A Meaningful Message
On Friday, Coach Mike Krzyzewski told his team that they would have a guest speaker at Saturday morning's team meeting. He didn't let them know whom it would be.
It was actually four guest speakers. No, it wasn't a group of former dream teamers, imploring the current group to restore pride in USA Basketball. Instead, it was four members of the United States Army; three soldiers who had been severely wounded in battle and their commanding officer, Colonel Robert B. Brown.
Fancy Meeting You Here
After General Vincent Brooks spoke to last year's rookie class at their orientation program as part of the Hoops for Troops initiative, the Army recommended that Colonel Brown speak to the national team because he played basketball at West Point in the seventies. When it asked the Colonel to speak, the Army didn't realize that his coach at school was Mike Krzyzewski.
And Coach K was more than his coach, he was the reason Colonel Brown was even in the military. A Michigan native, Brown had a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan and was planning on attending school in Ann Arbor. But Coach K saw Brown at Five-Star Basketball Camp and paid a recruiting visit to his house.
"I never even thought of being in the army," Colonel Brown said. But his father had been a Marine and seemed to like the idea of his son attending West Point. So, Brown visited the campus.
"When I did, I fell in love with it." Thus began what has been 29 years of service to date.
His experience, and that of his family, inspired D.J. to help other wounded soldiers and their loved ones. He is developing "The Hero Handbook", a guide for the process that occurs after a soldier is wounded, and serves as liaison to the Military Severely Injured Center in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"He's helping thousands of soldiers and their families everyday," Colonel Brown said.
Captain Scott Smiley is a West Point graduate and was a platoon leader as well. One day last spring, a suicide vehicle approached Captain Smiley and his Stryker vehicle. Scott stood his ground and fired several rounds at the vehicle, causing it to detonate before it could reach his soldiers. A piece of shrapnel hit Scott, causing him to lose both of his eyes.
More than a year later, Scott still serves his country by speaking with soldiers and working on procedures for soldiers who are preparing to go to Iraq. He went through training to learn braille so that he could continue his military service.
"Even though he is blind, he wants to continue to serve his country so badly," Colonel Brown told us. "That tells you so much about him."
Sergeant Christian Steele is a communications expert who was wounded by a suicide bomber. He took shrapnel in his neck and lost a finger on his right hand. While nobody expected him to return to duty, Steele was determined.
"I just wanted to be back with the team," Steele said.
After three months of recovery, Steele returned to Iraq and served another four months until his unit finished out its year-long tour.
"That's the whole selfless service to our country that you see everyday in the great soldiers in our Army," Colonel Brown said.
Colonel Brown and his soldiers spoke to the players and coaches for an hour and a half on Saturday. They told their stories and talked about being a team. Comparing sports with war is sometimes discouraged, but Colonel Brown believes the comparison applies here.
"Of course, they got the greatest players in the world," he said, "but they're looking at the team and how they can make it the greatest team in the world."
The players heard the message loud and clear.
"It's incredible how you can compare what they're doing over there to basketball," Antawn Jamison said. "It's about teamwork, always having your fellow soldier or teammate's back and always uniting as a group."
Colonel Brown wasn't sure he'd have such a receptive audience. Before he came to Las Vegas, several people aware of his audience told him the millionaire NBA superstars wouldn't listen to his message, that surely, these young players, without a care in the world, would rather be doing something else.
Not quite. The players were attentive and clearly moved as the soldiers spoke. They gave the Army members a standing ovation and hugged each one of them. And they have made a commitment to visit thousands of military personnel on their trips to Korea and Japan later this summer.
"We all know the importance of what our troops are doing," Jamison said, "but to actually hear stories that are so dramatic, it was definitely an eye-opener and something you take to heart."
"The people who said that they wouldn't care were absolutely dead wrong," Colonel Brown remarked. "I've talked to a lot of groups and the players were extremely attentive. They really listened and it really moved them."
After the team meeting, the soldiers accompanied the players and coaches to practice. They sat on the sidelines as part of an exclusive group allowed to observe Team USA at work; the session was closed to the public and the media.
Colonel Brown, Captain Skelton and Sergeant Steele were able to watch, of course, but Captain Smiley got a special treat as well. NBA TV put microphones on Gilbert Arenas and Dwyane Wade and gave Scott a pair of headphones. Throughout the practice, Arenas and Wade described the action to Scott, telling him about the dunk that LeBron had just thrown down or the hustle that Bruce Bowen had displayed in chasing down a loose ball.
In all, it was an uplifting experience for the soldiers, a chance to experience something that very few people in the world will ever be a part of.
"It was a big moral booster," Sergeant Steele said afterwards. "I feel really elated just to be here in their presence. It was a wonderful experience, something I never thought I'd be able to do."
If it weren't for Coach K, Colonel Brown would not have been in the military or in Las Vegas on Saturday. But it goes further than convincing Brown to attend West Point, as Coach K provided him with much more than a spot on the basketball team. He provided him with life lessons that have been applied and passed on to thousands of soldiers over the years.
"Not a day went by -- where I was commanding 5,000 soldiers -- that I didn't use something that he taught me," Brown said.
And after 30 years and more than 700 victories, Coach Krzyzewski is still the same man who visited Colonel Brown at his Michigan home when he was in high school.
"He hasn't changed as a person, a wonderful human being and a great leader," Colonel Brown said. "I feel privileged to have had played for him, to have learned from him over these many years and to have him as a friend."