New perspective after four days at Arifjan

Originally Published: September 12, 2005
By Jay Bilas | ESPN Insider

While sitting in a basketball gym on the grounds of Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, I wondered aloud with my fellow coaches from Operation Hardwood whether we could ever put into words the wonderful experiences we all had with our troops.

The night before we left Washington, D.C., for Kuwait, we had a reception with Pentagon and USO officials and USO president and CEO Ned Powell spoke. Powell said that while we might not yet realize it, our trip to Kuwait to spend four days with our troops would change our lives.

Powell was right on the money. None of us who made that trip will ever be the same, and we have all changed for the better.

Marketing guru Rick Kell came up with the idea for Operation Hardwood with Maryland coach Gary Williams. Kell thought sending eight coaches overseas to coach teams of U.S. soldiers in a March Madness-type competition would be a great morale builder for our troops. With a lot of hard work and dedication, Kell made Operation Hardwood a reality, and many lives were touched as a result.

The lineup of coaches that agreed to make the trip was truly impressive: Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, South Carolina's Dave Odom, Alabama's Mark Gottfried, Charlotte's Bobby Lutz, former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis and I were the coaches selected to head eight teams of troops at Arifjan from the eight different camps (or bases) in Kuwait. All successful, all different and all truly great people who got along exceedingly well.

The group of coaches hit it off immediately, even through the absolute chaos at the hotel in D.C. We had two cars, seven coaches, fifteen bags, and absolutely no chance of loading all this stuff up to head to the airport without divine intervention. At one point, Gottfried yelled out, "Did anyone bring their managers?" It was a humorous moment that underscored what every coach knows -- the importance of the team manager in organization and problem solving.

The stories and jokes were endless and no one was spared. Jarvis told us about his first road game as a college head coach, which was at Colgate. He said he took a little nap on the bus, and the team's bus driver took them to Cornell, almost two hours to the northwest, instead.

At the airport, Sampson started needling Lutz about his lack of body fat, saying, "The last time I wore a shirt that small, I was in the seventh grade!"

On and on it went. Jarvis forgot to sign his passport. We couldn't figure out how to check 20 bags for nine coaches. Pure folly.

Sampson said that he could sense that when he retires and is sitting on a beach somewhere, he still will be talking about this trip. Izzo interrupted. "Retired? You mean, fired and sitting on a beach somewhere!"

To get to Kuwait, we had to fly to London, then to Abu Dhabi, then to Kuwait City. When told we were flying to Abu Dhabi, Sampson joked, "Didn't he used to play for Duke?" For the remainder of the trip, the Abu Dhabi Airport was referred to as "Abdelnaby."

Sampson got the last laugh, though, when after a mixup with our seating, he drew the lucky straw and got the only business class seat for the seven-hour flight to Abu Dhabi. I spent the whole flight curled up in a fetal position, listening to a bunch of screaming babies, while having to hear Sampson faux-complain, "They kept waking me up to ask me if I wanted more champagne." Still, given where we were going and the sacrifices our troops make on a daily basis, this was nothing.

Dave Odom
APDave Odom coaching his Team Doha players.

All the levity aside, it was heartening to see all of the coaches get a chance to talk basketball on the flights to and from Kuwait. Lutz and Izzo spoke at length about the way they brought their teams along from the start of practice to the end of the season. Jarvis and Gottfried talked for hours about attacking zone defenses and exchanged strategies and ideas. Odom and Izzo did the same. In many ways, it was like the old days, when coaches almost always had their guards down with each other and shared information more freely and without reservation.

Once we arrived in Kuwait, we got up early and made our way to Camp Arifjan. Arifjan is not far from the border of Iraq, and just a couple of hundred miles from Baghdad. One of eight camps in Kuwait, Arifjan is the biggest with some of the best amenities in the Middle East. That said, it is nowhere near as comfortable as home. It is in a desert that reaches an almost surreal 125 degrees during the summer days, and there is nothing but sand as far as the eye can see.

