BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Here in East New Orleans -- very, very East -- Sam Perkins, Caron Butler and Ivory Latta sat in the first row, Bob Delaney in the second, members of the United States military were fanned out behind and beside, and Craig Sager was everywhere.
It didn’t feel like a pre-dawn tipoff in a combat zone. That was the plan, of course, that the USO would bring several NBA representatives and Latta from the WNBA’s Washington Mystics on a tour timed to coincide with NBA All-Star 2017 and the All-Star Game itself in the Big Easy, that 7,500 miles and 10 1/2-hour time difference would melt away. That 6 a.m. Monday, the start time in Afghanistan, would at least for a few hours seem a little more like a sliver of America.
So, retired players Perkins and Butler came. And Delaney, the former official and now vice president of referee operations. And Latta.
And like Sager would turn down the chance to be at a bash. He came too because Delaney had the idea to bring one of Sager’s garish suits on the tour. The Sager family not only approved the plan, they participated -- Craig’s widow Stacy helped picked the one Delaney would pack, the Jackson Pollock look with splashes of purple, white and red, the testament to kids and finger painting. In an accompanying tribute, Delaney wore a bow tie, red with small white squares, to honor Michael Goldberg, the head of the National Basketball Coaches Association who died last month, just as coaches around the NBA have flashed Goldberg’s trademark look during recent games.
“Two giants of the NBA among the giants of the NBA are being honored,” Delaney said. “And you know Sages would have loved this. He would have loved the party.”
Spc. Veronica Medina wore a T-shirt that included a purple background, white for the button-down shirt and more purple and white for the kind of blinding tie Sager made famous. Cpl. Ashley Parker wore the Sager Strong t-shirt some teams gave to fans just before Sager’s passing in December, an attack of red, orange, green, yellow black and white.
It was that kind of morning in the rec room on the base with a population of 14,000, mostly American troops from all branches but also civilian contractors and service members from the Republic of Georgia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It’s a blast to be able to relax a little bit and have so much fun to have the NBA and WNBA share this event,” Lt. Col. Jim Rye said. “It brought realism. It kind of made us feel like we were back home.”
Approximately 50 people watched the West’s 192-182 victory over the East in a room decorated with USO signs and camouflage netting around the seating area mixed in with Army posters. The number may have been greater if not for the early start time and the unavoidable inconvenience that it was a work day, a Monday morning here and not the Sunday night there.
Either way, viewers applauded at the end of quarters, cheered good plays (no cheering for defense, in other words) and took pictures with the four visitors. And when the viewers became the viewed, when the TV feed from New Orleans twice switched to a live look-in on TNT from the rec room, the Bagram crowd erupted.
“It gives them a taste of home,” said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Cavil, one of the organizers of the event. “I was just talking to someone yesterday. He was saying this sort of gives him a reset. It gives him a new energy for the mission.”
The mission. The combat, the tension that comes with the base as a potential target for attack, is never far away. On this night in New Orleans/morning in Afghanistan, though, it was at least a little farther. It was the chance to briefly feel like they were back home.
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