Band of Brothers: Volume 1

by April 10, 2008

By Jake Appleman

Wednesday March 26th, 2008

I was told that when I got off the plane there would be a person in American military gear waiting for me. The first dude I saw through the other side of the gate was wearing US Army camouflage, so naturally I pointed at him and figured we’d be on our way. He was there to pick up his parents, who moments earlier had been messed with somewhat inappropriately by German customs officials. Yeah, talk about awkward…

The plane landed early, so I waited. Some dudes who looked like ballers, most likely from the German team in pro team Frankfurt, picked up a girl from an incoming flight. I chilled in the waiting area for a little while and then scoped the place out for a dude with my name on giant tag. Still no sign of anyone.

Very often, people are late getting to airports—it’s pretty normal, actually—but for some reason I assumed that, because I was being picked up by an official member of the US Army, they had to be on time. Being on time is an incredibly important part of army life, right? When I attended West Point basketball camp as youngster, if we were late to practice, we did wall sits.

So after about a half an hour, given my fatigue, hunger and anticipation, I panicked a little bit. (Note: A trans-Atlantic flight is essentially kryptonite for the East Coast night owl: You’re just about ready to fully hit the sack right as the plane lands.) Add to this the reality that the Frankfurt airport is a haven for US Army personnel and I felt like James Woods in that Family Guy episode when he gets lured up the stairs because there’s a piece of candy on every step: “Ooh, piece of candy…Ooh, piece of candy…Ooh, piece of candy…” I walked up to three different army people and asked them if they were picking me up because they had confused looks on their faces.

I was finally picked up by a member of the army; for the sake of privacy we’ll call him John. In the field he’s a shooter (the guy that sits on top of the tank wielding a giant gun). We got to talking and John, who also has expertise as a parachutist, regaled me with stories from his 7 years of service. Sad but true: as a member of generation apathy, I learned more about the ins and outs of US Army—and its invasion into Iraq—in one 45 minute ride from Frankfurt to Mannheim than all total knowledge I had prior to that ride. I also got more of a feel for what it’s like to be in the army…and, DAMN. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. I’m just hearing things and I’m like, DAMN. Call it shock and awe.

I got to the Coleman Gym on the Army Base, where Team USA was practicing. Just as I walked in, Coach Lionel Hollins, a key contributor on the Trail Blazers championship team from 1977, was giving an impassioned speech. I enjoyed listening to coach Hollins; he speaks clearly and directly and intelligently about the game its nuances.

Then I watched practice. It’s fascinating to watch all of these youngsters bursting (literally) with athleticism go through drills. As someone who’s gotten jaded from watching the pros on the regular, my reactions wavered to impressed to occasionally cringing. 17 year-old Americans practicing their fundamentals: it is what it is.

After I introduced myself to Hollins, I told him that I had his rookie card. (Note: I had confused him with Lionel Simmons. For what it’s worth—probably about six bucks—I would much rather have a Lionel Hollins rookie card. In fact, I would try and sell it to Bill Walton for five hundred bucks, which is 6 Euro.)

On the way to lunch, it comes out that Scott Willard, one of team USA’s two assistants, is a Kenyon College graduate. Willard transferred from Gerogia Tech and played ball at Kenyon with Chris Donovan, whose book on being a D-3 athlete I read before heading to ‘The Hill’, and Shaka Smart, a top assistant at Clemson. (As I noted previously in my Nike Camp report from ’06, the appropriately named Smart—he turned Harvard down to go to Kenyon—served under LeBron’s high school coach, Keith Dambrot, at Akron before heading to Clemson. Kids, it’s a small world.)

Not only that, but Willard and I belong to the same chapter of the same fraternity. Some perspective: Kenyon graduates around 350 per class. This is like finding a needle in a haystack expo center. So we’re brothers, I guess, but both kind of look at the frat thing as more of a college experience thing than a life-altering course of action. (There are others that see it the other way, and I have love for them, too.)

We ate a “buffet” lunch at the cafeteria next to the arena. I’m told to get used to it because we’re going to eat there every day. Backup big man Andy Shannon informs me that he, Jeff Shelton and Brent Shuck are Team USA’s popcorn section. As you might expect, they’re hilarious (and really good at basketball, too—just overlooked on such a talented squad). I have an inherent respect for the popcorn section’s biting sarcasm because it reminds me of when I rocked left bench hard for a year in college before trading my shoes in for a pen and a pad. (On a serious note, all of these kids are good enough to play for solid D-1 schools. Coaches, get out your Rolodexes. Really. I’m not kidding. We can wait…)

After a much needed mid-afternoon siesta, I headed over to the gym with my main man; we’ll call him Jim (Team USA on-base caretaker, US Army official, and all around ridiculous personality). We caught the end of Spain-Greece. The US had already lost to Greece, and the Greeks were methodically Socratizing the over-matched Spaniards (no Ricky Rubio—he’s like, trying to win an ACB league championship or something…by the way, watching Lang on Canal Plus while in Germany was a highlight of my first afternoon’s down time…).

Towards the end of the Greece victory, the Greek fans in the upper left corner of the gymnasium started making all sorts of raucous noise, jumping up and down and waving flags. They were reminiscent of the great Olympiakos fans I saw during a Champions League game against Real Madrid two and a half years ago at the Bernabeu. Great atmosphere and tremendous support shown.

I met and sat next to Detlef Schrempf for a while. First impression is also that he’s the man. I forgot to ask him if I could mooch off of Jim McIlvane’s pension.

Next on the docket is the US-Argentina game. It starts out sluggish; both teams are struggling mightily to hit from the field. The Americans pull away towards the end of the second quarter, and never fully let Argentina get all the way back into it, winning 74-58 and holding Argentina to 29% (!) from the floor. The Americans were paced by 21 from Walker (Florida), who made up for a 6-15 night from the field by getting to the line 11 times (hitting 9), controlling tempo and knocking down big shots during Team USA’s lead-building run.

Cashmere “I read your blog” Wright (Cincy) went for a very efficient 16 points on 6-9 from the floor. When Hollins got on Wright in the second half, he got into fifth gear and excelled on the defensive end, running around and into screens—drawing a foul—at a blistering pace and picking up timely steals (he finished with 5). While W&W certainly did their respective things well, Travis Releford (Kansas) also played a whale of a game, dropping 19 on 6-8 shooting and setting the defensive tone of his squad. Releford took a shot, crashing to the ground after being hit on a layup attempt. He walked off to a loud ovation from the Americans GI’s in attendance. A trio of juniors, Anthony Stover (blocked shots), Brendan Lane (glass-work) and Wally Judge (hustle and key buckets) also contributed well in the win.

The fantastic atmosphere was punctuated by raucous chants of “USA-USA-USA” with 5 and change left on the clock.

The coaches were pleased with the performance after the game. And we all put our arms in the circle for one final “U-S-A” before heading out for the customary 11pm dinner.

Not only am I temporarily in the army, apparently (custom Team USA shoes and full access), I might as well be on the team.