College basketball fans around the Holy Land will be thrilled as two NCAA teams – Arizona and Kansas State – both make their way to the country this week on a “Birthright for College Basketball” trip with Athletes For Israel (AFI) and Complete Sports Management.
Last year, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn was the first school to take in what Israel has to offer, from the holy sites to the entertainment and culture of the land, and now AFI has doubled that with a pair of Wildcats – ironically both schools’ moniker – arriving for what will no doubt be a trip of a lifetime.
Athletes For Israel is a non-profit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism and promoting a positive narrative about Israel by partnering with athletes.
Over the past four years, AFI has orchestrated unforgettable trips to Israel for several former NBA, NFL, and MLB stars and collegiate programs.
Building upon the resounding success of the Auburn trip, AFI is looking forward to continuing to facilitate team-building and exploration while experiencing all that Israel has to offer. In addition, for the first time, the trip will include a visit to the UAE to support and celebrate the Abraham Accords.
The itinerary in Israel will include tours of the Old City, a visit to Bethlehem, Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea, Shabbat dinner, a tech summit, and one basketball game in Tel Aviv. In the UAE, the teams will visit the Grand Mosque and the Abrahamic Family House and play two games against foreign teams.
AFI fundamentally believes that by providing athletes with a true sense of Israel, we are correcting false narratives about Israel and its people, and developing a new generation of allies and ambassadors.
Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang spent some time with The Jerusalem Post ahead of his team’s journey across the ocean and discussed what he along with his squad, would like to gain from the experience. Kansas State tips off against the Israel Select team on Monday August 15 at Hadar Yosef in Tel Aviv.
“Every four years, the NCAA allows Division I schools to take a foreign tour and originally we were working on plans to go to Greece,” Tang began from his office in Manhattan, Kansas. “But CSM and Lea Miller approached us along with Daniel Posner and Athletes For Israel, which gave us a proposal to come to Israel. It was really a no-brainer to come. Lea and Daniel do a great job with this program and AFI really does fabulous work by uniting communities through sports and that resonates with who I am.
“From there I spoke to Coach Pearl several times and he has been very generous with his time. He shared his and his team’s experiences and reasons for going and he’s spoken to our team and his players did Zoom calls with ours, which was super helpful. I feel part of a new family and happy to be able to promote Israel and what it has to offer educationally and culturally.”
Tang, the 2023 Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year, explained that he has three goals in mind as to what he wants to get out of this trip for his entire team as they look to gel ahead of the upcoming NCAA season.“We want every player to come back from this journey and feel that they would be a contributor to our team and not enter the [transfer] portal. That the team and staff group represent Kansas State University at the highest level that the people of Israel would want to invite us back as we show them our class, integrity and character. We want to make sure to have a lot of good times and absorb the education and cultures that we encounter.”
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, the 56-year-old Tang is looking forward to seeing what he will learn about his life as a practicing Christian.
“I’m a devout Christian and a reader and student of the Bible and history and I’m excited to walk the places where Jesus walked and see the places I’ve only been able to read about. I’m looking forward to being Baptized in the Jordan River, float in the Dead Sea and see the city of Jerusalem and learn about how the three different religions interact in such a small area. As it says in the New Testament, ‘A small rudder guides a big ship.’ Israel may be a small country, but it makes a big impact in the world.”As for the players, they are all excited to play basketball which they will do against the Israel Select Team, but Tang has made sure that his squad is as educated as possible before stepping foot in the Holy Land by learning first hand about the three major religions in the country.
“The guys are really excited about the basketball. But we also had a leader from the Jewish community come speak to the guys who shared information with us about the Jewish faith and that everything goes back to Father Abraham. We had someone from the Christian religion that had everything go back to Father Abraham and someone from the Muslim religion that also goes back to Father Abraham. We are learning and exploring every educational opportunity out there.
“For me the great thing about faith is about loving everybody and that’s what excited me about bringing the three religions together through sports. I’m not sure what will be the most exciting thing that each player will experience, but I hope their faith grows. Many of the things that are shared about Israel is not reality and I want us all to see the country first hand and tell great stories about the wonderful time we had with their families.”
Coming to Israel always raises some eyebrows and elicits concern due to the ever-evolving security situation. While Tang has some concerns, he also wants to see the situation on the ground for himself.
“There were some things that were portrayed with issues in Jerusalem that concerned me and I brought it to the staff and administration. It wasn’t anything that would have led us to cancel the trip, but it raised a concern. But we spoke to multiple security people who shared their thoughts with us which calmed our nerves as they explained that it can be portrayed one way or another and we have been assured that we will be in safe places with the best security. I’m excited to see it for myself and form my own opinions. One of the biggest things with us is the wives and what they need to wear, to be proper and with the right etiquette in each situation to respect everyone.”
Prior to arriving at Kansas State, Tang was a mainstay at Baylor University where he was an assistant between 2003-2017 and then was named as the associate head coach from 2018 through 2022 while winning the 2021 NCAA Championship along the way.
While at Baylor, Tang worked with a number of players who would eventually go on to careers in Israel. One of those players was Curtis Jerrells, who helped Hapoel Jerusalem win the 2017 Israeli League title while becoming one of the fan favorites.
“Curtis is one of my favorites as well and was one of the first to commit to us at Baylor. He led us for four years in scoring and assists, but more than that he’s a great human being and a terrific basketball player, leader and teammate. When we played in Austin he came to the game and cheered us on and I’m proud he called me coach.
LaceDarius Dunn who was the all-time leading scorer was also a player to play in Israel. The guys would send me pictures from their apartment windows in Tel Aviv and it was incredible to be able to see the beach right there. Tel Aviv is an amazing city and it will be a great opportunity to visit one of the great technological capitals of the world.”Tang’s current players will be ready to thrill the fans when they tip-off against the Israel Select Team and the head coach broke down who some of his stars are as they ready for action.
“Nae’Qwan Tomlin is a returning senior who has tested the NBA waters as teams are intrigued by how he runs like a guard, dribbles like a guard and I’m certain the fans will enjoy the energy that he brings to the game.
“Cam Carter started every game last season and I expect him to be the most improved player in Big 12 this coming season. We also have a couple of transfers, including Arthur Kaluma who is an NBA-like versatile forward and can play anywhere on the court along with being a smart player and tough kid. Tylor Perry is another transfer who is a dynamic point guard and can play on and off the ball. He’s got the ability to shoot the three and last season went for 43% from deep while being super efficient. We’re looking forward to playing basketball and the fans that come out will love these guys.”
One of the great parts about playing in Israel for the Kansas State players is that in the future they may call the Holy Land home should they take their talents abroad as many college players do when they turn pro. Tang has made sure to make that message loud and clear as he understands that a good showing both on and off the court could end up being crucial down the road for their livelihoods.
“We’ve made it a point to express to the guys that it’s important for their careers and the fact that there will be clubs taking a look and watching them play. They want good people first and foremost who show respect and will be judged on how they conduct themselves, which could open or close doors. The guys have an opportunity to showcase themselves and while everyone wants to play in the NBA, it’s so few that get the chance.”
Finally, on the flip side, Tang hopes that he can perhaps find a diamond in the rough and open up a pipeline of talent that may see a young Israeli or two head to Kansas State to play college hoops.
“I hope to have a chance to see some prospects. Kansas State University in Manhattan is a terrific place that any kid would enjoy.”