Larry Nance Jr. meets his childhood pen pal, veteran Bianca Campbell, and her son, Acario.
(Ty Nowell/Lakers.com)

Nance Reunites with Soldier Pen Pal

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Larry Nance Jr. had no idea how much of an impact his third-grade project would have on someone in a foreign, war-torn country.

Just a 10-year-old at Revere Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, Nance wrote to a soldier overseas about whatever came to mind — from his annoying brother and sister to his fandom for Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.

Those two letters from “a scatterbrained 10-year-old,” as Nance put it, provided temporary solace for U.S. Army Specialist Bianca Campbell, who had been stationed in Saudi Arabia for about a month when she became pen pals with the future Laker.

“I connected with him explaining about his brothers and sisters being annoying,” Campbell said. “I think I attached to that because that was something I could relate to. That part of it was what meant the most to me, too — that childlike energy.”

Campbell joined the Army in order to open more opportunities for a better life. However, the Buffalo native ended up enlisting just two days after 9/11, changing her entire perspective on her military future.

“You had to be prepared to know that it wasn’t going to be boots up,” Campbell said. “You were going to be on the ground. You were going to be active and potentially see combat. It’s reality at that point.”

Weeks into her tour in Saudi Arabia, tragedy struck, as Campbell’s close friend from training, Private First Class Spence McNeil, had to be taken off life support.

It was Campbell’s 20th birthday.

Campbell, who teared up remembering McNeil, remained busy with her duties as an automated logistics specialist. It was a fast-paced environment that required getting equipment to frontline soldiers and ensuring that the military trucks were running appropriately.

During this first month, Campbell admitted to hitting “a low place.” Then she received her first letter from a basketball fan in Mrs. Staats’ third-grade class.

“You can feel the energy and the excitement about certain things he was talking about,” Campbell said. “It definitely just makes you get away. Your mind is away from it.

“At the time I wasn’t getting letters from family, so that was my only letter. So that meant even more.”

The letters meant so much that she still held onto them 14 years later. She had wanted to reach out to Nance in 2014, but didn’t know how to contact him while he was still in college.

It wasn’t until the year after that she found out he played basketball, when her son’s father realized that the name “Larry Nance Jr.” was the same as a player’s on the Lakers.

Campbell finally reached out to Nance on July 21, 2017, by tweeting photos of the letters he had sent in 2003.

That day, Nance awoke from a nap to his phone buzzing. He was shocked to see Campbell’s tweet and immediately showed it to his fiancee, who comes from a military family.

“She was like, ‘Larry, this is incredible,’” Nance said.

Nance quickly invited Campbell to be his guest at a Lakers game this season, and Delta Air Lines helped him keep that promise.

As part of its “Salute to Our Troops” partnership with the Lakers, Delta flew Campbell and her family out to Los Angeles to meet Nance for the first time.

On Wednesday, she was able to tour the Lakers’ practice facility, watch the team’s shootaround, meet players and even take a few jumpers on the practice court.

Her 10-year-old son, Acario, (who is the same age that Nance was at the time of the letters) was especially excited to take a photo with second-overall pick Lonzo Ball.

And Ball was happy to meet Campbell, as she joined the team after practice.

“We just met her in the huddle right now,” Ball said. “I’m grateful for everything she does for us, for this country. Very happy to have her here.”

Hosting Campbell and family was an easy decision for head coach Luke Walton.

“I told our in-house people, ‘Anything military I’m good with,’” he said. “They don’t even need to come ask me.”

It was a lifetime experience for Campbell, who grew up a Lakers fan by watching Kobe and Shaq in high school.

And for Nance, it was an opportunity to thank a servicewoman and — when the two read their letters to each other — laugh at his own childhood self.

“It’s like a little bit embarrassing,” Nance said. “A 10-year-old doesn’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on. In one of the letters, I (wrote), ‘Is the war almost over? Where is Saddam (Hussein)?’”

Looking back, Nance realized the absurdity of his question.

“I thought I was gonna crack the case wide open,” Nance joked. “If we can figure out where he’s at, we can end this thing.”

Campbell’s day is far from over, as she will be honored at half court during the Lakers’ game against the 76ers later that night.

It is a worthy recognition for someone who served her four-year contract with the Army and then served in the reserves until 2009.

Now, her goal is to help other veterans. Currently studying under the military’s work-study program, she plans to work for the African American PTSD Association, which helps vets obtain benefits and provides aid with claims, among other services.

And when she stands before the STAPLES Center crowd, she’ll have someone special beside her: an old pen pal doubling as a new friend.

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