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Arizona, Kansas students to visit Israel in ‘Birthright for College Basketball’

On the 10-day trip, the men’s basketball teams at University of Arizona and Kansas State University will learn about Jewish history and culture, in addition to antisemitism.

Athletes for Israel founder Daniel Posner (left), a longtime hedge-fund and private-equity manager in Manhattan, and Auburn Tigers coach Bruce Pearl at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, August 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Auburn Athletics/Basketball.
Athletes for Israel founder Daniel Posner (left), a longtime hedge-fund and private-equity manager in Manhattan, and Auburn Tigers coach Bruce Pearl at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, August 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Auburn Athletics/Basketball.

Two top-ranked college athletic programs are slated to travel to Israel and the United Arab Emirates this week in a program sponsored by the nonprofit Athletes for Israel, which refers to itself as the “Birthright for college basketball.”

From Aug. 10-20, the Kansas State University and University of Arizona men’s basketball teams—coincidentally, both are called the Wildcats—will play Israeli counterparts and, off the court, will learn about Jewish and Arab history and culture, as well as antisemitism, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi.

Daniel Posner, founder and chairman of Athletes for Israel, and Bruce Pearl, the Jewish head coach of the Auburn University Tigers, developed the idea of a college basketball “Birthright” program.

“We came up with this dream. The two of us wanted to bring college teams to Israel every year because we wanted to fight antisemitism, and the best way to do that is partnering with people to educate them about Israel,” Posner told JNS. 

“The best way to educate people about it is to let them see it for themselves firsthand,” he said. “We only believe in peace. Let’s prove it by showing them what we’ve done in the Abraham Accords.”

Another coincidence: Posner’s daughter, Gabrielle, is married to Avi Berkowitz, the former U.S. special representative for international negotiations who played an integral role in brokering the accords.

In Abu Dhabi, the Arizona and Kansas players are to visit the Abrahamic Family House and the Grand Mosque, among other locations. They will also learn about the history, diversity and importance of the modern State of Israel on walking tours of Jerusalem’s Old City, the City of David, Bethlehem and Jaffa, and visits to Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea.

The student-athletes will also take part in a technology summit with top world venture capitalists in Tel Aviv. Israel exports technology and innovation globally, and the athletes and others must learn that Israel is more dynamic than just a state formed following the Holocaust, according to Posner.

“People need to see that Israel is important today because of how amazing the culture and society is, and the fact that we have developed world-class science to cure different diseases and technology like our first responders use to deal with terrorism,” he said.

Athletes for Israel originally planned to bring just one college program to Israel over the summer, but Posner told JNS that the nonprofit was so impressed with Jerome Tang, head coach of the Kansas State basketball team, and Tommy Lloyd, head coach of the University of Arizona team, that it opted to bring both.

‘Getting our boots on the ground

In an Aug. 6 press conference, Lloyd called visiting Israel a “mind-blowing experience.”

“You’re going over to the most historical place on Earth. I’m not the most well-versed person in religion, but I did watch the six-part series on Jerusalem on CNN, which is really good,” Lloyd said. “It’s mind-blowing. It’s almost too much to wrap your head around.” 

Those who try to understand the country just from the news will certainly find it too much to wrap their heads around, according to Lloyd, who has previously visited Israel.

“A lot of times, what we’re hearing about Israel isn’t always good news,” he told reporters. “So I’m really looking forward to getting our boots on the ground over there, and just seeing with my own eyes and showing our group that this is a really cool place that not only does have maybe the greatest history on our planet, it’s maybe one of the trendsetting cultures in all of the world today.”

Previously, Llyod was an assistant for 20 years at basketball powerhouse Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Among the players he recruited was Jeremy Pargo, who became a standout guard at Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“Jeremy is one of my favorites and will always have a special place in my heart,” he told reporters. “He was a fan favorite, and we loved him so much. When Jeremy was at Maccabi, we took our whole family to Israel to see him while we were in Europe.”

He also called the Israeli-American former basketball coach David Blatt a mentor.

Auburn Tigers coach Bruce Pearl touring Ir David, the City of David, in Jerusalem, August 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Auburn Athletics/Basketball.

At an Aug. 4 press conference, Tang, of Kansas State, called visiting Israel and Abu Dhabi “a bucket list. Something I wanted to do.”

“We were actually going to Greece. And so, when this came about, it was just something that you couldn’t turn down,” he added.

During the trip to Israel, each of the U.S. college teams is slated to compete against the Israel Select Team at Tel Aviv’s Hadar Yosef arena. Arizona is to take the floor on Aug. 14, and Kansas State on the following night. Ryan Turell, an Orthodox Jewish American who plays for the Detroit Pistons’ development team, will play for Israel.

Home advantage?

The Israeli team, which lost 107-71 last year to Pearl’s Auburn squad, will have its work cut out for it.

Both of the visiting coaches and their programs have had a great deal of success. Kansas State went 26-10 last season, leading Tang to be named Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year and runner-up for the Associated Press National Coach of the Year.

Meanwhile, Llyoyd tied the NCAA record for the most wins by a head coach in his first two seasons at a school—going 61-11 in Tucson with back-to-back Pac-12 championships and the 2021-22 National Coach of the Year awards from the NABC, USBWA and Associated Press. 

International players make up roughly half of Lloyd’s squad this year. When JNS asked if Israel could potentially provide a talent pipeline to Arizona, Lloyd told reporters: “As for finding some local talent, I’m always exploring.” 

He said that he recruited 26-year-old Tamir Blatt, David’s son, and tried to get him to come to Gonzaga. “He would have been a great fit. But he carved out a great career and is now in the Euroleague with Maccabi,” said Lloyd. “His passing ability and IQ are second to none.”

Tamir Blatt, EuroLeague 2021-22. Credit: Sandro Halank via Wikimedia Commons.

Lloyd told reporters he tried to convince Tamir Blatt to play with Israel Select, “but he said that it won’t happen.” He also spoke recently with Amit Tamir, the Jerusalem-born head coach of Israel Select and a former Pac-12 player at the University of California. 

“We exchanged some information to prepare for this friendly game,” Lloyd said. “Amit said there may be a few players that we should take a look at.”

His program has been preparing for the trip by learning about different aspects of the cultural experience in Israel.

“We had two people come in today and talk to us about the Jewish culture and faith, and a couple of days ago, it was the significance of the Christian faith in Jerusalem—with Jesus and how the city’s divided,” Tang told reporters. 

“We have an imam coming in to share about the Islamic faith and how its presence is there in Jerusalem,” added Tang, a former youth pastor who is outspoken about his Christian faith. “We want to learn about each one, but we also want to be respectful of everyone.”

Two Muslim student-athletes who played for Kansas State last year—Abayomi Iyiola and Ismael Massoud—were given the opportunity to go to a mosque for prayers during Ramadan, he said.

“Athletes for Israel and some of the other sports organizations there in Israel that represent different religions saw how we conducted ourselves and said ‘That’s what we want,’ because we want to be able to build unity through sports,” Tang said, in response to a question from JNS. “That’s what attracted them to us.”

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