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UF’s Todd Golden, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl bound by basketball and their Jewish faith

GAINESVILLE — Florida men’s basketball coach Todd Golden found more than a mentor in Auburn’s Bruce Pearl.

He discovered a kindred spirit and inspiration, their relationship anchored in basketball and a shared Jewish faith.

When No. 12 Auburn (19-4, 8-2 SEC) ) visits UF (15-7, 5-4) Saturday, the former colleagues will square off during a game critical to the Gators’s NCAA Tournament hopes and perhaps the next step during a Tigers’ push toward another Final Four run under Pearl.

Golden said he wouldn’t be in this position without Pearl, who hired him from 2014-16 during the initial push to rebuild Auburn.

“It wasn’t until after I spent two years with Bruce that I really felt like now I have an even better understanding and better feel for how winning and building a basketball program can happen,” Golden told the Orlando Sentinel.

Golden played for Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s (2004-08) and worked for Kyle Smith at Columbia University (2012-14), a pair of coaches similarly reserved and cerebral. Meanwhile, Pearl is a live wire who sweats through his shirt during games as he coaches an in-your-face playing style.

“Randy, Kyle and Bruce are about as different as you can ever be in terms of personality and what’s important in terms of building a program,” Golden said. “Bruce is always out in the public. Those guys are like hermits.”

Golden aimed to embody the best of all three.

“I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be like Randy or Kyle if I’m able to get a head coaching job,’ ” Golden said. “Then I worked for Bruce and was like, ‘Man, there’s a lot of value in the way that he does things.’ So now I’ve always tried to take a little bit from each, be myself and that’s how I want to do it.

“It definitely made me a more well-rounded basketball guy.”

Golden’s relationship with Pearl spans nearly two decades.

As a member of the U.S. team in the 2005 World Maccabiah Games, akin to the Jewish and Israeli Olympics, Golden teamed with Steven Pearl and met his father, then coach at Tennessee, during summer practices in Los Angeles. Pearl later coached Golden and his son’s gold-medal squad during the 2009 Games.

Looking to resurrect his career after a show-cause penalty ended his tenure at Tennessee in 2011, Pearl hired Golden as his director of basketball operations at Auburn in 2014.

“He wanted to surround himself with people he knew and trusted and felt good about,” Golden said.

Their Jewish background strengthened the two men’s bond.

“That’s something with Bruce and I that always kind of resonated,” Golden said. “We kind of think of ourselves as like underdogs a little bit. Having that Jewish faith has definitely been something that’s made us even closer.”

Basketball has long been a pillar of the Jewish community.

The connection dates to the 1920s when Nat Holman coached CCNY and played professionally. Maurice Podoloff was a key figure in the NBA’s founding; Dolph Schayes was an early star; and Abe Saperstein founded the Harlem Globetrotters.

Florida legend Neal Walk, the No. 2 pick in the 1969 NBA draft, is on a long list of past Jewish basketball success stories. Red Auerbach built the Boston Celtics dynasty in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, Red Holzman coached the New York Knicks to the 1970 and 1973 titles.

More recently, retired six-time All-Star A’mare Stoudemire, a Cypress Creek High alum and former Suns and Knicks standout, converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2020 after being raised in the Hebrew Israelite faith.

These days, Israeli-born Deni Avdija of the Washington Wizards is the NBA’s only Jewish player. Yet there are many Jewish owners, including Dallas’ Mark Cuban, while commissioner Adam Silver and his predecessor David Stern also are Jewish.

“Athletics is definitely something that’s really important and kind of woven within the fabric of the Jewish faith, specifically basketball,” Golden said.

On Saturday in a sold-out O’Connell Center, basketball will pit two coaches against each other in a game that brought them together.

After splitting two meetings with Auburn during his inaugural season at UF, Golden could use another win against a top opponent. According to the NCAA’s NET Rankings, the Gators are 1-7 in Quad 1 games, or those against top-30 teams at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites or top-75 teams on the road.

The 38-year-old coach knows what he’s up against Saturday.

“He recruits a specific type of guy that’s non-negotiable with the way they play and the way his program is,” Golden said. “He’s just a super-passionate coach. His guys feed off his energy.”

The Gators will push to match Pearl and the Tigers’ punch. Sitting at No. 7 in the NET, Auburns presents UF a chance to supercharge its NCAA Tournament resumé.

“We have a top-ranked team coming into our crib,” shooting guard Will Richard said. “It’s an opportunity we know we can get.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com