The Auburn University Tigers are on a special tour of Israel thanks to head coach Bruce Pearl who wanted to make sure that his team got off to a good start ahead of the 2022/2023 season both on and off of the court. Pearl, who is Jewish, has made a number of trips to the Holy Land including not only one this last year but also back in 2009 when he was the head coach of the United States Maccabiah Team which won a gold medal at those games.
However, Pearl is not the only member of the Tigers who can now claim to be a Maccabiah champion. Lior Berman who was part of this year’s squad that took the gold at the “Jewish Olympics” can also now add his name to a very exclusive list. The Senior, who had a superb tournament as he averaged 12.7 points per game and was the American’s most consistent player throughout the competition spoke to The Sports Rabbi about playing at a world class program in Auburn, growing up as a Jew in Alabama, his dreams and desires and of course what it’s like to be a Maccabiah Champ.
“It feels great and we worked real hard for this. I think we were the hardest working team and we spent the most time practicing in the gym and it paid off. This is something that I will remember for the rest of my life, I’ll always have this medal but what you really remember is your teammates, your coaches and all of the experiences that you go through together.”
“Anytime you can represent your country it’s really cool. I was a little hesitant to come because I was missing some Auburn basketball off-season workouts. But coach Pearl, who once coached at the Games said it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and he said go since I’m in a good spot with Auburn. Now that I’m older I have had a chance to explore and meet even more people, plus my teammates have been awesome.”
Berman, who is entering his senior year at Auburn grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and began playing sport at an early age thanks to his father Elan’s love of the game. While he also participated in other sports such as football and lacrosse, Berman always felt that basketball was his natural calling.
But above all, the 6”4 guard explained how crucial family not only during his younger years but also having his parents and grandparents supporting him in Israel during the Maccabiah as well.
“It’s great growing up in Birmingham and my grandparents lived close to us so we always got together for Shabbat dinner on Friday night and for the holidays the entire family would all come in. My grandmother from my dad’s side is from Israel and my grandparents used to live half time in Israel and half time In Birmingham until a few years ago when they moved to Caesarea full time, so that is really cool. It was really special to have my parents here and they have supported me all the way through along with my grandparents and my aunt who also lives right outside of Jerusalem.”
Berman began developing his game at Mountain Brook High School under the guidance of Birmingham native and current Samford coach Bucky McMillan who helped lead the school to three State Championships.
From there it was off to college and while a number of offers were available to Berman from various NCAA programs, Auburn was clearly his first choice even if it meant he was going to begin as a walk-on, “I had a lot of DII and DIII offers as well as from some DI schools and they were good schools but I loved Coach Pearl. When I grew up I always had in the back of my mind that I knew I wanted to be at Auburn. We had a meeting with Coach Pearl for close to two hours and I knew for certain that I wanted to go to there.”
“When I had that meeting, coach Pearl said that if you were good enough you would play and I knew I could but coming on as a walk-on is making sure that you are always staying right and ready. Scholarship guys were playing together and as a walk-on you never know when you’ll get called up to play. But over time I’d get called up and I’d have good day which have me the reinforcement and the knowledge that I’d have a chance. Since my freshman year I’ve worked my way up and it’s been a great run.”
There was obviously an instant bond between Berman and Pearl due to the fact that they were both Jewish, “There is a Passover Seder at coach Pearl’s house and he invited us to it which was great. Having a Jewish coach is awesome. It’s really cool that we can have conversations about Judaism and staying proud of our religion. There aren’t many Jews at Auburn but there is a Hillel which is great and coach Pearl throws a Chanukah party there every year and everyone always comes.”
Last season, Berman was part of an Auburn team that won the regular season title and also advanced to the NCAA Tournament with a 28-6 record but were eventually eliminated in the second round by Miami. This season with a number of top recruits, Berman hopes that Auburn can repeat the feat while building off of the past campaign’s success.
“March Madness is something that you’d watch every year and you never think you’ll be there, but it was awesome. Just getting that March Madness gear and having the season payoff by getting the two seed was cool. Watching it on TV and then being there was surreal. I think we have a great team and can get there yet again. We want to win championships and last year we won the regular season title. I want to increase my role to help the team and I’m always going to ‘stay right and ready’.”
Over the past few seasons, Auburn has also been able to develop some top level talent who have made it to the NBA including Isaac Okoro, Davion Mitchell, Sharife Cooper, JT Thor, while Jabari Smith was sleeted 3rd overall in this year’s NBA Draft while Walker Kessler went 22nd.
Smith, who is close with Berman off of the court, was selected by the Houston Rockets could in fact be the most talented player to come out of Auburn since Hall of Fame forward and Dream Team member Charles Barkley.
“He’s something that you call a natural talent and is someone who has an extreme work ethic. When those two meet, it creates something very special. We had a breakfast club at Auburn where guys would get together at 5:30-6:00am to shoot and he’d be there always working. I’m sure he will do well in the NBA and he will adapt and work even harder. I consider him one of my good friends, he’s a great player, unselfish and a great competitor.”
“It’s really cool that Smith was drafted and it speaks to the level of how we are playing in college. To think that he along with Walter Kessler were drafted in the first round and are both going to be in the NBA making millions of dollars, it’s just another motivator. It’s just really cool that my friend is in the NBA. The guys on the team held a draft party and we were just watching them get drafted, it was amazing.”
The Bermanator, a nickname that he picked up over the course of his young career may not have one specific player he likes ot pattern his game after but he does have a tremendous amount of respect for one that he feels epitomizes his own play, “There hasn’t been one player but I love watching the NBA and taking things from various guys. A player like Pat Connaughton who at 6”4 can rebound and shoot and he’s amazing at those things. I like to pull things from different players across the spectrum.”
As for Berman’s plans post-Auburn, coming to Israel to play is certainly a strong possibility, “I can definitely see playing in Israel as I didn’t see myself hanging it up after college. The NBA is always the goal but Israel is somewhere where you can play and feel at home. Playing here would be awesome.”
While the Maccabiah may be over, Berman will still have a chance to play a few more games in Israel before heading back to the United States with Auburn as the Tigers will face the Israel Maccabiah Team, an All-Star squad as well as the National Team which will be heading to the Eurobasket at the beginning of September.
“Coach Pearl has been working on taking the team on a trip to Israel for a long time. It’s crazy how things work out and that five days after the Maccabiah, my college is coming here. It’s a dream. I’m most excited that my teammates are coming here and they will have to expand their food palates. When you’re with your team on the road like this, that’s when you bond and it’s going to be the best thing for us.”