After Jim and I had gotten to the airport and got most of the guys settled–Coach Willard and Jeff Withey were locked out of their rooms at 4:30AM–I chilled with a few of the guys in a waiting area outside of the Lufthansa terminal at the Frankfurt airport and helped Brendan Lane, now on crutches, with his bags.
Erving Walker asked me, more or less, why I got up at the @$$crack of dawn to ride with the team when I wasn’t due back at the Frankfurt airport for another 14 hours. There’s a complex answer and there’s a simple answer and both will be given.
Complex: As per usual, there was confusion as to when I would be allowed to stay on the army base until. Check out time was at 11, but I had a pass that allowed me to go on and off the base until 3:30pm (or so I thought). After waffling as to whether or not I should choose sleep over my final minutes with these kids, I took Coach Hollins’ advice and rode down with the team (it was never really in doubt, but I was really tired).
This choice was made easier by Jim, who in all of his legendarily confusing glory, called his superior and reported back that I was getting kicked off the base at 11AM. I was under the impression that we were to stay with the kids until the last plane took off sometime after 13:00. This meant if I went with the kids I was gone. (Of course, we returned at 7:45AM and I took a nap and met a friend for lunch before returning to the airport with the New Zeleand team at 4pm.)
Now that you’ve waded through all of that, here’s what’s really important: I had to be on that bus with those kids because I’ve never had a more fulfilling, three dimensional experience as a writer/journalist. That includes listening to Allen Iverson dispense advice like a wise old man in Denver and asking LeBron about college.
Getting to know these young Americans was overwhelmingly rewarding. There isn’t a bad apple in the bunch; what Charles Barkley would refer to as a “tr-uh-bl knucklehead.” Their accomplishments show how they gelled and made their country proud.
As Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Fletcher said, “I’m especially proud of how our young men came together as a team as the tournament grew in intensity. They fought hard against seasoned teams and walked away having earned the respect of players and fans alike.”
The trip was special because it was free of the need for an over-exposure that defines high school athletics coverage. I wasn’t in Germany to treat these kids like pieces of meat or stick a tape recorder in their face, even though, like a butcher behind the counter at a Deli, I could tell talk forever about what specifically makes each of them different. For all intents and purposes, I was on the team, getting my Jack Mac on.
The cool part is that I didn’t have to write a book about them. I was able to, for the most part, adhere to the code of the team. As it is, I’d rather get a 3-D picture of these young men and pocket the majority of the memories than to be forced into writing about shit that would draw attention to 18 year olds that already draw enough as it is (SLAM is guilty as charged, but at least we’re in the business of showing love).
And that’s the kicker for me. It took a diverse team full of 17-18 year-olds, donning Team USA jerseys and balling their asses off on a US Army base 3,000 miles away, to wake the slumbering patriot inside of me. An understanding of national pride that had so long been suppressed by cynicism and embarrassment resulting from humiliating recent political decision-making rose from out of my core. I couldn’t shake the smile.
Two days later, as I stood mere feet away from the track where Jesse Owens raced past Adolf Hitler’s super-nazis on their own soil (100M lauf Owens, 200M lauf Owens, it reads on the wall at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium) I remembered that America has a past–and if these kids are any indication–a future that it can be proud of.
So there you go, Erving. I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud that you and your teammates are my fellow countrymen.