While I am still having a hard time putting the stay in Kuwait into cogent words, the best way to explain the trip's impact on me is that I now have a much deeper appreciation and meaning for some words I may have taken for granted before.

Accountability: Our first stop was to meet with Col. Brick Miller, the officer in charge of all operations at Arifjan. Col. Miller went out of his way to thank all of us for taking the time to do this, and said that we had no idea how much easier we were making his job.

The truth is, we should have been thanking him. It was clear from our time with him that Col. Miller was in charge and that his job was vital.

He said one thing that really stuck with me about the importance of attention to detail. He said: "I have to be right 24/7. The bad guys only have to be right once." Think about that one. That is real accountability.

Gratitude: When we arrived at the gym, the troops were waiting for us, with the eight different camp teams in the stands along with their supporters. We walked in together and the place erupted. Having been in many arenas as a player and an assistant coach and having heard a few ovations, I can truly say this one gave me the best feeling I have ever had on a basketball court.

These soldiers had all tried out for their camp teams, and were selected to play in this four-day event. They were pretty jacked up to be there and to play, and we could feel it.

We could also feel how appreciated we were. All week long, soldiers went out of their way to thank us for taking the time to be there. As Izzo said, it was almost embarrassing to be thanked for being there. We all felt like we should be thanking the troops for having us there, for allowing us in to see what it is they do every day and what real sacrifice and teamwork is all about.

Sacrifice: The team I coached was brought in from a place called Camp Victory. Victory is a much smaller camp near the border of Iraq, lacking the amenities of Arifjan. The soldiers live in tents, there are no buildings or sidewalks, and it does not have a gym like Arifjan does.

In fact, the players who are deployed to Victory play outdoors and have to roll out a court of makeshift baskets and aluminum planks that are primarily used for small aircraft landings. They play basketball at night because of the heat.

When I heard about the conditions under which Victory's soldiers play, I wondered just how many of today's college players would even bother to play if they had to roll out their own court, and had to play on planks that almost certainly gave you bad bounces and ankle sprains. These men and women are dedicated to the game, and to each other.

Victory's team leader was Sgt. Lezlie Ornelas of Maine. Sgt. Ornelas was the organizer of the team, the soldier who rolled out the aluminum court every night, and the soldier who literally drove the bus while Victory was at Arifjan for the Tournament.

Victory was the smallest team in the tournament and other teams had more size and talent, but no team had more heart, dedication and determination that Victory. And no team sacrificed more for the love of the game than did the players for Victory.

I learned a saying at Arifjan: "Adapt and Overcome." To me, it meant that instead of moaning about a bad break or a bad bounce, adapt to the difficult conditions and overcome them. The soldiers at Arifjan and the surrounding camps have plenty to complain about, but we heard not one complaint.

I cannot tell you how many times I have invoked that saying since coming back from Kuwait. Team Victory personified the concept of "Adapt and Overcome."

Toughness: The games were competitive and hard-fought. One thing that stood out to all of us: Every soldier we watched played hard all the time, and when there was a collision or someone hit the deck, he or she got up right away and got back into the fray.

There was not one single exception to that rule. If there was a hard foul, the fouled player never once squared up or shot a dirty look at another player. We were in awe of that. Every coach said that he wished his own college players could see that in person.

The players also rarely, if ever, said a word to an official. The coaches, myself included, whined like toddlers at the officials, but the players didn't question the authority of the referees.

Between games, we toured different parts of Arifjan and saw how many of the soldiers live from day to day. They live in crowded buildings or eight-person tents, in up to 125 degree heat, with sand kicked up constantly. To do that takes discipline and mental and physical toughness.

Leadership: The high levels of leadership at Arifjan were impressive. I heard one soldier say, when talking about the importance of leadership in the Army: "Being in charge doesn't mean squat. You have to lead."

When you first arrive at Arifjan, there are signs that indicate the high priority of leadership. The first roadside sign read "Look Like a Leader." Later down the road, another sign read "Act Like a Leader." A little further down, a third sign read "Be a Leader."

