NEW YORK (JTA) — Bruce Pearl’s coaching credentials finally caught up with his desire to lead the U.S. men’s open basketball team at the Maccabiah Games.
Four years guiding the University of Tennessee, along with hugely successful tenures at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Division II University of Southern Indiana, put him over the top for a spot he says he’s wanted for 20 years.
“Other more accomplished coaches coached our team,” said Pearl, 49, who earned National Coach of the Year honors in 2008. “[Maccabi USA] has known for years this is something I wanted to do.”
Pearl will be part of a 900-member contingent that will represent the United States at the 18th Games July 12-23 in Israel. The Americans will be among some 8,000 Jewish athletes from more than 60 countries participating in the so-called Jewish Olympics, which are held every four years. Participants as young as 16 will compete.
Opening ceremonies will be held July 13 at Ramat Gan Stadium. Twenty-eight sports will be contested in the open competitions, with 17 for Juniors, four for Youth and 13 for Masters.
The host nation easily outdistanced the field in medals five years ago, bringing home 594 to 227 for the runner-up Americans. The Israelis won 228 golds to 73 for the second-place United States.
Pearl says he hopes to improve on the bronze medal for men’s open basketball that the United States earned in ’05, but it will be challenging for his young squad to reach the gold-medal game. Dan Grunfeld, a former Stanford University standout now playing overseas, is expected to power the team.
Grunfeld’s father, Ernie, a standout at the University of Tennessee and a solid NBA performer, averaged 20 points as a high school player for the U.S. team that earned a silver in the 1973 Games.
For Pearl, his first trip to Israel will be a family affair: Son Steven is playing for the U.S. squad, daughter Jacqui is the team manager, and parents Bernie and Barbara from Boynton Beach, Fla., are coming along. His fiancée will be joining him, too.
Pearl expects it to be a life-altering experience for himself and his players.
“It’s coaching the U.S. team, representing the United States of America in an international competition and coaching the game of basketball, the game I love, and doing it in my Jewish homeland,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
While Pearl may be a Maccabiah novice, women’s field hockey coach Mim Chappell-Eber will be making her fifth appearance, her third as a coach. She recalls the bridge collapse in the ’97 Games that killed four Australians and carrying the banner for the U.S. team in the 2001 Games.
“Being there representing the United States as an American Jew, and going to Yad Vashem and religious places, the Wailing Wall, you just become more immersed in the religious culture,” says Chappell-Eber, whose daughter, Ariel Eber, is the team’s goalie for the second straight Maccabiah.
Pearl says he wants to visit the religious sites and “see where it all began.”
“I’m looking forward to getting off the plane and kissing the ground, thanking the people there for all that they do for us,” he said.
Among the activities for some Maccabiah participants will be a bar mitzvah ceremony. The U.S. team will work with Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who was appointed team rabbi.
“The Maccabiah is one of the most exciting and integrated Jewish experiences I have ever been involved in,” Kula said in a news release from Maccabi USA. “It is an expression of a global Jewish community in which people’s passion — sports — combines with a love for Israel, a developing Jewish identity and an affirmation of Jewish unity. Just imagining a bar mitzvah overlooking Jerusalem for some 200 athletes who never celebrated their bar mitzvah says it all.”
Kula will lead services at such sites as Yad Vashem and Masada.