Gloomy skies and grey clouds that hung low to the ground on the morning of Feb. 17, a buildup to the rainstorm that would last two days, made the cabin fever feel especially tangible. The headliners of the USO tour had taken various routes to get there — former NBA players Sam Perkins (from Seattle) and Caron Butler (from Los Angeles), NBA Vice President of Referee Operations Bob Delaney (from New York) and the Washington Mystics’ Ivory Latta (from her offseason home in Atlanta) — before gathering the previous night in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the final three-hour flight into Bagram.
The NBA and WNBA may not have a more meaningful real-world impact all season, and perhaps seasons, plural. As the rain came down outside, the Clamshell was a place of sanctuary in a lot of ways, three months and 400 yards removed from the carnage. This was a chance to really move forward. “Hearing all this laughter so close to where it happened, it’s amazing how people have recovered from it,” Marine Staff Sgt. Andrew Jacobs said. “Once everything closed down (after the attack) everybody kind of went off to their work, separated. People lost touch. Now, I see people I haven’t seen for a few months. They found out about this visit and this tournament.”
About a year later, a member of the Polish military contingent in Afghanistan — Mirosław Łucki, who Gortat believes was part of the group he met — died from injuries suffered in an explosion in Afghanistan. “Any such tragedy — the death of a soldier — touches us in a special way, because it creates a void, which in this family the soldier cannot fill,” a Polish Ministry of National Defense official said at a ceremony in Poland honoring Łucki, according to a translation on the Ministry’s Web site.
Exactly six months after Łucki’s death, his wife and 8-year-old son Konrad were in Washington as guests of Gortat. With the financial assistance of Gortat and his foundation, they stayed in an Arlington hotel for a week during Konrad’s winter break, touring Washington’s museums, spending a day in New York City and watching two Wizards home games — wins over the Pelicans and Magic — from 100-level seats. Gortat planned to bring Konrad to Wednesday’s practice at Verizon Center and to lead him on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility; he beckoned Konrad onto the court several times before Tuesday night’s game, autographing the boy’s Wizards hat and smiling when Konrad dribbled a basketball along the baseline. “Obviously because of the accident, because of the situation, we decide to bring the mother with the son,” Gortat said before the game. “And it’s sad, because the kid, he looks like a really nice kid but you can see he’s really missing activity with a father, where you go and play basketball, where you go and play different sports. … But this is what the soldiers do for us, and unfortunately some people don’t come back. So we decide to come out with the idea to bring him here to the States.”
Nwaelele has been on the Spurs’ radar for some time, having been invited to their training camp out of school after an impressive showing at mini camp. Duty called, however, delaying his participating until now. Said Gregg Popovich, a 1970 AFA graduate, “I thought he deserved a shot to play with these guys and see how he does. He’s a fine young man and he’s a hard worker. He’s paid some dues and we’ll see how he does.”
Afghanistan has a national men’s basketball team, although it is made up of young Afghan-Americans with modest doses of collegiate experience. The team has a coach, although actually holding a full practice can require a mad scramble that includes cross-country flights. When the practices do occur, he sometimes puts up as many as seven players in his home near Sacramento. “The difficult part is the sacrifices you have to make playing on a team that has no real structure or funds,” said Nafi Mashriqi, 32, the team captain, who was born in Kandahar and now lives in Queens.
The team, though, does have a major victory to its credit: a gold medal won last year in the South Asian Games, the only international title by Afghanistan in any team sport. But perhaps not surprisingly for a club short on history and money, the optimism born of that victory has been imperiled by issues of logistics and organization. The Afghans, hoping to qualify for the London Olympics next summer, were set to play in a prequalifying tournament in Uzbekistan this weekend. But the Afghanistan Olympic Committee declined to allocate $70,000 for travel, food and accommodations. Last-ditch negotiations restored about $30,000 for travel with a smaller party. But now the players have been unable to obtain the required visas, and by Thursday night their coach, Mamo Rafiq, was convinced they would never make it to the tournament. He said he had heard through the Afghan Sports Federation, a nonprofit agency based in Virginia that serves as a liaison for athletes, that the Uzbekistan Embassy had not received the required paperwork from the country’s foreign ministry to grant permission.