The American College Basketball Team, Auburn, is touring Israel on an inaugural trip, the first of its kind

The Auburn University men’s basketball team arrived in Israel on Sunday for the start of a first-of-its-kind fast-paced round that will see them face off against three Israeli national teams.

During the trip, the top-ranked American team will hone their skills against the major Israeli competition in front of local fans, visit spiritual sites, unite as a team and gain an understanding of Israeli culture and history.

The visit from Alabama’s Top Ten program marks the first time a Division I men’s team has toured Israel in more than two decades, and the first-ever visit to a program from the Power Five, the elite level of American college sports.

The Auburn Tigers rallied against Israel’s under-20 team on Tuesday, claiming a dominant 117-56 win, ahead of games against the Israeli all-star team and the national team on back-to-back nights early next week. All matches will be broadcast live to the American audience on SEC . networkCommentators Jay Bellas and Roxy Bernstein called her.

The trip, billed as “the birthright of college basketball,” was years in the making. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he’s always 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 considers his experience coaching Team USA to win the 2009 Maccabiah Games as one of my “greatest experiences as a coach”.

Now, the veteran coach said he is bringing his players to Israel to see for themselves the historically significant and politically complex country. “We just want them to go in there with their eyes open and their ears open,” Pearl said. “This will be a part of them forever.”

Members of the Auburn men’s basketball team join coach Bruce Pearl for a kiddosh party in Jerusalem, July 31, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

Above all, Perle said he hopes the trip will lead to Israel’s normalization of participating players, and other teams considering a visit.

“The best thing they will do is walk outside the hotel and walk around Jerusalem,” Pearl said. “We just want it to be normal.”

Pearl also said the sport’s ability to bring people together was a key component of the journey. Drawing on his experiences of anti-Semitism and witnessing racism as a child in Boston, Pearl noted how disputes and disagreements faded when the children met in court.

On their first full day in Jerusalem, the Auburn players joined “Jewish Jordan” Tamir Goodman, a retired American-Israeli professional player, in Anis freedom Basketball camp, and led a skills clinic for camp members from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Druze backgrounds.

Members of the Auburn men’s basketball team and Tamer Goodman, left, pose with campers at the Enes Kanter Freedom Unity basketball camp at the YMCA International in Jerusalem, August 1, 2022 (Stephen Leonard/Auburn University)

Pearl described the harmony among the diverse group as a teachable moment: “If they followed people’s lead in sports and children, we would all be so much better.”

The team plans to join Palestinian national basketball coach Paul Cogter for a meal at his home in Bethlehem. Although the flight criticize Of the American Islamic group Kerr, Pearl emphasized the apolitical nature of the trip. “We want it, if possible, 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.

Members of the Auburn men’s basketball team pose for a photo with a Palestinian fan on a visit to Bethlehem, West Bank, August 2, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

In their first game on Tuesday, more than 1,000 fans flocked to the Malha Arena in Jerusalem to watch the team in action. The excitement of the crowd was palpable, with one onlooker remarking how surprised they were to see such enthusiasm for the American University team in an Israeli court. After the match, the players stopped taking selfies with the active crowd, a scene that continued long after the match ended.

Also in attendance were loyal Auburn fans who went out to support their team away from home.

“When the match schedule came out, I knew right away I had to go,” said Alexa Cottle, Auburn University chief executive. Kotell, a member of the school’s small Jewish community, said Pearl has always been a prominent figure in Jewish life on campus. “He’s a role model for me and so many, and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to see them play in Israel.”

Auburn Chance Westery Center during a game against the Israel national under-20 basketball team, Malha Arena, Jerusalem, August 2, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

Outside of the three show games, the main attractions of the trip are its visits to religious sites throughout Israel. Stations around the Holy Land include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Sea of ​​Galilee, and the chance to baptize in the Jordan River.

One staff member said that the trip’s visits to New Testament sites reflect the religious devotion that characterizes the team. “I would never have imagined that I would travel across the sea to go to Israel,” said Dylan Cardwell, a sophomore at the University of Georgia. “Spiritually, this is the closest I have ever been to God.”

