Auburn basketball taking ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to Israel

According to NCAA rules, basketball programs are allowed to travel overseas once every four years, and the time has come for Auburn basketball’s next destination: Israel.

Prior to the team’s departure on Saturday, head coach Bruce Pearl was joined on Monday by ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Roxy Bernstein, who will accompany the team on the trip, to give a preview of what they expect from the experience. Pearl hopes the trip will benefit the team as individuals in ways beyond just basketball.

“Just so grateful to Auburn and the NCAA for two reasons: one, Auburn’s going to allow us to take my kids to Israel and experience something that could be a once in a lifetime thing for them,” Pearl said. “You talk about a commitment to student-athletes and getting this exposure historically, religiously and then from a basketball standpoint.”

Pearl then did something coaches usually won’t: he praised the NCAA. He reminisced on past trips he has been on with his former programs and most recently, the trip to Italy with his Auburn team in 2018. The coach has taken away a lot of great life lessons from those experiences.

“From an NCAA standpoint, I think the rule about being able to go overseas once every four years is a great rule. Let’s not ever give that up,” Pearl said. “It’s an opportunity for [our team] to open up their hearts and minds and see if they can hear and feel something special that’s going to be a part of them forever.”

As a Jewish-American man, Pearl is aware of how big of a learning experience visiting the place that birthed the majority of the world’s religions will be. The trip’s itinerary is full of special experiences, including visiting the City of David, Western Wall, Garden of Gethsemane, Jordan River among other historical sites, wrapped up by a trip to Tel Aviv.

While the trip has many learning experiences to behold, basketball is, of course, one of them. The team will have three games between their arrival on July 31 and departure on August 10, headlined by a contest against the Israel National Team. One of the most difficult games in their slate, that team consists of many professional players, including the Washington Wizards’ 21-year-old Deni Avdija.

The games will be televised on the SEC Network and will be called by Bilas and Bernstein, who were just as eager as Pearl to make the trip.

“When we were asked to do this, my answer was ‘absolutely, can I please do this?'” Bilas said. “We’re thrilled. Anything that Auburn needs from us, they’ve got it… We are going to learn a lot on this trip and learn about each other. This has the potential to be the most significant trip I’ve ever heard of.”

With over three months remaining until basketball season returns to Neville Arena, Pearl is approaching the team’s time on the floor as an opportunity for growth, above anything. He knows he has plenty of time to pencil in his starting five, but he is expecting everyone to contribute and play 20 minutes or so, even if they don’t see the floor that much during the season.

While Pearl may seem more relaxed from a coaching standpoint in Israel, he knows his team will encounter adversity and see plenty of talent on their trip.

“One thing our guys will find out in a hurry is that they love their basketball in Israel, and they’re good,” Pearl said. “A lot of times, you go on these summer tours and you do the best you can to try to play some competition and there just flat out isn’t any over there. We’re going to get all we want.”

What Pearl hopes for this trip is team bonding and growth in their cohesiveness, on and off the court. He adds that the team will learn a lot about themselves, which might prove crucial months before the season.

Incoming transfer Johni Broome and freshmen Yohan Traore and Tre Donaldson will also get their first live action with the Tigers. On their international trip, the trio will be getting a feel for taking the court with their Auburn teams who are returning after winning the SEC regular-season championship last season.

“I’m not trying to determine who my best players are right this second,” Pearl said. “It wouldn’t be fair, as they have plenty of time to show who they will be.”

Towards the end of Pearl’s press conference, the coach talked about how he feels this trip can help in relations with the US and the Middle East. “Normalization” is what he thinks the nations need, for one country to be able to peacefully visit the other and unite over a game of basketball. With national interest and passion for basketball in Israel rising quickly, Pearl might just be on to something.

Auburn will become the first ever Power 5 program to tour Israel, and UConn is the last D-1 school to visit the country back in 1998.

“I’m hoping that what we’re going to create is maybe an every year thing,” Pearl said. “How can we contribute to peace in the Middle East? Normalization. We’re going over to play basketball against a couple of other teams. There may have been a time when people said, ‘That’s not a very good idea. That’s too dangerous .Why would you do that?’ That’s why we want to try to do that.”

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