By Jake Appleman/@JakeAppleman
You hop on the bus and head into Heidelberg, which is so much more beautiful than you thought it would be. A river flanked with old mansions separates high grassy, rolling hills from the center of town. Narrow European streets and local flavor meet imported capitalism. Of course.
You head over to the army base in Heidelberg, where you’re greeted by Robert B. Brown, Major General slash Chief-Of-Staff for the U.S. Army in Europe. He’s also the Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army NATO. He basically runs Europe. As if that’s not enough, he played ball for Mike Krzyzewski at West Point before Coach K headed to Duke.
Brown talks about speaking to the ’08 Olympic team back in ’06 and he shows a video that features a speech he gave to the preliminary squad about commitment to teammates, using the armed forces as a metaphor. When the film moves on to portray Scott Smiley, who lost both of his eyes while engaging a suicide bomber in combat early enough to prevent a catastrophic explosion within range of thirty fellow officers, you remember that you watched this story on ESPN. For those that didn’t: Smiley and his wife got to attend a Team USA scrimmage and sit courtside while Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas narrated what was going on through a headset. You head out of the room thankful that you’ll probably never take shrapnel to the face.
You eat a nice catered Chinese lunch, which is absolutely gourmet in comparison to the stuff you get back on the Mannheim base, during which Coach Krystkowiak thanks Brown for imparting an important message to the team.
Brown gives you a tour of the building, including his office, highlighted by a New York Times article from his playing days at West Point. The major item of interest, however, is Hitler’s globe, which sits as a centerpiece in the hallway. Everyone takes pictures of it, and you take a picture of North America while wondering what it would be like if German was the world’s most popular language.
You leave the Army campus and go into town to meet with the Mayor of Heidelberg in a conference room with microphones and a gigantic wooden table. When you push your microphone button on prior to the Mayor’s arrival, Coach urges you not to leave it on, lest you have a Biden moment. Truth be told, you kind of want the Biden moment; that win over Argentina last night was a “big fucking deal.”
You head into Heidelberg and window shop for a while. Chris Manhertz takes a while buying trinkets for his big family. A British girl comes up and peppers you, Andre White and Jamal Tuck with questions about the tournament. You eventually split off with Damien Leonard and Coach Holliday, talking about everything from Europe and history to D’s limitless college options. Some high school kids from Ridgewood, New Jersey come up and ask more questions. Ryan Boatright jokingly tells the kid in the Kentucky sweatshirt that he’s going there. It’s plausible, but not probable, and gullible kid buys it. Gawky, confused white boys. What would the world do without them?
You arrive in the center square and join Coach Krystkowiak, Coach Williams, Coach Willard and the chaperon, Martin Hopfner, as they polish off some beer in the wonderfully bright sun. You realize you missed a chance to drink hefeweizen with Coach Krystkowiak so you’re a little bit disappointed, but you get over it because today is just one of those good days that remind how chill and wonderful life can be.
On the ride back to Mannheim, Coach Willard talks about being in Vegas for the opening of a Hooters with Bob Huggins and Gene Simmons. Apparently, they called it “Hugs and Kisses.” Sounds like a lot of boobs and screaming, you think.
Back on the base, you wander over with most of the guys through the gated Army neighborhood, past a few backyards and over to a small area with a lowered hoop. The hoop stands about five feet tall which makes 7-footers Marshall Plumlee and Josh Henderson look even more gigantic than they are. A few shots go up and then the youngsters, Zahn and Casey, raise the rim.
Eventually, most of the crew decides to return to Sgt. Major Delgado’s house, but you hang back with Plumlee, Henderson and the rest of the kids. Plumlee helps them dunk and soon the kids, Plumlee and Henderson form a line and start throwing the ball off the backboard to one another like mascots in a halftime show.
It’s after about twenty minutes of this clowning around that the group realizes there’s an actual half court about thirty feet away. You split up into teams. You’re with Plumlee, Zahn and Casey. Henderson is with Kobe and a few others. You do your best to simultaneously jack Plumlee’s stats—snaring all nearby rebounds and doling out potential assists to the kids in the best position to score—while maintaining the integrity of a game that revolves around making dreams come true for these little lads.
Plumlee, in particular, is amazing with the kids, so it’s pretty easy to just go along. His ability to entertain and enter their worlds reminds you of yourself—the oldest first cousin on both sides of your family. Plumlee’s frenetic energy seemingly knows no bounds and he’s exhorting his little teammates at every stop, encouraging them to finish intricately-described dunks even though that’s impossible; the hoop is ten feet and the kids four-foot-something.
You’re running a play called Red Power Ranger and defending Henderson’s “Chicken Nugget” formation. Little Kobe (of course) makes a few shots and immediately starts talking trash, not in the least bit intimidated by Plums. Eventually, our ball movement and the dinner bell prove too much for Henderson’s crew.
On our way back Henderson tells the kids that he’s going to Vanderbilt, which is in Nashville. The kids glow and talk about how Plumlee and Henderson will be in the NBA in a few years. A G.I. in a Tennessee sweatshirt says hello, and you remind him that he’ll be rooting on Kevin Ware in a little over a year. He knows already, which serves as a simple reminder that there’s pretty much nobody on this base that isn’t impacted by this team.
You line up outside Kim’s kitchen and head in. You throw some steak, shrimp salad, mac and cheese, corn and beans on to a plate and chow down. Mike Chandler begins busting on Manhertz because his highlight video has a clip of him pulling up and drilling a three. Chandler goes to painstaking detail to elucidate why exactly it’s hilarious, and we all laugh, because it is funny; Manhertz hasn’t taken a shot outside of seven feet all tournament long. The great thing about this is that Chris can laugh at it–when teammates like each other, especially young ones, they can rank on one another seamlessly without feelings getting hurt. (For the record, the next day Manhertz will repeatedly say “that’s why you’re a sportswriter” while out-shooting you in practice.)
It’s about this time when an intense dodgeball game breaks out. Boatright hides behind Manhertz, because, fuck, nobody’s messing with Manhertz; he’s “on that strong shit.” Manhertz throwing a rubber dodgeball just isn’t fair, like Shaq toying with a women’s basketball. When dodgeball ends, Chandler does “The Jerk” and it’s getting funny, his teammates clowning him for putting pictures on Facebook that show him doing The Worm. Eventually, Royce Woolridge is called over and he does “The Jerk,” and shit, now it’s just fucking uproarious because it seems like Royce could dance backup for Rihanna. Then Kobe and Zahn, neither of them teenagers yet, start dancing “The Jerk” and…the layers of comedy are just piling up.
You’re laughing so hard now it almost begins to hurt, but not as much the guys surrounding you, because they’re laughing so hard it actually does hurt.
It’s getting cold out as night falls, so Assistant Coach Willis Holliday says it’s time to head back to the bus.
The day off has been fun, but tomorrow the real work begins.