The trip was marked by a similar spiritual tone. Pearl opened the visit by sharing his Jewish heritage, inviting his players to a kiddosh party and Shishiano Blessing against the backdrop of the Old City of Jerusalem. Interfaith spirituality continued after the team’s first game when its player joined the Israel Under-20 national team in a moment of silence.

Members of the Auburn men’s basketball team visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, August 2, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

Alongside the tour content, Auburn’s coaching staff stressed the importance of the pre-season trip to the team’s development. Pearl said the international tours have long been an opportunity to integrate as a team and as team members. With two top players, Walker Kessler and Jabbari Smith, taken in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft, and new talent coming into this year’s Junior class, consolidating as a team is a priority for the Southeastern Conference regular season champions.

“I think this is an opportunity to be the most important trip I’ve ever heard,” said Bellas, one of the announcers who comment on the team’s matches. “And for a program to come close together, and do it in an environment with a background like Israel, will have long-term benefits and ramifications.”

Co-anchor Bernstein echoed what Bilas had said, and pointed out the potential benefits of facing the mighty Israel national team. “There is a lot of talent in the Israeli national team,” Bernstein said, likely including the young Washington Wizards striker Denny Avdega. Bernstein said the match would be a chance for Auburn to play a formidable contender before the regular season.

“I think it would be great for both sides,” he said.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl during a game against the Israel national under-20 basketball team, Malha Arena, Jerusalem, August 2, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

Pearl agreed with Bernstein, saying the Israel trip is likely to see much better competition than previous international tours. Pearl described Israel as “probably the second best country in the world to play professionally” when it comes to basketball, citing the talent and enthusiasm for the sport and support from local fans.

Perle got to know the Israeli basketball scene well from his previous experiences visiting and training in Israel. He said that some of his players can continue to play professionally in Israel, noting that the trip has the dual benefit of exposing the team to foreign play, and exposing Israeli clubs to Auburn’s talents.

One team member has already seen his share of play in Israel. Leor Berman, a senior in Auburn, the only Jewish player on the team, joined his teammates upon his arrival, after winning the gold for Team USA at this year’s Maccabiah Games, the international quadrennial competition known as the “Olympic Games”. Judaism”. This year’s Maccabiah Games in Israel concluded late last month.

The competition was Berman’s second consecutive appearance and victory in Maccabees, both experiences he fondly remembers. Berman, also a Maccabiah veteran, “give his blessing” to Berman to play, although he missed some practice with Auburn. The 6-foot-4 (1.93m) goalkeeper said he is excited for his teammates to experience the Israeli culture he knows, and to have the opportunity to play “real professional players” like the Israeli national team.

Lior Berman competes with Team USA in the men’s Open basketball, during the Maccabiah Games 21, July 2022 (Courtesy/SportsRabbi.com)

“I know Bruce [Pearl] “We’ve been working on this forever,” Berman said. “It would be great to be the first team to do this.” “I hope it becomes something that colleges do.”

Pearl said fans can expect more college basketball games in Israel in the coming years. He and other organizers have described Auburn’s visit as the first of many Birthright-style tours, and have hinted that major Jewish coaches at universities such as Duke and the University of Florida would be similarly interested in sharing their heritage.

“We don’t want this to be a single wonder. We want to bring teams together every year,” said Leah Miller-Tolle, president of Complete Sports Management, a sports agency that has brought the trip together. He graduated by getting to know the people of Israel and teaching them against anti-Semitism “We want to build a relationship through basketball with Israel and the United States,” Miller Tully said.

Members of the Auburn men’s basketball team join coach Bruce Pearl for a kiddosh party in Jerusalem, July 31, 2022 (Steven Leonard/Auburn University)

Daniel Posner, founder of Athletes for Israel, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism, pointed out the important role athletes like Auburn’s team can play in the struggle over messages about Israel. “The culture, the food, the vibrant community here — it’s very different from what people portray,” Posner said.

He said the trips provide new experiences, including visits to Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust memorial and museum, and are useful in furthering the understanding of anti-Semitism that players bring back to the United States. “It really opens the eyes of many of them,” he said.

Ask anyone from Israel, “What can American Jews do to help?” “For years we’ve been planting trees, we’ve been buying Israeli bonds,” Pearl said. Now, he said, his answer is “Just come visit.”

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