Lessons Beyond The Basketball Court
By Steve Lipman
This summer, a group of college students from North Carolina joined a new international movement in Holocaust education that involves visits to sites of Nazi concentration camps by teams of professional and student athletes.
The basketball team of Davidson College (14 players and five coaches) took part in a four-day trip to Poland, which included guided tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and Auschwitz Museum, and time in Cracow, where the delegation was based. The visit, coordinated by the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), based in Freehold, N.J., and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, from Terra Haute, Ind., was part of the program of overseas training tours that the National Collegiate Athletic Association provides for its teams every four years.
But the Davidson team’s time in Poland was different.
“No basketball at all,” said Bob McKillop, the team’s Queens-born head coach. Guided by Eva Mozes Kor, the Auschwitz survivor who founded CANDLES, the players saw the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz and heard Kor’s story of losing her parents in the Shoah and being forced to take part in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s brutal experiments on twins. “It was non-stop and exhausting, physically and emotionally,” McKillop said.
The players returned to campus as changed persons, he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “I’m watching the way they treat people. I see there’s a sensitivity, there’s a respect that maybe was not so apparent. That will shape their lives.”
As prominent members of the campus community, the athletes are likely to share their experiences during classes, in interviews and public speeches and in a forthcoming documentary, said McKillop, a church-going Catholic who served as a high school history teacher early in his career.
The fifth-longest-tenured head basketball coach currently in NCAA Division I, he is best-known to fans as the former coach of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who played at Davidson in 2006-09.
Other sports teams that have made similar visits to concentration camps in recent years include England’s Chelsea Football (soccer) Club, the Duke University men’s soccer team, and the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team, under the leadership of Bruce Pearl, the Jewish head coach who now works at Auburn University.
“It’s a growing educational trend, and a valuable one,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust expert and author. “A pilgrimage there is deeply important — it raises all the issues of the fundamentals of life.”
“We are glad that there are so many young people visiting the Auschwitz Museum. Among them are also sportsmen,” Lukasz Lipinski, a Museum spokesman, said in an email interview. “It is important that those that are leaders or idols visit Auschwitz. Their experiences … their thoughts and emotions after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau reach a very wide group of people.”
The visit of the athletes from Davidson College, a small, private liberal arts school loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, was the idea of Amanda Caleb, a 2002 graduate of the university who played field hockey there, and of Stacy Gallin, founder and director of MIMEH, which targets most of its activities to healthcare professionals. High-visibility athletes are poised to serve as informal Holocaust educators and an antidote to Holocaust deniers, Caleb and Gallin thought.
Caleb pitched the idea to McKillop, who immediately accepted. His players, members of various Christian denominations, “welcomed the opportunity to see history,” he said.
McKillop said fellow basketball coaches have approached him about conducting similar concentration camp visits for their teams. They share his vision that their athletes should learn lessons about life beyond sports, he said. “There’s a greater awareness.”