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Members of the University of Arizona's basketball team lead a clinic in Jerusalem, Aug. 13, 2023. Photo: Josh Hasten.
Members of the University of Arizona's basketball team lead a clinic in Jerusalem, Aug. 13, 2023. Photo: Josh Hasten.
featureIsrael News

Turning hoops into bridges with Athletes for Israel

The Arizona and Kansas State men's basketball teams are in Israel as guests of AFI, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism and promoting a positive narrative about Israel.

Temperatures were scorching outside in Jerusalem on Sunday—and the competition was heating up indoors at a local gym as well, with some of the top college basketball players in the United States, representing the University of Arizona, leading young Israeli hoopsters in a clinic of drills and games.

The Arizona men’s basketball team, along with the Kansas State men’s team—both teams are nicknamed the “Wildcats”—are currently in Israel as guests of Athletes for Israel (AFI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism and promoting a positive narrative about Israel by partnering with athletes and inviting them to tour the country and play exhibition games against local teams.   

The AFI’s inaugural trip took place last August, with Coach Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Men’s Basketball Team, and came to be known as the “Birthright for College Basketball.”

This year’s trip will include a visit to the United Arab Emirates to support and celebrate the Abraham Accords peace initiative. 

The itinerary in Israel includes tours of Jerusalem’s Old City, a visit to Bethlehem, Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea, a Shabbat dinner and a tech summit. 

In addition, both Arizona and Kansas State respectively will be competing in Tel Aviv against teams comprising some of Israel’s top basketball talent.  

In the UAE, the teams will visit the Grand Mosque and the Abrahamic Family House and play two games against foreign teams.

On the sidelines of the youth clinic, Avidan Rudansky, director of U.S. operations for AFI, told JNS that the players from both schools “are very appreciative for the trip, as a lot of them have strong religious roots. To be able to connect by walking the same places where the stories of the Bible took place, I hope they take that back to campus with them.”

Another partner in the visit is Complete Sports Management, which reached out to the basketball programs of both schools and offered them the opportunity to visit the region. Lea Miller-Tooley, CSM’s founder and CEO, told JNS that her team is coordinating the logistics of the trip. 

She said that Arizona and Kansas State would be the first men’s college teams to ever play in Abu Dhabi. Miller-Tooley said, “The players are really getting to see what Israel is all about and how incredible the people are.”

She added that “from a historical and educational perspective, to come to Israel and learn what the country is about and then to transition—thanks to the Abraham accords, to Abu Dhabi, to understand through sports how powerful it is to learn about these two cultures coming together is historic and is really mind-boggling.” 

As the youth clinic began, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, whose 61 wins in the first two seasons are the most for any head coach in NCAA Division I history, gave the youth a pep talk about the importance of having a great attitude and a sense of unselfishness towards basketball success. He said that having fun on the court was extremely important, along with hard work.  

With regard to the trip to Israel and the UAE, Lloyd told JNS that “sharing the experience of traveling with my team and having their eyes opened to the world and other cultures is really exciting.” 

The Kansas State team, with their coach Jerome Tang, who was selected as the 2023 Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year, was visiting the Dead Sea on Sunday.  

The clinic itself, with youth arriving from both Jerusalem and Yavne, was run in collaboration with Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams and the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, promoting tolerance through sports. 

Adams told JNS, “As I call myself the self-appointed ambassador for Israel, bringing first-time visitors here from a variety of backgrounds is part of my mission. This group of elite athletes will be able to see for themselves how different the reality is from their preconceptions, which are influenced by constant negative media coverage.

“Members of this group will themselves potentially become ambassadors for our warm and welcoming nation when they return home. We will continue to support events like these which both build bridges, while promoting the values of tolerance, understanding and excellence through sport.”

Tamir Goodman, former professional basketball player and current coach and sports training consultant in Jerusalem, who works closely with Athletes for Israel and was helping run the clinic, told JNS: 

“I love what AFI represents. Sports is the most proven platform that brings people together, and creates a lot of good.” Goodman said that he is grateful that AFI has helped “power our basketball camp” in Jerusalem for years.  

At the same time Asher Fredman, director for Israel at the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, an American nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the Abraham Accords through economic, cultural and people-to-people initiatives, told JNS, “Sports can be a powerful avenue for deepening understanding, building bridges and enhancing cooperation in the Middle East. The Athletes for Israel trip, bringing together athletes from the United States, Israel and the UAE, is an excellent example of the way that sports can help realize the full potential for warm peace and friendship in the wake of the historic Accords.”

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