Chance Westry, a freshman guard for the Auburn University men’s basketball team, is baptized in the Jordan River by team chaplain Jeremy Napier.
Photo courtesy of Auburn Basketball

Auburn University basketball team experiences more than hoops during trip to Israel

Once in a lifetime.

That’s the phrase that keeps coming up for members of the Auburn men’s basketball team and their voyage to Israel. The team arrived in Jerusalem on July 31 for a 10-day visit that includes basketball but so much more.

“Auburn is going to allow us to go take my kids to Israel and experience something that could be a once-in-a lifetime thing for them,” head coach Bruce Pearl said ahead of the team’s arrival in Israel. “I’m just so grateful.

“One of the things our guys are going to find out in a hurry is they love their basketball in Israel and they’re good,” Pearl said. “A lot of times you go on these summer tours and you do the best you can to try to play some competition, and there just flat out isn’t any competition over there. We’re going to get all we want [in Israel].”

The Tigers are just the fourth college basketball team to play in the Holy Land in a preseason tour. They got off to an impressive start, defeating the Israel U-20 National Team 117-56 Aug. 2 during the first of their three games at Jerusalem’s Malha Arena. They will play again Sunday (Aug. 7) in a matchup against the Israel Select All-Star Team. The game will be televised on SEC Network and is set to tip off at noon Central time. The third game on Aug. 8 will pit the Tigers against the Israel National Team.

Holy Land experience

Between games, the team has experienced the culture and history of the Holy Land, which was important to Pearl, who is Jewish.

“The greatest way to understand Israel and the amazing place it has become is to see it for yourself,” Pearl said. “Seeing is believing.”

Auburn Center Dylan Cardwell stands in the Jordan River. (Photo courtesy of Auburn Basketball)

Auburn center Dylan Cardwell said getting to see “the most historic and holiest sites in the world” has been “really special.”

“First, we went to see the Mount of Olives, which had the most amazing view. From there, we walked down the mountain and visited the beautiful Garden of Gethsemane, which has been preserved since the days Jesus walked the Earth,” Cardwell shared in a blog post. “We even walked along the Via Dolorosa, which is the historic path Jesus walked before his crucifixion.

“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.”

“The next day, we traveled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. It was another significant scene. Just to be able to stand where Jesus once stood was a crazy experience.”

‘Israel is amazing’

“Israel is amazing,” Cardwell wrote. “I’m happy and blessed to be able to experience all of this with my coaches and teammates.”

In another “once in a lifetime” experience, several players were baptized Aug. 5 in the Jordan River. The team also enjoyed a swim in the Dead Sea. (Click here to view a video.)

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who is calling Auburn’s games on SEC Network alongside Roxy Bernstein, is no stranger to foreign tours with college basketball. In the summer of 1983 while playing for Duke, he traveled to France where he and his teammates bonded together.

“A lot of teams take trips that are great,” Bilas said. “I don’t think I’m out on a limb here saying I think this has an opportunity to be the most significant trip that I’ve ever heard of.

“For a close program like Auburn to get even closer together and do it in a setting with a backdrop like Israel will have long-term benefits and ramifications that I think none of us can even fathom right now,” Bilas added. “It’s something that you have to feel. It’s one thing to tell someone something; it’s another thing to have them feel it. And I think everyone involved in this trip is going to feel the significance of it on a very deep level.”

Team bonding

In 2017, Pearl took his team on a similar trip to Italy in the summer. Though the competition wasn’t as challenging, it still brought that Auburn team together, and the Tigers went from being picked to finish ninth in the SEC to winning the regular season championship.

Pearl is hoping to recreate that same bond with this year’s team.

“When you think of your life’s greatest moments, whatever they were — the birth of a child, a marriage, certain experiences — they were the greatest moments of your life because of who you shared them with,” he said. “So, whether it’s a Final Four run or the birth of a child, it was because of who you shared it with.

“We’re going to share this trip together, see things for the first time that we’re never ever going to forget. That’s what makes it so special, and that’s what will give us a chance to be able to come together and get to know each other better.” (Reporting by Greg Ostendorf, assistant director of strategic communications for Auburn University Athletics,; reprinted with permission)