The Auburn University men’s basketball team touched down in Israel on Sunday for the start of a first-of-its-kind, whirlwind tour that will see them go head to head with three Israeli national teams.
During the trip, the top-ranked US squad will hone its skills against top Israeli competition in front of local fans, visit spiritual sites, coalesce as a team and gain an understanding of Israeli culture and history.
The visit from the top-ten ranked Alabama program marks the first time a Division I men’s team has toured in Israel in over two decades, and the first ever visit by a program from the Power Five conferences, the elite level of US college sports.
Auburn’s Tigers went up against the Israel Under-20 national team on Tuesday, securing a dominating 117-56 win, ahead of games against the Israeli all-star and national teams on back-to-back nights early next week. All games will be broadcast live for American audiences on the SEC Network, and called by commentators Jay Bilas and Roxy Bernstein.
The trip, billed as “Birthright for College Basketball,” has been years in the making. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said he has 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 counts his experience coaching Team USA to victory at the 2009 Maccabiah Games as one of two “greatest experiences I’ve had as a coach.”
Now, the veteran coach said he is bringing his players to Israel to see the historically significant and politically complex country for themselves. “We want them just to go there with their eyes open and their ears open,” Pearl said. “That’s going to be apart of them forever.”
Pearl said, above all, he hopes the trip normalizes Israel for participating players, and for other teams considering visiting.
“The best thing they’re gonna do is walk outside the hotel and walk around Jerusalem,” said Pearl. “We just want it to be normal.”
Pearl also said the ability of sports to bring people together was a core component of the trip. Drawing upon his experiences of anti-Semitism and witnessing racism as a child in Boston, Pearl noted how conflicts and differences melted away when children met on the court.
On their first full day in Jerusalem, the Auburn players joined the “Jewish Jordan” Tamir Goodman, a retired American-Israeli professional player, at the Enes Freedom basketball camp, and led a skills clinic for campers from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze backgrounds.
Pearl called the diverse group’s harmony a teachable moment: “If they follow the lead of the people in sports and the children, we’d all get along a lot better.”
The team plans to join Palestinian national basketball coach Paul Coghter for a meal at his Bethlehem home. Though the trip drew criticism from the Muslim-American CAIR group, Pearl stressed the non-political nature of the trip. “We want, if at all possible, that to be normal — a Jewish basketball coach from Auburn taking his team over to Israel, having lunch with the Palestinian national basketball coach,” said Pearl.
For their first game this Tuesday, over 1,000 fans streamed into Jerusalem’s Malha Arena to see the team in action. The crowd’s excitement was palpable, with one spectator noting how surprised they were to see such enthusiasm for the US university team on an Israeli home court. After the game, players stopped for high-fives and selfies with the energized crowd, a scene that lasted long after the game had ended.
Also in attendance were loyal Auburn fans who came out to support their team a long way from home.
“When the game schedule came out, I immediately knew I had to go,” said Auburn University senior Alexa Cotel. A member of the school’s small Jewish community, Cotel said Pearl has always been a prominent figure in campus Jewish life. “He is a role model to me and so many, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to see them play in Israel.”
Outside of the three exhibition games, the trip’s main attractions are its visits to religious sites throughout Israel. Stops across the Holy Land include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sea of Galilee, and a baptismal opportunity in the Jordan River.
The trip’s visits to New Testament sites reflect a religious devotion that characterizes the team, one staff member said. “Growing up in Georgia, I would’ve never imagined myself traveling across the sea to go to Israel,” said sophomore center Dylan Cardwell. “Spiritually, this is the closest that I’ve ever been to God.”
A similar spiritual overtone has characterized the trip. Pearl opened the visit by sharing his Jewish heritage, inviting his players to a kiddush ceremony and shehecheyanu blessing against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City. The interfaith spirituality continued after the team’s first game when its player joined the Israeli under-20 team in a moment of silent prayer.
Beyond the tour’s content, Auburn coaching staff stressed the significance of the preseason trip for the team’s development. International tours have long been an opportunity to meld as a team and as teammates, said Pearl. With two 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 as a team is a priority for the reigning Southeastern Conference regular-season champions.
“I think this has an opportunity to be the most significant trip that I’ve ever heard of,” said Bilas, one of the announcers who is commenting on the team’s games. “And for a close program to get even closer together, and do it in a setting with a backdrop like Israel, will have long-term benefits and ramifications.”
Co-announcer Bernstein echoed Bilas, and noted the potential benefits of facing off against the powerful Israeli national team. “There’s a lot of talent on Israeli national team,” Bernstein said, potentially including Washington Wizards small forward Deni Avdija. The match will be an opportunity for Auburn to play a formidable competitor ahead of the regular season, said Bernstein.
“I think it’s going to be great for both sides,” he said.
Pearl agreed with Bernstein, saying the Israel trip is likely to see far better competition than past international tours. Pearl has called Israel “probably the second-best country in the world to play professionally” when it comes to basketball, citing talent, enthusiasm for the sport and support from local fans.
Pearl has gotten to know the Israeli basketball scene well in his past experiences visiting and coaching in Israel. He said some of his players could go on 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 talent.
One member of the team has already seen his share of play in Israel. Auburn senior Lior Berman, the team’s lone Jewish player, joined his teammates on arrival, fresh off a gold medal win for Team USA at this year’s Maccabiah Games, the international competition held every four years known as the “Jewish Olympics.” This year’s Maccabiah Games wrapped up in Israel late last month.
The competition was Berman’s second straight Maccabiah appearance and win, both experiences he remembers fondly. Pearl, also a Maccabiah veteran, “gave his blessing” for Berman to play, even though he missed some training with Auburn. The 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) guard said he’s excited for his teammates to experience the Israeli culture he’s come to know, and for the opportunity to play “true professional players” like the Israeli National Team.
“I know Bruce [Pearl] has been working on this forever… it’d be pretty cool that we’re the first team that does this,” said Berman. “Hopefully it’ll start to be a thing for colleges to do.”
Pearl has said fans can expect more college basketball in Israel in the coming years. He and other organizers have touted Auburn’s visit as the first of many Birthright-style tours, and hinted that Jewish head 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 one-hit wonder. We want to bring teams every year,” said Lea Miller-Tooley, president of Complete Sports Management, a sports agency that brought the trip together. Miller-Tooley said teams will be drawn to come to experience the land of the Bible, but come away with an exposure to the people of Israel and an education against anti-Semitism. “We want to forge a relationship through the sport of basketball with Israel and the United States,” Miller-Tooley said.
Daniel Posner, founder of Athletes for Israel, a non-profit that combats antisemitism, pointed to the important role athletes such as this Auburn team can play in the struggle over messaging around Israel. “The culture, the food, the vibrant society here — it’s very different from what people are picturing,” Posner said.
He said that the trips provide new experiences, including visits to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, and are instrumental in boosting an understanding of anti-Semitism that the players bring back to the US. “It’s really eye-opening for many of them,” he said.
“Ask anyone from Israel, ‘What can American Jewry do to help?’ For years we were planting trees, we were buying Israeli bonds,” Pearl said. Now, he said his answer is to “just come visit.”