A group of eight NBA players went to Hawaii last week and hefted real M16s in a simulated firefight, got up close with an array of makeshift bombs, heard the coordinates barked for a desert air raid and ran in a stuffy, dimly-lit gym or two with soldiers either just back from, or headed to, Afghanistan and Iraq. Along the way, they showed that, despite the NBA lockout, the league still cares. Or at least some of its players do. The eight players — Derrick Rose, Al Horford, Brook and Robin Lopez, Tyreke Evans, JaVale McGee, Mike Miller and D.J. Augustin — did all that as part of a four-day USO tour of Oahu, the first featuring current professional athletes. They met with, and performed for, military personnel at Hickam Air Force Base and the U.S. Army’s Schofield Barracks.
“I don’t think any one of us knew what we were getting into,” Horford said. “I know I didn’t. I just heard ‘Hawaii’ and said, ‘Sign me up!’ I couldn’t have imagined the connection we’d make with all these troops, bonding with them just by talking about sports and family. Hanging out with the kids in the clinic was probably what I liked the most.” The two clinics drew hundreds of kids, almost all of whom had never seen an NBA star in person, much less shook his hand and received a lesson in how to play the game. Then again, the instruction became secondary after the players realized these were kids who had not seen at least one of their parents in months and had no idea when or if they’d see them again.
“Let’s be honest, when we came over here we didn’t really know that much about the troops and what they go through, leaving their families, Skyping with their kids, risking their lives every day,” Rose said. “We leave our families and we’re on the road and we face a lot of pressure, but it’s not even close to what they deal with. And they’re our age or even younger. It’s amazing to meet them and talk with them and it definitely makes you feel you shouldn’t take anything for granted.” The eight players didn’t just make their obligatory appearances, either. Brook Lopez, the Nets center, went to lunch and toured Honolulu with a soldier who shared his affinity for comic books. He also donned a padded jacket for a firsthand taste, despite protests by advisers, of what it’s like to be attacked by a trained military canine. (Memo to Nets GM Billy King: He’s fine. Not even a scratch.)