The Auburn University men’s basketball team traveled to Israel last weekend for a 10-day Birthright-style trip, likely the first of its kind for a full Division I college or professional team.
Coined “Birthright for College Basketball,” the trip features some of Israel’s most famous historical and tourist sites — from the Western Wall and the Dead Sea to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum — plus three exhibition games against teams of players from the top echelon of Israeli basketball. The Tigers, who won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship last season, played Israel’s Under 20 National Team on Aug. 2 in Jerusalem and will also play Israel’s All-Star Select Team in Tel Aviv on Aug. 7 and Israel’s National Team on Aug. 8 in Tel Aviv.
The trip also includes the team participating in a basketball clinic for Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze teens.
In addition, the itinerary includes the Tigers having lunch with the coach of the Palestinian National Team in Bethlehem.
Auburn’s Jewish coach Bruce Pearl is one of the more outspokenly Jewish and pro-Israel coaches in college sports. He co-founded the Jewish Coaches Association, which hosts an annual breakfast for Jewish NCAA basketball coaches at March Madness. He considers coaching in the 2009 Maccabiah Games to be a career highlight, alongside making it to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four with Auburn in 2019.
NCAA teams are currently allowed an overseas trip once every four years. The University of Connecticut men’s team visited Israel in 1998, and the Toledo women’s team and Wheaton’s men’s team followed suit in 2011 and 2016, respectively. Pearl said that his vision is for the trip to become a repeat occurrence — and to expand it to the United Arab Emirates. He floated changing its name to the “Abraham Accords Cup,” a reference to the series of normalization agreements between Israel and some of its neighboring Arab countries in recent years.
— Jacob Gurvis