Commentary

Operation Hardwood: Hoops For Troops

Originally Published: August 24, 2009
By Fran Fraschilla | ESPN.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: For the past week, Fran Fraschilla took part in Operation Hardwood VI: Hoops for Troops, a USO-sponsored trip that lets current and former coaches bring a slice of home -- in this case, college basketball -- to some of our soldiers stationed in Iraq. The following is a compilation of Fraschilla's ESPN.com blog entries:


Posted: Monday, Aug. 17 (8:39 p.m. ET)

Outside of my marriage, the birth of my two sons and a couple of huge coaching wins in my career, nothing has given me more pleasure in my life than taking part in Operation Hardwood: Hoops for Troops, a USO and Armed Forces Entertainment-sponsored trip that allows eight current and former college coaches to visit our men and women in the military serving in the Persian Gulf.

I'll be making my third trip there this week and plan to blog about my experiences in this very space. (For security reasons, I can't give you too many details about where we will be heading, at the moment.)

This is the sixth year of Operation Hardwood, the brainchild of advertising executive Rick Kell, who has poured his heart and soul into setting up these trips, with the idea of having the eight coaches each coach teams of soldiers in a basketball tournament over five days. The competition gets hot and heavy and we try to help provide relief from the stress of the battlefield and the 130-degree Baghdad summer heat. We get to meet and talk to soldiers from every part of our great country and get to see them to go about their daily duties.

This year's coaches making the trip are Brian Gregory (Dayton), Jim Crews (West Point), Mike Gillian (Longwood), ESPN analyst Steve Lavin (former UCLA coach), Mark Gottfried (former Alabama coach), Dennis Wolfe (former Boston University coach), Tom Schuberth (former UT-Pan American coach), Jeff Nix (former Knicks assistant general manager) and myself. Although most of us already know each other, we will be bunking together for seven days without the comforts of home, and will get to share experiences of a lifetime.

Last year, we visited one of Saddam Hussein's many palaces that he had built around Iraq. It is now the headquarters for the Multi-National Forces command at Camp Victory. While they always looked opulent on television, this palace was a very poorly constructed building -- almost like a set on a Hollywood lot. I know 50 guys in Brooklyn alone who could put up sheet rock and wallpaper better than his Iraqi contractors did.

One fun part of the tour was hitting golf balls off the roof of the palace with some of the soldiers. Golf balls sent from back home in America are put to good use here. And the helmets and body armor we were issued before the trip came in handy when Hofstra's Tom Pecora and Manhattan's Barry Rohrssen were hitting their 5-irons.

More seriously, the stories of past torture that took place at the palace were chilling. It put into perspective the evil that Saddam perpetrated on his own people and it left the coaches talking about it for days.

[+] EnlargeWalter Reed Army Medical Center
AP Photo/Timothy JacobsenFor a century, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been a home for returning soldiers wounded at war.

As for Operation Hardwood VI, we began our trip today with a visit to our wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. It started inauspiciously when our bus driver didn't have the proper identification to get on hospital grounds, so we walked a quarter-mile. I guess no one told him that security is tight at military installations these days.

Once we got to the hospital, it was a moving experience because of the men and women we visited. Their spirit and mental toughness provide a lesson to anyone associated with the athletic world. Some of these guys have endured enough physical punishment to make Ray Lewis look like a 5-year-old on the playground.

Another valuable lesson learned around these brave warriors is teamwork. Invariably, they tell us about not just fighting to keep America free, but that they want to get healthy enough to get back to their fellow soldiers they left behind. Like a great team, they don't want to let down their comrades. It's powerful stuff.

Once we get to the Persian Gulf, after the long 12-hour flight ahead of us, I will keep you updated on the things we experience. Gregory went winless last summer and we will be razzing him until he gets that first Operation Hardwood win. We will also be attempting to hide Lavin's hair gel all week. That's always fun.


Posted: Wednesday, Aug. 19 (3:34 p.m. ET)

What a 36 hours it has been. After a 12-hour flight to Kuwait City with very little sleep on the plane, we landed Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. and traveled to the beautiful resort hotel where we expected to stay overnight.

Our plans changed quickly when we were informed that we would be waking up at 1:15 a.m. and heading out to Ali Al-Salaam Air Field. I have learned on these trips to visit U.S. troops that flexibility is essential. We are on the military's time now. By my calculation, since leaving Dallas early Monday morning, I've had about nine hours of sleep in three days through eight time zones.

