To Master Sergeant Chris Calkins:
Can't imagine how you made time at Central Command in Qatar to
answer my e-mail, but I want you to know how much I appreciated
it. I hated to bother you, but I had this one question: Do the
NCAAs, the NBA, sport itself, matter a spit to the men and women
who are risking their lives over there?
I asked it because, for a lot of us here, they don't matter.
Right now I really don't give a used wad of chew about sports.
Don't care about my brackets or Opening Day. Don't care about
locks or jocks or Jayhawks.
But you said the strangest thing. You said you feel just the
opposite. You said that soldiers there are hungry for sports
news, that sports need to go on if only because they take your
minds off the buckling weight of war, give you all a moment to
lose yourselves in a small taste of home.
You described the throng that gathers around the bulletin board
outside Gen. Tommy Franks's briefing room when updated NCAA
brackets go up. How the young soldiers agonize over the teams
that lose, feel the players' pain. But then you go back to your
freeze-dried meals and dust storms and your 59 tent mates.
"We know that not everyone can be here," you wrote. "You have
your job and we have ours. Just let us enjoy our 'diversions'
when time allows. We're fighting to protect America's way of
life, not to put it on hold."
Yet we almost did. CBS president Les Moonves wondered if the
NCAAs should be pushed back a week. Utah coach Rick Majerus said
playing games while bombs were dropping didn't seem right. NCAA
president Myles Brand considered moving the first two rounds to a
later date, then decided to go ahead on schedule. It seemed
stupid and wrong, but we carried on.
Before his school's first-ever NCAA tournament game, IUPUI junior
guard Matt Crenshaw, 27, a six-year Navy veteran and the Jaguars'
leader, took a minute to tell his teammates why he felt this war
was just. He did that by describing a close friend and how he had
died on Sept. 11 at the Pentagon. When Crenshaw looked up, half
his teammates were crying.
Wake Forest senior guard Steve Lepore was anxious every time the
phone rang in his hotel room. Lepore's older brother Chris is a
naval intelligence officer on the carrier USS Carl Vinson.
Whenever the phone rings, Lepore is scared it's going to be
somebody telling him his brother is dead.
"If that call does come," he says, "I'll deal with it then. Right
now I'm just praying for him." How are you supposed to play your
heart out when your heart is somewhere else?
Creighton senior forward Kyle Korver worried about an old high
school buddy who's with you somewhere over there. "If I mess up,"
Korver said before his game against Central Michigan, "it's no
big deal. If he messes up, he could die."
The kids got it. Some of the adults didn't. When sixth-seeded
Missouri squeaked by 11th-seeded Southern Illinois last Thursday,
play-by-play broadcaster Gus Johnson blurted, "Missouri dodges a
bullet!" Hey, Gus, try hanging around Basra nowadays.
Then there was Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, who continues to
hold every record for lack of perspective. Here's a madman who
screamed and yelled and suffered a massive heart attack, came
back as overcaffeinated as ever, then got himself ejected
over--get this--a traveling call in the Bearcats' first-round
loss to Gonzaga. And Huggins is considered NBA coaching material?
Good. Put him in charge of Ron Artest.
There is only one man I know who has the right to take sport as
seriously as war--boxer Johnnie Edwards. He's a Marine, and he
figured he was fighting for his life as the U.S. Men's Amateur
Boxing Championships began on Monday in Colorado Springs. Two of
his Marine teammates qualified for this tournament but won't be
boxing. They received orders for a much worse fight, the kind in
which, if you lose, you can come home in a pine box.
"I could be deployed at any time," says Edwards, who finished
third at 125 pounds in last year's championships and whose father
is already in the gulf region serving as a torpedoman. "But if I
keep winning like I've been doing, I figure I'm all right. But
I've got to keep winning."
Nothing like pressure.
Chris, there are millions of us in this country who hate this
war, hate how it came to this, hate what it will leave behind in
sorrow and debt and newly minted terrorists. But we respect you
who must fight it, are humbled by your service, honor you for
your willingness to die for our flag.
So we'll carry on with sport, because it seems to mean a lot to
all of you.
And we'll ache for the day when, once again, it can mean that
much to us.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
"We're fighting to protect America's way of life," says Army
Master Sergeant Chris Calkins, "not to put it on hold."