USA basketball goes up from downtown... Ra'anana

University of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl brings team of Jewish 'ballers to Israel for 18th Maccabiah.

bruce pearl 88 (photo credit: )
bruce pearl 88
(photo credit: )
One possession after another, the Maccabi USA men's hoopsters just can't stop turning the ball over. First, star forward Dan Grunfeld throws an errant pass out of bounds. Then, a steal right out of the grip of usually sure-handed guard Avi Fogel. When Zach Rosen and Steven Gruber put up consecutive airballs, you know a timeout and spit-flying coach's tirade is right around the corner. However, a glance to the sidelines reveals Bruce Pearl, the jovial general of this sorry bunch, doubled over in laughter. In fact, his reaction seems to fit perfectly with his team's on-court display in this 'bizzaro' basketball time warp on Thursday morning in Ramat Gan. Truth be told, Pearl has given his players a practice day off ahead of the move to Netanya, where they will stay during the competition phase of their trip to Israel for the 18th Maccabiah Games. What was actually taking place in the pool-side gymnasium in beautiful Kfar Maccabiah was a friendly pickup game of wheelchair hoops between a local club and some of the Team USA members, who had made use of some spare wheelchairs and foolishly assumed that their "mad ball skills would take to the chair," as one courtside observer so eloquently put it. Putting aside for a moment the symbolic innocence of this touching scene - one in which a delicious (and sadly but grippingly ironic) role-reversal has the disabled youth rolling circles around the overmatched jocks - the American players can certainly relieve themselves with the fact that they'll be competing on foot rather than wheels when the Games get under way this week. If anything, Thursday's blithe-yet-evocative exhibition was a positive indication of the strong chemistry the diverse roster has developed in just a short time as a unit, a characteristic that is sure to serve it well in real game situations. "I think one of our biggest strengths is the team camaraderie off the court," confirms Grunfeld, a former NCAA standout at Stanford who is currently playing professionally in Spain after being briefly signed by the NBA's New York Knicks in 2008. "We really take it as an honor to be representing the US in Israel and that is a big motivating and bonding factor for each of us. "Plus, we've got one of the best coaches in the business guiding us, and that always helps." Pearl is one of the most successful NCAA coaches, recently inking a six-year extension to remain at the University of Tennessee, where he has rebuilt the once-flailing program into a national powerhouse. In an impossibly tough SEC featuring title-contenders Kentucky and Florida, Pearl has elbowed his Volunteers into the discussion of the division's premier teams, earning trips to March Madness in each of the past three seasons. He has been honored six times as a conference coach-of-the-year and twice (most recently in 2006) he was named the national coach-of-the-year. Suffice it to say, Maccabi USA picked the right man for the job. Pearl himself is ecstatic to have the opportunity. "For me it really is the bucket-list, the ultimate trifecta," gushes the gregarious head coach, whose son Steven (who also plays for his dad at Tennessee) is a key member of the Maccabiah squad. "To be able to coach the game that I love, and represent the red, white and blue in my Jewish homeland, of all places, is really the total grand-slam package." As for how the team was chosen and groomed, Pearl explains, "we had tryouts in New York, Knoxville (Tennessee), Los Angeles, and we had our training camp in Philadelphia. The final team that we brought is really the outcome of a process that was tailor-made to choose a cohesive bunch of athletes who could gel quickly. "And they've definitely done that. On top of meshing nicely and practicing extremely hard, each of the players has committed a tremendous amount of time and financial resources. This is more than just another tournament for me and the team. It's certainly about more than just basketball. "For these Jewish American boys, this trip is going to help solidify their religious identity, and as a father - and I truly feel like a father to each of the boys on the team - I couldn't be prouder." As nice as being here in Israel is, however, come tip-off time, there are games to be won, a fact not lost on the players. "When it comes down to it, we are all Jews, but we're also all competitive and at the end of the day want to win and take home bragging rights," exclaims Fogel. "We have the ability to do really well here," Grunfeld immediately concurs. "While we are not overlooking anyone, we are extremely versatile; we have guys that can shoot and guys that work the inside, aspects that really complement and feed off each other." Asked how he has had to modify his coaching strategies or play-calling to accommodate the athletic abilities of his Maccabiah roster, Pearl admits that "the difference would be the shot blocking." "We don't really play above the rim. With that said, we have great athleticism and quickness. I would say that overall, 95% of things I do with Tennessee I do with this basketball team," he says. The Maccabiah hoops competition gets under way on Tuesday, with games being held in three locations around Ra'anana. The USA is in Group B with Mexico, France, Russia and Argentina. Israel, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Greece are in Group A. The Americans open their campaign on Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. against Mexico in Aviv Hall while Israel begins its preliminaries opposite Germany on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Metrowest Hall. The semifinals are scheduled for July 21 and the championship game will be played on July 22. "As far everything goes, we'll definitely be competitive," asserts Pearl. "The Israeli team, on the other hand, will probably be bigger, faster, stronger than us and certainly will have more experience playing with each other." It's about a second and a half before Pearl gives in to his thinly-veiled inner excitement and his dream-scenario comes tumbling out of his mouth. "A gold medal here - even just competing in the championship game - would truly be a pinnacle of my career and life. "I have a feeling Israel will be there in the finals. I just hope we'll be there as well." And I just hope to have a front row seat for that one.