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Top US college basketball team Auburn tours Israel for eye-opening, 1st of kind trip

19 9 10

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 a part 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 antisemitism 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........

© The Times of Israel

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