South Jersey native Harris Adler is aiming to leave his mark on basketball history books as a promising young coach, starting with his recent move to become an assistant to the team at Alabama’s Auburn University.
Although he was just 8 years old at the time, Harris Adler can still remember watching Julius Erving and the Sixers trounce the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Championship. It was the first of a seemingly endless list of basketball memories for the Cherry Hill, N.J., native.
Now, 30 years later, Adler is aiming to leave his own mark on basketball history books as a promising young coach. If his recent move to Alabama’s Auburn University, where he will serve as an assistant coach under Bruce Pearl, is any indication, Adler appears to be on his way to achieving that goal.
“Basketball is basketball wherever you are,” said Adler, who spent the past 10 seasons as an assistant coach for John Giannini and the La Salle Explorers. “To me, it’s all about selling kids the college experience, whether it be in the classroom, on the court or in life.”
Pearl — who was announced as the Auburn Tigers head coach in March after posting an impressive 145–61 record over six seasons with the Tennessee Volunteers — interviewed quite a few candidates for the job, according to Adler. But along with an impressive NCAA resume, Adler brought an aspect of familiarity, having served as Pearl’s assistant for the 2009 gold medal-winning Maccabi USA Team in Israel. The two had initially forged a relationship a few years prior, when Adler coached Pearl’s son, Steven, in the 2006 Australian Maccabi Games.
“We stayed in touch over the years,” said Adler, 38. “He knew I’d always wanted to work for him.”
After Pearl’s unceremonious ouster from Tennessee in 2011 following a recruitment scandal, Adler has a chance to help both his new head coach and the Tigers, who finished last year with a bottom-barrel 14-16 record, rebuild their respective images.
A move from the Atlantic 10 Conference to the much more feared Southeastern Conference — which houses perennial powerhouses like Florida and Kentucky — also means a tougher schedule and increased scrutiny in the national spotlight.
“The basketball team hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002-2003, so they’ve been in a drought. But it’s our goal to get back there as soon as possible,” said Adler.
It makes matters easier, he added, to have such strong support from the other athletics departments.
“It’s really a family atmosphere down here. Everybody is rooting for everybody.”
It also certainly helps that he brings a sizable NCAA Tournament pedigree. Adler was a key component to La Salle’s improbable Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 two years ago, where they beat Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss.
“There’s no better feeling in all of college sports than the NCAA Tournament,” said Adler. “It’s you against the world.”
Before coaching at La Salle, Adler spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania, under now-Temple coach Fran Dunphy. His career also included stints at Rowan University in New Jersey and Centenary College in Louisiana.
While Adler has always had a passion for the game, it didn’t always look like he’d earn a living on the court. He attended Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science — now called the University of the Sciences — but realized in his third year that his aspirations lay outside of medicine.
He graduated and quickly made the transition into basketball. Since then, his career has looked something like a blueprint for climbing the NCAA coaching ladder.
“My ultimate goal is to be a head coach at a college program at some point,” said Adler. “However many years it takes, I’d like to run my own Division I program.”
And what about the Jewish life in Alabama? While there are only about 100 Jewish students on campus by Adler’s estimation, there’s still a Hillel that doubles as a local synagogue. And Adler notes that Montgomery, about 45 minutes away, and Columbus and Atlanta, both in Georgia, all have more sizable Jewish populations.
Adler also sees another benefit to moving down south: “I don't keep kosher and yes, the barbecue is outstanding.”