to the important role athletes like Auburn can play in the messaging around Israel. “The culture, the food, the vibrant community here — it’s so different from what people portray,” Posner said.
The trips offer new experiences, including a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, which he says help raise awareness of anti-Semitism for the players back home. “It was a real eye-opener for a lot of them,” he said.
“Anyone from Israel asks, ‘What can American Jews do to help?’ “For years, we’ve been buying Israeli bonds when we’ve been planting trees,” Pearl said. Now, he says, the answer is “just visit.”