NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s not unheard of to find Bruce Pearl, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, somewhere in public screaming with his shirt off — be it as a spectator rooting on the women’s basketball team with his portly belly painted orange and sporting a giant V for Volunteers, or onstage rapping at a school awards ceremony.
Last week, though, at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, the gut stayed covered as he donned a tux to emcee a fund-raising gala for Maccabi USA.
Pearl will be among the 9,000 participants from more than 54 countries in the Maccabiah Games in Israel July 12-23, when he serves as the head coach of the United States men’s basketball team.
Organizers of the Olympics-style competition for Jewish athletes, which has been held every four years in Palestine and then the State of Israel since 1932, say it is the third largest athletic gathering of any kind.
For Pearl, participating in the games is about fostering Jewish identity — his own, as it will be his first visit to Israel, and other young Jews who otherwise may not have a connection to their people and land.
“The biggest thing that we can do is help them with their direction, help them know who they are — and they are the leaders of our futures,” the coach told an audience of several hundred. “This experience will be with them for the rest of their lives.”
For Pearl it had been a busy week, as the gala fell on the last day of an eight-day open recruiting period for NCAA coaches during which he crisscrossed the country looking for the next class of Vols. Pearl said he had made similar efforts in recruiting his 2009 Maccabi squad, as he is dedicated to brining home gold.
“We have to strengthen our bonds with the State of Israel. When I went out and recruited, that is what I sold them on — the opportunity to go back to their homeland,” he said, adding that when he arrives in Israel, “I will kneel on the ground and kiss that land.”
The event boasted a few other big names, including former NBA center Danny Schayes, WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender and “Survivor: Africa” winner and former professional soccer player Ethan Zohn.
Orender, who played on the 1985 U.S. women’s basketball team, said her experience as an athlete truly did shape who she is now, even though it did not end in a clear-cut victory. The United States was set to face Israel for the gold medal, but the Israelis decided to boycott the final to protest the fact that the women’s title game was slated for a substandard gym while the men’s basketball finals were given center stage in Tel Aviv.
“We could have showed up and won by forfeit, but we honored their protest,” Orender said. “What was a gold medal when we had issues to address with our Israeli sisters?”
It is testimonies like those from Orender and Pearl that the officials of Maccabi USA, which pays for the American squad of more than 900 athletes, were hoping would inspire others to help them pay for the games.
They hoped to raise at least $500,000 at the event, but may need more — the recession has made prohibitive the $6,600 price tag that each athlete is expected to raise to participate in the games.
Scratch at least one athlete from the list of those heading to Israel, though not because of any cash crunch.
Pearl told the crowd that he tried to recruit his star forward at Tennessee, Wayne Chism, to play for him in Israel. The coach joked that he had Chism, who is not Jewish, on board — until he mentioned that he might need to undergo a circumcision to make the team.