Before we left for Ali Al-Salaam Air Base on the outskirts of Kuwait City, some of us were able to get a quick workout in at the hotel's health club, followed by a quick buffet dinner. The workout was highlighted by yoga instruction by ESPN's own Steve Lavin. He's been practicing yoga for six years and has all of the poses down to perfection. After 20 minutes, he had me, Dayton coach Brian Gregory and new ESPN colleague Mark Gottfried twisted into positions we didn't know our bodies could be in. I felt like a Philadelphia pretzel by the time we were finished.

We lived another military maxim, "hurry up and wait," because we arrived at the air field at 3 a.m. for a flight that eventually took off four hours later. There are flights taking off constantly to all parts of the Persian Gulf and I have no complaints on the level of detail that goes into making sure our flight is safe and secure. After all, we are heading into a war zone.

[+] EnlargeOperation Hardwood
USO Photo by Mike CliftonYep, that's our very own Fran Fraschilla, observing inside the flight deck of a U.S. Air Force C-130.

When the time came for us load up in the C-130 transport plane along with about 100 soldiers, there was some levity when the pilot, Capt. Philllip Newman, said that we were heading to COB (Command Operating Base) Speicher and that if Speicher was not our final destination, we should alert the flight attendents. He said, "We realize that you have a choice of tactical air lift services when flying to Iraq." A few hardened soldiers even cracked a smile at that comment.

A C-130 is a cargo plane that packs as much equipment and men as it can fit. Each of us was loaded down with body armor and helmets. Until the plane takes off and the air conditioning kicks in, the inside of the plane feels like it's about 150 degrees. Sardines in a can are more comfortable than we were.

Most of us did get to sit in the cockpit during the flight, and that was a fun experience. The co-pilot was a Miami (Ohio) grad so Gregory and me, a former assistant at Ohio University, were razzing him about the RedHawks' two fiercest rivals. There are only about two and three degrees of separation with the troops that we meet on these trips, and that helps us to connect with them.

Once we landed at Speicher, which is on the outskirts of Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein), we were driven from the airport to our living quarters.

And now that we have settled into base life for the next few days, we'll be getting ready to coach some basketball. The soldiers are excited to see us and realize we are here to help them get their minds off, if only temporarily, the important and stressful jobs they are doing here.

Let the games begin.


Posted: Friday, Aug. 21 (9:46 p.m. ET)

The Operation Hardwood games are under way in the COB (Contingency Operating Base) Speicher gymnasium and the games have been intense so far. But they haven't been as hot as the weather outside.

It is Groundhog Day here. It was 130 degrees on Wednesday at COB Speicher and almost as hot the past two days. I don't think I have ever experienced anything like that in my life. You feel like you are in a frying pan when you are outside during the day. In fact, wherever you go on the base, people hand you quart bottles of water to drink in order to stay hydrated. It's part of a soldier's life here in Iraq. I drank enough water in four days to fill up a small aquarium.

[+] EnlargeHoops for Troops
USO Photo by Mike CliftonOnly in middle of Iraq can a hot, sweaty gym be a welcome relief from the heat.

When we toured the Chinook helicopters on the base on Thursday, one of the flight engineers we met told us that being inside a helicopter during the oppressive heat is tough enough, but with a full complement of body armor, he can lose 15 pounds in one mission. I guess that in some ways it might be better than a Jenny Craig program, but it's probably not worth coming all the way here for.

On Wednesday, there was the wave of bombings down in Baghdad that killed nearly 100 people and injured scores more. It was obviously scary news to our families in the United States and everyone was checking in to assure family members that we are fine. There is always insurgent activity going on around the country, and even around the base, but we are relatively insulated here at Speicher. I'd like to describe a tour of downtown Tikrit, but that's not going to happen. That's fine with me.

Interestingly, the attacks in Baghdad have not been brought up in the course of daily conversation here. Because we are in a war zone, the soldiers and other support personnel go about their jobs as part of the daily routine. The thing that always strikes me in my three trips to the Persian Gulf is the incredible professionalism that the coaches see here on a daily basis. Remember, the United States has an all-volunteer army and 80 percent of the soldiers have enlisted since 9/11. These young people want to serve our country and that makes an impact on those of us who are just visiting here.

On Thursday morning, we were fortunate enough to sit in on the commander's daily briefing with Major Gen. Bob Caslen. He commands the Multi-National Force North, which has around 20,000 troops in an area about the size of Ohio. The briefing takes place twice a day and the general is kept informed of everything militarily, politically and economically going on in his region. It was as thorough as any briefing that any of the coaches had ever seen and underscored that the things our armed forces are capable of doing technologically are mind-boggling.

