Skip to comments.Trip to Kuwait touches Barnes' heart (great story on NCAA hoops coaches visit to troops)
Posted on 06/11/2006 1:25:17 PM PDT by WestTexasWend
-UT basketball coach gains perspective from trip to visit American soldiers-
Rick Barnes recently got back from an extended basketball road trip.
During his seven-day trip, he didn't sign a single recruit. He picked up no inside knowledge about next season's team at Kansas or Texas A&M. Just as in March, his team didn't reach the Final Four this time, either. In fact, his team even lost to a team coached by a sportscaster.
But the Texas basketball coach landed something far more rewarding than his recent Elite Eight appearance. He gained eye-opening perspective.
Barnes was part of an 11-coach group to tour the Persian Gulf in Operation Hardwood II, which was designed to boost the morale of the American military and provide them a temporary respite from the overwhelming anxiety and high-level stress of the Iraq conflict.
"They kept thanking us," said Martin Newton, Nike's college basketball sports marketer who made the trip. "But we kept going, 'No, you have it backward.' This was life-changing for these coaches."
Barnes and other high-profile NCAA Division I coaches, such as Kentucky's Tubby Smith and Michigan State's Tom Izzo, flew 18 hours to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait to take part in this goodwill mission sponsored by the USO, Armed Forces Entertainment and Nike.
The venture has spawned similar ones. Eight football coaches will head over in July for Operation Gridiron, and six men's basketball coaches will oversee games during Operation Aircraft Carrier in August.
Barnes and friends gave away hats and T-shirts, insight on pick-'n'-rolls and the latest news from home. They got more in return.
They stayed in the barracks with many of the 10,000 troops but not in the tents that house 80 percent of them. They endured the same withering 112-degree heat, although that represented a welcome break from temperatures that can approach 135 degrees. They ate in the same dietary facility, or D-fac, interacted in an informal, two-hour town meeting and gave basketball clinics to Kuwaiti youngsters.
When they weren't waking up at 4 in the morning to watch live broadcasts of NBA playoff games, they were visiting a naval hospital, riding in M1 tanks and taking a training session in a 2 1/2-ton Humvee, the kind that one of Izzo's assistant coaches in Kuwait practically lived in for four months when he'd shower with a can of water and some baby wipes.
"It was an experience," Izzo said. "I wouldn't trade for a million bucks."
They also coached some basketball games there. Twelve teams wearing gear donated by Nike played in a single-elimination tournament that included pool play and just like the March craziness in America official seedings.
"Except they call it May Madness," Barnes said.
They take it every bit as seriously, albeit with some different rules. The teams were co-ed, each including two women. Barnes' Ali Al-Salin Goons had a couple of 20-year-old soldiers but also a 49-year-old.
The teams practiced on dusty outdoor courts and had walk-throughs on cramped racquetball courts. They set hard screens in a gym with bleachers on one side. They so anticipated the games that one soldier ticketed to go home on leave instead chose to remain for the chance to play on Gary Williams' team.
"Those guys are tough guys," said Williams, who won an NCAA title at Maryland in 2002. "It's 120 degrees over there, and they're all wearing uniforms. I don't ever want to hear one of my players complain about practice again."
Fewer than 90 minutes after the championship game in which Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson's team beat Tubby Smith's squad, the players on at least four teams were headed for harsher duty in neighboring Iraq. Kind of gives new meaning to the term, winners advance.
Barnes' team won three games in pool play, but fell in the first round of the playoffs to a squad coached by ESPN's Jay Bilas, a former Duke player.
"What bothers me most is now he thinks he can coach," Barnes said. "He always wore an ESPN hat so I think the refs thought the longer they kept him in the tournament, the more likely they would get on TV."
Barnes never served in the military, but his late father did as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War. Although Barnes' parents divorced when he was 4, he can still envision Lawrence Barnes in full uniform, on leave from Fort Bragg.
The father always turned his left ear to his son in conversation, the result of a grenade explosion that cost the elder Barnes the hearing in his right ear.
"In some ways, I think this is the greatest generation," Barnes said. "These men and women weren't drafted. They volunteered. They're there because they chose to be there."
The coaches came back with colorful stories and vivid memories as well as heavy, silver dollar-sized coins that they received in handshakes from higher-ranking officers as a gesture of appreciation. They all planned to stick them in frames as mementos.
The trip left a lasting imprint long before the coaches landed in Frankfurt, Germany, on Memorial Day, headed home. On that day, a series of bombings in Iraq killed 37 people.
"It opened my eyes," Williams said. "A lot of these guys are the same age as our players, and you have to feel great because they'll come back and be really productive. A lot of them are reservists with no intention of winding up there, but they all accept their situation."
None of the coaches will stand quite so nonchalantly for the national anthem ever again. Instead, Barnes wants to ensure that his team is always on the Erwin Center floor for the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" before tipoff.
"Every time they play the national anthem over there, it sends chills down your spine," Barnes said. "They didn't budge till it's over."
Barnes made a real connection with the brave, young men and women he befriended and still gets e-mails and text messages from Kuwait that touch his spirit.
"It's very humbling," he said. "I'd go back tomorrow in a heartbeat."
Our their magnificant salaries which are never enough.
And though, Tubby is a rival in the SEC, he just went way up on the don-o-meter
College ball is the subject - go on back and read the article. I find it often helps
OK, tears in my eyes, thanks for posting!
I'm sure those players will remain in college basketball all their lives and never, ever, once complain about their salaries.
More evidence of how "regular folk" see the heroism of our military when they get to be with them up close and personal.
Liberal Austin American Statesman Alert!
Barnes dons a military uniform and body armor as he watches NCAA counterparts taking part in a military practice exercise.
Texas' Rick Barnes coaches his players during a timeout.