We ran into some extraordinary leaders during our time at Arifjan. I spent time with Sgt. Maj. Ray Middleton, a soft-spoken leader of our men and women in uniform and the right hand of Col. Miller. He told me that while he has high expectations of his soldiers, he would do anything for them.

To Middleton, his soldiers come first, even before himself. He said, "These soldiers are not here for me, I am here for them." And you could tell that he meant what he said. With leaders like Middleton, there is far less talk than there is meaningful action.

Teamwork: The U.S. military is the best "team" in the world. It has structure, discipline, accountability, commitment, heart and desire to be the best. Every quality that one would want in a great team is present in our military.

Each day, the coaches had the honor of eating with the troops in the D-FAC (the acronym for the dining facility). That was a real daily highlight of the trip. We learned more about the dedicated and courageous men and women who serve our country by sharing meals with them that we ever could have by coaching them in basketball games.

What stood out was one clear fact. No matter what your political beliefs are, or what you think about the conflict in Iraq, our men and women in uniform are true heroes. The vast majority of soldiers are selfless, dedicated and truly supportive of each other. They are a true team.

One afternoon, on the walk back from the D-FAC, Gottfried and I struck up a conversation with two women who personified the concept of team. Together they manned a 48-wheel HET (heavy equipment transporter, which transports, deploys and recovers battle tanks and other heavy vehicles) truck on trips into Iraq. Their commitment to excellence stunned us.

It was humbling that these two women, who could have passed for baby sitters for our children, could talk so matter of factly about their jobs. They are gone for up to two weeks at a time and sleep in the cab of the truck. They have to deal with occasional IEDs (improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs), coordinated attacks from insurgents, and mind-boggling new twists by those intent on disrupting their missions (like the insurgents who have taken to loading explosives onto dogs, and sending the dogs to the trucks before detonating the explosives).

Yet the women were resolute. They told us that with the armor on the HET, to stop it, an insurgent would have to essentially get in a lucky shot. On one occasion, a stray bullet pierced the engine block, and the two had to change out cabs under fire, and did so successfully. On the occasion when they lose a tire, they said they simply stop and change it, whether they are under fire or not. They never leave a truck behind.

Pride: I felt incredible pride to be among the troops at Arifjan and I know the other coaches felt the same way. On the last day of the tournament, the Army presented us with uniforms to wear during the closing ceremony.

Dave Odom
APOn the last day, all the coaches, including Odom, were given military uniforms.

I have been fortunate to have been presented and worn some great uniforms, as a player in college, professionally and for USA Basketball, but I have never been as honored as when I was presented a U.S. Army uniform. They had our names on them. That was an incredible feeling.

However, just after we were presented with the uniforms, all of the coaches looked at each other with the same thought. Were we really worthy to wear the uniform? We had not sacrificed to any level even close to the level of our soldiers, who don that uniform every single day and put their lives at risk to serve our nation.

We were told by several soldiers that our wearing the uniforms would be well-received by the soldiers and would be taken as a tribute to them. In that case, we would most certainly wear them, because we wanted to pay tribute to our men and women in uniform.

Before the last game of the tournament, the eight coaches marched out to midcourt in uniform and saluted the troops through our national anthem. I felt enormous pride as we stood before our finest as the anthem played. It was an extraordinary and moving experience. I believe that each one of us will relive that moment every time we hear the anthem played in the future, and we will think of the soldiers we spent time with at Arifjan.

In closing, I wanted to say a few words about the other coaches on the trip. The group was extraordinary:

Mike Jarvis: Mike is a very thoughtful, insightful and dignified man and an outstanding basketball coach. If anyone caught the "coaching bug" again as a result of this trip, it was Mike. And, if any administrator is looking for an accomplished and capable coach, he or she needs to call him. He did an extraordinary job with Camp Doha, getting his team to the tournament final against Izzo's Camp Arifjan team behind a tight zone defense. Mike kept a journal of the happenings of the trip, and his insights and leadership were exceptional.

Bobby Cremins: There is not a coach out there who has a negative word to say about Bobby Cremins. He not only is a terrific coach, he is one of the nicest, good-hearted individuals I have ever met.