On a lighter note, one of the big stories of the trip for the coaches here is that Dayton's Brian Gregory, one of the best young coaches in the country and winner of 27 games a season ago, is 0-7 in two Operation Hardwood tournaments so far. We have all been letting him have it, telling him that he couldn't win away from UD Arena. In fact, in recent years under Gregory, the Flyers have won at Louisville, at Cincinnati and against WVU in the NCAA tournament in Minneapolis. He did promise a solution to his problems here, telling me, "I just won't be scheduling any Dayton games in Iraq."


Posted: Monday, Aug. 24 (11:03 a.m. ET)

We have just completed Operation Hardwood VI: Hoops for Troops here at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, and the experience is one I will never forget. Coaching a basketball tournament in a war zone is a surreal feeling and a jolt to the senses.

When the ball was tossed, it felt like just one of the hundreds of games that I have coached in my career. But when I looked around the gym, I saw soldiers in uniform watching in the stands with M-16 rifles by their side, enjoying the temporary diversion we'd brought to them from home.

This year's tournament was won by ESPN's own Steve Lavin, whose Ballers team breezed through pool play and the opening two rounds of the tournament before defeating Army coach Jim Crews and his Bad Boys team in a very competitive championship game. Lavin, who has coached many high-pressure games in plenty of hostile environments from his time as UCLA head coach, had to overcome the home-court advantage Crews enjoyed at Camp Speicher Gym because of his West Point background. Even the Commanding General of the Multi-National Forces North, Major General Robert Caslen, a West Point graduate, was in attendance and enjoying the action.

[+] EnlargeHoops for Troops
USO Photo by Mike CliftonIt wasn't his old Big East stomping grounds, but Fraschilla enjoyed every bit of his coaching experience at Iraq's Camp Speicher.
As college coaches, we too often throw around phrases like "do or die" or "play like your life depended on it." But for six long and hot days here, we have seen the true meaning of those phrases. Virtually every soldier I talked to who has spent significant time here has seen friends die. More so than the other two trips that I have made with Operation Hardwood, I have felt palpably the toll that the stress of fighting a war against an enemy that wants to destroy our way of life can take.

When we arrived at Camp Speicher on Wednesday, one of our hosts disappeared until Sunday night. When he returned, one of the coaches asked where he had been. He replied, "I was out fighting bad guys." The coach asked, "How'd we do?" He simply said, "We had a good day."

Every coach here feels the way I do. That's why we were humbled by the opportunity to bring a small slice of home to the people here -- that small slice of home being college basketball. The tournament this weekend had some great moments, including buzzer-beaters and overtime games. While the level of play may not have been Division I-caliber, the intensity certainly was.

The connections to our basketball world back home were here this week. We spent time at dinner on Sunday night with General Bob Brown, who played for Mike Krzyzewski at West Point in the 1970s. He's in charge of the operations in the city of Mosul, a real hot spot for out-forces. I talked with Captain Joe Blattner, a 2005 Marquette University graduate and huge basketball fan who reminisced about the Golden Eagles' great, Dwyane Wade-led run to the Final Four in 2003. And I coached a young man, Jason McDaniel, a Georgia State graduate, who wants a career in coaching when he leaves the military four years from now.

Like on my first two Operation Hardwood trips, I continued to see the incredible dedication and sacrifices made by all of our young people who are serving here. The competence of our armed forces absolutely blows me away. For many back home, there is a feeling that the war in Iraq is over, but the families and friends of the people serving here know that that is far from the truth. The dangers here are as real as ever, with IEDs to be cleared from road sides, Al Qaeda operatives to be killed, Iraqi lives to be rebuilt and the brutal heat and problematic conditions to be managed daily.

I don't know how many more times I will return to Iraq. I just know that each time I come home, I unabashedly tell the stories of these people serving here who are, in my opinion, absolutely the best America has to offer.

One final note: Because of the experiences all the coaches have shared this week, in a small way we have become like a band of brothers. No matter where we see each other again -- and it will most likely be on or near a basketball court -- we will have memories to talk about for a lifetime. I wanted to publicly thank these guys for a trip that I will be talking about for a very long time: Jim Crews (Army head coach), Steve Lavin (ESPN analyst), Jeff Nix (former assistant GM for the New York Knicks), Brian Gregory (Dayton head coach), Mark Gottfried (former Alabama head coach), Mike Gillian (Longwood head coach), Dennis Wolff (former Boston University head coach), Rick Kell (the founder of Operation Hardwood: Hoops for Troops), Jeff Thornton (USO tour manager), Jeremy Wilcox (USO) and Mike Clifton (USO photographer).

Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at franfraschilla.

Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN. He formerly was the head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico.