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Fran Blinebury

Retired NBA official Bob Delaney went to Afghanistan to teach the finer points of basketball and more.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Delaney gets simpler view of world after trip to Afghanistan

Posted Feb 17 2012 9:06AM

After nearly a quarter century as an NBA referee and a career prior to that as a New Jersey State Trooper, Bob Delaney knows a thing or two about dealing with hostile environments.

So it was that Delaney found himself one morning earlier this month in Kabul, Afghanistan, a place that most of the world associates with war, trying to teach teamwork, cooperation and maybe the finer points of a well-thrown bounce pass.

He was there as an NBA Cares ambassador along with a group of AAU volunteers as part of a sports diplomacy program sponsored by the International Assistance Force and the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

"It was freezing with snow on the ground when we arrived and there was security all around," Delaney said, "and you go into something like that not really knowing what kind of reception you're going to get.

"All we hear about is the insurgents and the Taliban and Al Qaeda, all the bad things that are taking place. But there was a lot of good that was going on.

As Bob Delaney quickly discovered in Afghanistan, basketball (and sports in general) can be a great cultural equalizer.
Courtesy of International Security Assistance Force public affairs, Kabul, Afghanistan

"It's amazing how sports is that equalizer. You know, after the second day of being in a gym in Kabul, Afghanistan, I didn't know if I was in Kabul or Jersey City, New Jersey or Sarasota, Florida. It was a gym with kids playing basketball and that's all that mattered. That's a great equalizer.

"There is an Afghanistran and an Afghan people that are away from all that stuff we only see on the news. And while it was important for us to teach the kids and the coaches that were in that gym the skills of our sports, it's the other things they're learning on that court or that playing field that can help them make better lives for themselves and give all of us peace of mind."

The visit was at the invitation of Lieutenant General Zahir Aghbar, head of the Afghan National Olympic Committee, and was arranged with Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF HQ Sports Diplomacy Director, after Afghan sports delegation leaders toured U.S. facilities in Florida and Colorado last fall. The American coaches and officials gave mentoring lessons in basketball, soccer, volleyball and taekwondo to male and female coaches and athletes.

"I saw great Afghan patriots, people that want to make a difference in their country," Delaney said. "They're folks that are no different than the ones on your street or my street. They just want a better place for their family to live. They want a safe environment for their kids and they want to leave it a little bit better for the next generation. It struck me that this is no different from what is on Main Street, USA.

"Well, one difference is some of these kids got there by bus. And by that I mean riding on the back of a flat wagon that was being pulled by a horse. We had some who walked four or five days to Kabul. We said, 'You walked?' It was beyond our comprehension. But that is how desperate a lot of these people are for some normalcy."

For Delaney, who retired as an NBA ref in 2011, the trip was a two-fold mission, giving him a chance to speak to members of the U.S. and NATO troops about dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a condition he suffered from as a young N.J. State Trooper in the mid-1970s, following a three-year undercover investigation of the Genovese and Bruno crime families who had a stronghold in the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York areas.

An accomplished author, Bob Delaney used his trip to talk to NATO and U.S. troops about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Courtesy of International Security Assistance Force public affairs, Kabul, Afghanistan

Post-traumatic stress is a problem that Delaney says is growing in an increasingly violent world filled with wars and acts of terrorism and tragedies and he believes should be addressed more directly by soldiers, policemen, fire fighters and assorted first-responders. To that end he has written his second book: "Surviving the Shadows: A Journey into Post-Traumatic Stress".

"I point my finger at myself," he said. "I tell my story of what I went through and how as a result of doing that long undercover job, I developed post-traumatic stress and was in denial about it. I had all the telltale signs: paranoia, isolation, quick to anger, levels of feeling of revenge. All those kinds of feelings that I was experiencing, when I tell them it resonates. Because they come up to me during the break or afterwards and say, 'I'm going through some of that.'

"My goal is to keep it at post-traumatic stress and not let it get to the point of post-traumatic stress disorder ... All too often we wait until it becomes PTSD and then we try to deal with it. The reality is we can't take away Afghanistan. We can't take away Iraq. We can't take away 9-11 or the Oklahoma City bombing. Those are traumas and there are more to come in our lives. Those who serve us are going to be more susceptible to that because they are on the front lines and experiencing that. My belief is we need education and awareness programs. We've done it with HIV-AIDS, with drugs, alcohol, tobacco ...

"And it's not just the cops, fire fighters and soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress. It's the spouses and the children and the husbands of those on the front lines.

Teaching people in Afghanistan about life -- and basketball -- made a deep impact on referee Bob Delaney.
Courtesy of International Security Assistance Force public affairs, Kabul, Afghanistan

"I got to tell my story and spread my feelings about all of this to not just U.S. troops, but troops from Macedonia, Mongolia, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, I could go on and on. The feelings are common, I think. I mean, we had an interpreter as I told my story about being undercover. It's a Soprano-esque story and I don't really know how that all gets spelled out or relates to Mongolians. But they seemed to be laughing in all the right spots, so I guess it went over pretty well."

From teaching jump shots and dribbling to teaching soldiers how to deal with problems that grow out of putting their lives on the line every day, there was a universal bond that Delaney saw.

"In the gym and with the kids, these were people who wanted to have some time to just relate to each other and be happy. We were there for the Super Bowl. So there we were on the other side of the world with the kickoff at four o'clock in the morning. But there we are in a tent filled with guys wearing Giants and Patriots jerseys. We had wings and chips and dip and sodas for breakfast.

"I remember looking at the whole scene and thinking to myself, 'Hey, I'm in Afghanistan and you know what? Along with hoping to do some good, I'm having fun.' "

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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