Members of the Auburn University basketball team were in the Holy Land to play a game against an Israeli team but also made news for getting baptized in the Jordan River.
“Today, we shared a special moment with each other,” the team shared on its Twitter account along with photos of team members being submerged in the river.
The Tigers were in Israel for a 10-day trip to play three exhibition games – of which they won two – tour the Holy Land.
In an interview on SEC Now, Coach Bruce Pearl stressed the importance of taking his players abroad every four years. When asked why he brought them to Israel, he responded that there are good teams with strong competitors who love the sport.
During one game, Pearly told Israelis in the crowd, “Just as I tell my players, we have a responsibility, God has blessed us, He’s chosen us, and we got the responsibility, cause, like I tell my players, you gotta represent the name on the front of your jersey, that’s Auburn. You got to represent the name on the back of your jersey that’s your family name, but you also got to represent God’s children – the Jewish people – with how you act, with how you study, with how you love each other, what kind of neighbor are you going to be, let the light continue to shine upon you, and shine upon all the people.”
Pearl is Jewish, but many of the players are Christian. His grandparents fled Ukraine and Russia to Israel during World War II to escape the Holocaust. He grew up a star athlete in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, playing several sports until an injury sidelined him for awhile.
As a freshman at Boston College. Pearl failed to make the basketball team, but head coach Tom Davis saw his potential and kept him on the team, first as a student manager and then as assistant coach, a huge accomplishment that usually takes years to complete.
“I got involved in everything,” said Pearl. “I didn’t think I was going to coach, but I just loved it.”
This led to his becoming a professional college basketball coach following his graduation, first with Davis at Stanford and Iowa and later at the University of Southern Indiana where he had a successful career. He also coached at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at Tennessee, before ending up at Auburn in 2014.
Auburn led the league for three straight weeks this past season.
“For a period, nobody in college basketball was playing as good as we were,” Pearl said.
He first visited Israel in 2009. As a Jew, Pearl said he is “politically, speaking out publicly on anti-Semitism, racism and other issues of intolerance. I take the words ‘never again’ very seriously.”
The trip has been dubbed, “Birthright for College Basketball.” The Tigers are the fourth college basketball team to play in Israel in a pre-season tour. In his interview with The Jerusalem Post, Pearl spoke of the positive impact the trip has had on his players.
“My players are going to see their Judeo-Christian roots, and for those who want to get baptized in the river Jordan, they will,” he said.
Dylan Cardwell, one of the Auburn players, wrote about the team’s experiences – and his first trip overseas. From the Mount of Olives to Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, the team packed in a busy itinerary in between games.
“We even walked along the Via Dolorosa, which is the historic path Jesus walked before his crucifixion,” he said. “My personal favorite was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was buried. It was an amazing sight to see.”
“Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem was a huge blessing – just observing people's way of life and how they differ to our livelihood back home in the U.S.”
After some of the team got baptized in the Jordan River, Cardwell wrote, “It was amazing to witness and I'm glad my Auburn family got a chance to turn their lives over to Christ.
Pearl is working to recruit other NCAA teams to take such tours.
“They'll walk in the garden where Jesus walked, and they'll pray at the Western Wall. And they'll experience firsthand God's presence in the Holy Land. Just come and see it, you'll be changed forever,” he said.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.