Young American hoopsters experience intercultural joy in Israel

Auburn Tigers players interact with Israeli fans after one of their exhibition games this week as part of the college basketball team's trip trip to the Holy Land.

 Teens participate in the Tamir Goodman Basketball Camp in Jerusalem in 2021. (photo credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA)
Teens participate in the Tamir Goodman Basketball Camp in Jerusalem in 2021.

The post-game shoulder bump between Dylan Cardwell, the 6-foot-11 Auburn University basketball player, and a towel boy donning Tzitit and a yarmulke was a jovial snapshot of interfaith connection on Auburn’s trip to Israel.

The NCAA D1 basketball team from Alabama took a Birthright-style trip across the country this week to visit its holy sites, learn about the modern country and play three preseason games against Israeli teams.

Auburn’s 117-56 win over Israel’s Under-20 national team on Tuesday seemed to be just a side note at Jerusalem’s Malha Stadium, where the main event was intercultural exchange and enthusiasm for the Americans’ trip to Israel.

Auburn’s head coach, Bruce Pearl, is an outspoken Zionist and Jew who worked with the organization Athletes For Israel (AFI) to make his team’s trip possible.

“Athletes for Israel brings superstars, generally athletes and influencers, to Israel to combat antisemitism and [to create] positive PR for Israel,” said Daniel Posner, the Chairman and Founder of AFI.

 Picture of Auburn players interacting with Israeli fans  (credit: JULIA ROBBINS) Picture of Auburn players interacting with Israeli fans (credit: JULIA ROBBINS)

The team spent time in areas across the country including Bethlehem, Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall.

“We’re here to see this country, get closer to God, and by the way we have three games – that’s how we look at it,”

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl

“We’re here to see this country, get closer to God, and by the way, we have three games – that’s how we look at it,” Pearl said.

Fans in the crowd chanted Pearl’s Hebrew name – “Mordachai” – to draw his attention, and were just as enthused to meet him after the game as the athletes.

“He’s very passionate about his Judaism and he’s very passionate about bringing people to Israel and helping educate people about Israel,” Posner said.

The team's trip in Israel

The National Collegiate Athletic Association allows teams to take an international trip once every four years, and a trip to Israel stands out for the unique religious connection that athletes may share with the land.

Some of the players from Auburn are Christian and are visiting holy sites of their religion for the first time.

“It’s pretty powerful for people who’ve been in families where they’ve always dreamed of coming to Israel,” Posner said. “Some of these players say that their mother or grandmother would have loved to be here, but they get to be here and represent their family.”

The team walked around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount of Olives “and the guys were just soaking it in, walking where Jesus walked,” Pearl said.

Jeremy Napier, the team Chaplain for Auburn, has been posting “Daily devotionals” on his Twitter page with perspective on Jesus’s journey in the land of Israel and how the players can learn from his life.

“For over a thousand years, people have traveled from all over the world to walk the Via Dolorosa,” Napier wrote in the day three daily devotional. “The reason why it is significant is because Jesus traveled that path on the day of his crucifixion.”

Videos posted to the team’s Twitter page show footage of the team, decked out in their burnt orange and navy-blue outfits, touring the major holy sites of the country and speaking with locals.

“We went to Jerusalem yesterday, we got to walk around the holy sites which was amazing, and today we were in Bethlehem and saw where Jesus was born,” Auburn guard Carter Sobera said. “It’s been amazing. It’s definitely exceeded my expectations.”

Players had the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River where John the Apostle was baptized.

The team took part in a high-tech seminar in Tel Aviv. Posner said the evolving conversation will illuminate opportunities in Israel’s tech realm for players who don’t end up playing professionally and will be looking for good jobs, or for players who make it to the NBA who end up seeking investment opportunities.

And of course, the team is playing basketball.

Auburn dominated the entire first game, beating the Israelis in size, speed, and overall technique.

Israel, largely due to its lack of physical strength, couldn’t muscle its way to score close to the basket and was never able to go on any runs against its stronger and more experienced competitors.

“Even though we were down 20 or 30 points, we still had spirit and still fought hard and that’s what I liked about our team,” Israeli player Roi Behar said after the game.

Behar said he wants people watching the games in America to see that “Israelis fight and go hard and don’t give up, no matter what.”

The fans in the audience cheered for Auburn and Israel throughout the night, and the crowd was heavily decked out in orange capes and bandanas to support Auburn.

“It’s your boy Jaylin Williams,” the Auburn player said in a video on Twitter that showed the crowd behind him. “Just had an amazing experience in Israel, it’s amazing out here, the fans are going wild as you can see.”

After the game, fans flocked to the front of the stands to take photos with the players.

“He put on a kippah,” a boy announced excitedly about Cardwell, who placed a white yarmulke from a fan on his head for a second after the game.

“I think it’s great, a team from the US coming over and playing hoops in Israel is always amazing,” Sobera said. “I’m just looking forward to the rest of the trip and seeing what God has for me.”

“That was fun! 2 more in the Promise land,” Wendell Green Junior tweeted after their win. “Craziest experience of my life today #Blessed #GodFirst.”

Auburn has games against the Israel All-Star Select Team on Sunday and the Israel National Team on Monday.

“Let’s sell those games out,” Pearl said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the United States to see on live television how good Israeli basketball is and how passionate its fans are.”