Four years ago, as a senior at Mountain Brook High School in Alabama, Lior Berman, while visiting the Auburn University campus on his basketball recruiting tour, was sitting with men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl in his office. Berman knew all about the famed head coach’s trademark histrionics and penchant for nonstop screaming. And he wasn’t the least bit intimidated. If anything, Pearl’s fiery nature was a selling point for matriculating at Alabama’s second largest university.
“What appealed to me was really his [Pearl’s] coaching style and passion,” said Berman, who ultimately chose to enroll at Auburn the following summer as a preferred walk-on, an arrangement whereby he was guaranteed a roster spot, instead of accepting one of the many offers from Division II and III schools to play meaningful minutes right away as a freshman. “Passion’s really the thing that led me to go there. Watching him coach these games, he’s sweating through his suits and that’s something I wanted to be a part of. When I came here to Auburn before I committed here, I just kind of felt that passion, not only with Coach Pearl but through the whole staff. I just knew it was where I wanted to be.
“It just seemed like the right fit.”
On more than one level, as it would turn out.
On the court, Pearl certainly came as advertised with his high blood pressure sideline demeanor evincing heartfelt passion for his team’s fortunes. But off the court, as Berman’s freshman season at Auburn, one in which he played sparingly as a reserve, unfolded amidst the onset of the pandemic, it became rather apparent to the slick-shooting, 6-foot-4 guard that he and his new coach shared more than just a lifelong obsession with basketball.
“Coach Pearl is very strong in his faith,” said Berman, now a senior for Auburn who aspires to play professionally in Israel next year. “Personally, he will have me over sometimes for a seder for Passover. It’s really cool to have a relationship outside of coaching that has to do with Judaism.”
Pearl, whose son Steven is an assistant on the staff, has long used his considerable platform as a legacy college hoops coach to celebrate and raise awareness of Judaic culture. He became the first president of the Jewish Coaches Association, an organization which hosts a breakfast for Jewish college basketball coaches at the tournament’s Final Four weekend each April, and, in 2009, coached the U.S. men’s team at the Maccabiah Games.
Since 2014, when he came over to Auburn, where Jewish undergrads make up less than one percent of the student body, Pearl has organized events through the school’s Hillel and invited Jewish students to his home for an annual Hanukkah party—in addition to hosting Berman for other holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
More recently, this past summer, the longtime SEC hoops coach (he previously coached at the University of Tennessee) took his team to Israel for a 10-day “Birthright for College Basketball Trip” where his players, with the exception of Berman who has Israeli grandparents, visited the Holy Land for the first time. Over a week and a half, the Tigers, coming off an SEC title last spring and ranked in the AP Top 25 this fall, toured the Western Wall, Dead Sea, and Yad Vashem among other historical sites.
Berman, himself, is no stranger to Israel. He has been multiple times, not just to visit relatives but also to play in the World Maccabiah Games on two separate occasions. In 2017, he was on the gold medal-winning, under-16 U.S. team and this past July, days before his teammates would join him in Israel, he helped lead the U.S. men’s team to its fourth consecutive gold medal—a streak that began in 2009 when the Pearl-coached men’s squad beat Israel—with his 11-point, 4-rebound performance against France in the championship game.
A decade ago, at Mountain Brook High School, where he was twice selected to the state finals all-tournament team, all-region team, and all-area team, such stat lines were commonplace for Berman. But at Auburn, a perennial college basketball powerhouse whose stud player last winter was No.3 overall NBA draft pick Jabari Smith and is undefeated at this hour, playing time has been hard to come by. Still, he doesn’t regret forgoing potentially significant playing time for the sake of joining an elite collegiate program.
“Transitioning to a D-I SEC program, I knew it was going to be a challenge,” admitted Berman. “Freshman year I didn’t play very much, but something that Coach Pearl spoke of that I kind of took to heart was staying ready. You basically never know when you’re going to get the opportunity, but if you do get the opportunity, you better be ready.
“I’m playing against some of the best players in the country every single day. Being an underdog was great for me because I could continue to get better and be motivated to be able to eventually help the team on the court.”