AUBURN — Bruce Pearl’s two favorite experiences as a basketball coach took place on opposite sides of the world.
There was his 2019 Final Four trip to Minneapolis with Auburn basketball. And one decade earlier, there was his voyage to Israel as coach of the U.S. team at the 18th World Maccabiah Games, an international sporting event open to Jewish athletes and to all Israeli citizens regardless of their religion. Pearl, who at the time was coach at Tennessee, led the U.S. to the gold medal against a defending champion Israeli team in Tel Aviv.
Pearl’s son, Steven, played on that 2009 team as am member of the Vols. Now Steven is an assistant coach at Auburn about to spend 10 days in Israel.
Pearl hopes this trip will be a “once in a lifetime” experience for his players.
“It’s going to affect them as fathers; it’s going to affect them as adults,” Pearl said Monday. “That’s sort of what we hope to get out of it.”
Auburn will leave Saturday for Israel and return Aug. 10. It’s the program’s NCAA-sanctioned international travel that’s permitted once every four years. Throughout Pearl’s career, he has been on trips to Japan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, Belgium, France and Italy. This one is personal for the 62-year-old, who is Jewish and has also involved himself in various Christian bible studies over the years. He has always wanted to lead an Israel journey.
“When you think of your life’s greatest moments, whatever they were – the birth of a child, a marriage, certain experiences – they were the greatest moments of your life because of who you shared it with,” he said. “We’re going to share this trip together, see things for the first time that we’re never going to forget.”
The itinerary is packed. It features a series of historic and biblical landmarks, including the City of David, the Western Wall, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Players who wish to be baptized will have that option during a visit to the location on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus according to scripture.
The team will also visit Yad Vashem, which is Israel’s museum and memorial to Holocaust victims.
“That’s obviously going to be very impactful for everybody on the trip,” Pearl said.
The Tigers will lead a basketball clinic for Israeli and Palestinian children in a Jerusalem YMCA. They will visit Bethlehem, Palestine, a few miles south of Jerusalem, and the coach of the Palestinian national team will host them for lunch.
They will attend a tech seminar in Tel Aviv, and they will get to experience the buoyant salt concentration of the Dead Sea, which allows people to float at the world’s lowest location below sea level.
“Oh yeah, and we’ve got three basketball games, too,” said a tongue-in-cheek Pearl.
The trio of games tips off Aug. 2 against Israel’s U20 national team in Jerusalem (noon CT, SEC Network). The Tigers also play Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 (both at noon, SEC Network). ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Roxy Bernstein will travel with the team to broadcast the games.
Those are somewhat tertiary to Pearl, though.
“The best thing they’re going to do is they’re going to walk outside a hotel and walk around Jerusalem,” he said. “That’s the best thing they’re going to do, just experience it.”