Maccabiah Games hit home for Pearl

July 2, 2009

Special From Philadelphia Daily News


Bruce Pearl's basketball life has taken him from his alma mater, Boston College, to Stanford and Iowa as his mentor, Dr. Tom Davis, was carving out a coaching legacy that will stand the test of time.

When Pearl dared try to expose some of the underbelly of college recruiting while an Iowa assistant, he found himself blackballed, ending up as the head coach at Division II Southern Indiana. All he did there was go 231-46 and win the 1995 national championship. That led to UW-Milwaukee, where he kept winning. And that led to Tennessee, where his teams have been winning like no teams in the formerly forgettable history of Vols basketball.

Pearl's teams are fun to watch. In an era when too many coaches feel like they have to oversee every possession, Pearl empowers his players. The game is supposed to be fun. Pearl insists on it.

With all that he has done, Pearl leaves Philadelphia International Airport tonight for the flight of his life. Tomorrow morning he will arrive in Israel, where he will coach the United States Open Men's basketball team at the 18th World Maccabiah Games.

"It's the bucket list for me," Pearl said Monday afternoon over lunch at Chink's Steaks on Torresdale Avenue. "We're combining the opportunity for me to wear red, white and blue and coach the USA in an international sport's event, coaching basketball in my Jewish homeland. It almost doesn't get any better.

"I'm proud to be a citizen of this country. I'm proud to be able to worship the way I choose so much more freely than many who came before me. And I thank people for that.''

Pearl's team, which includes Penn point guard Zach Rosen, Bucknell's Bryan Cohen and Pearl's son, Tennessee forward Steve Pearl, will begin play July 14. La Salle assistant Harris Adler is Pearl's assistant coach for the Games.



The team just finished a 5-day training camp at La Salle. This will be about basketball, but it will really be about much more than that.

Often called the "Jewish Olympics,'' the Maccabiah Games will include more than 8,000 athletes from 60 countries. The USA alone will have 88 teams.

Pearl has been to Israel many times. This trip won't be like those trips.

"To get to go back to Israel, its existence is just vital to our survival,'' Pearl said. "As a people, we've wandered for so long. There were certain things that God asked us to do way back in the day. We've tried through our traditions to do them. So to be able to be given the blessing of being able to care for the birthplace of so many religions, it's a responsibility that Israel and the Jewish people take very, very seriously.''

So, no, these just aren't basketball games. And this is not just another trip.

"It is the land of milk and honey,'' Pearl said. "At one point, it was a desert. Now, it is one of the prettiest places on earth. It's green in the desert. I'm a big loyalty guy as a basketball coach, as a friend, as a manager. I appreciate Israel's loyalty to my country and I think that the USA obviously has been loyal to Israel.''

With that as background, there will be basketball.

"Basketball is big there,'' Pearl said. "They love basketball.''

And if the USA team is going to win the gold medal, it probably will have to beat defending champion Israel.

"It won't be men against boys,'' Pearl said, "but it will be men against young men.''

Pearl has been with college teams that played internationally. This, however, was the team he always wanted to coach, in the place he wanted to coach it. Winning would be nice, but this is quite a bit bigger than scoreboards.

The basketball games will be played in the Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana. The coach, who has been known not to take his game or himself too seriously, has already figured out the endgame scenario.

"I've got the [officials' assignment] for the championship game,'' Pearl said. "It's Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I'm in trouble. The Israeli team has got a real advantage with those guys.''

Playing Israel in Israel is generally a tough go.

"Ask the Arab nations what it's like to have Israel on the schedule,'' Pearl said.

The USA is in Group B with Mexico, France, Russia and Argentina. Israel, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Greece are in Group A. The semifinals are July 21. The championship game is July 22.

Pearl has given up the critical July recruiting period to coach this team.

"It's like when Mike Krzyzewski coached the Olympic team, except he got to coach the best athletes in the world and I'm getting to coach the best Jewish athletes in the world so there is a little qualifier there,'' Pearl said.

There is. Still, that is not the point. Not when you get to coach your national team in your homeland. Which is why Bruce Pearl will be precisely where he wants to be over the next few weeks. *



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