As a competitor, Cremins has incredible balance. He badly wants to win, but he is truly pleased for the success of others. They don't make 'em like Cremins very often.

Plus, for comic relief, he is unmatched. He has a wonderful sense of humor and can take out the needle with the best of them, but he also has an endearing Mr. Magoo quality about technology and pronunciations that is just hilarious.

Cremins cannot seem to figure out any modern gadget beyond a rotary phone. When borrowing a Blackberry phone to call his wife from Kuwait, Cremins held up every side of the phone to his ear saying: "Honey, are you there? Honey?" It would make a great commercial for a telecommunications company.

Also, I met a soldier named Kerensa Hardy, and before introducing her to Bobby, I told her there was no chance Bobby would get her name right. Upon the introduction, Cremins immediately referred to her as "Charisma." I think she is still laughing, and wondering if we are still needling each other.

Bobby Lutz: The Charlotte coach is an incredible competitor, and gave Kuwaiti coaches a great clinic in Kuwait City. I am able to see Lutz in action on the court often at Charlotte, and he is a master at changing defenses and playing a wide-open game while at the same time being in control. Lutz is a big-time basketball coach, and he has a team that will challenge for national honors this season.

Mark Gottfried: Gottfried was a terrific player at Alabama in the 1980s and is one of the brightest young coaches in the college game. He is smart and he has a great feel for the game and how things should work around the game.

It was Gottfried who was instrumental in helping Rick Kell get this trip off the ground, agreeing right off the bat to go and selling other coaches on the importance of the endeavor. I have no doubt that Gottfried will take a team to the Final Four one day. He is that good.

Tom Izzo: Izzo is one of the best coaches in America, in any sport, but you would never know it by his off-court demeanor. He is exceptionally humble, and easily gives credit while only begrudgingly taking any.

Izzo has made Michigan State into a modern power, but has always been reluctant to place his program among the traditional elites. Well, his program is among the true elites, and few programs can come close to matching what his Spartan program has done over the past seven years, with four Final Fours, an Elite Eight and a national championship.

What is truly impressive about Izzo is his willingness to ask questions and test himself. Usually, a coach of his accomplishment is busy doing all the talking. Izzo asks the questions. He knows what he thinks, but is always looking to learn more, to test himself more.

Kelvin Sampson: Sampson exudes leadership and truly is a great guy.

As a player, he was the catcher in baseball, the quarterback in football and the point guard in basketball -- all positions of leadership. When the group of eight coaches needed direction, Sampson stepped forward more often than anyone else. His teams reflect his toughness and determination.

He also has a wonderful sense of humor, and more than anyone else, had us rolling on the floor in laughter. If you love to compete and win, you would love to play for Kelvin Sampson.

Dave Odom: I could listen to Dave all day. He has a distinctive perspective on the game, vast experience and wisdom, and is a true treasure of college basketball who receives great affection and respect from his peers.

Odom has coached two of the game's greatest big men in Ralph Sampson and Tim Duncan, but too few seem to recognize that he has consistently won over the years by playing very different styles.

At South Carolina, Odom has won by pressing and trapping, which most would consider uncharacteristic given the perception of his style. Odom will have a very good team in 2006. In a very real way, Odom personifies the concept of "adapt and overcome" as a coach.

Near the end of the trip, Odom captured the feelings of all of us. He said, "Outside of my wedding day and the birth of my kids, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life." We all agreed.

Being around these guys made me feel great about the coaching profession, because these truly are great coaches and great people. And this trip made me feel great about being an American. Our men and women in uniform are heroes and they deserve our support.

One final anecdote: Last Saturday, I had a voice-mail message from Sampson. With the band playing and the roar of the crowd in the background, Sampson said he was on the sideline for the Oklahoma-TCU football game, and he couldn't help thinking about the troops, and feeling a bit guilty about having it so good while they were sacrificing so much.

He said he just wanted to talk about it with somebody who would understand.

Because of this trip and the quality of people on it, I do understand. And I am incredibly grateful for that.

Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst