Barnes impressed by spirit and humility of troops
·Rick Barnes shook the hand of the first soldier who approached him after the Texas men's basketball coach arrived at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.
"He thanked me for being there," said Barnes, sounding as taken aback in retelling the story as he was when the young man extended his hand. "He thanked me for being there. He told me how he appreciated that I was there.
"I said, 'Wait a minute. What we are doing is nothing. I thank you. I appreciate you for what you are doing over here.' It was very humbling to me."
Barnes was in Kuwait as a participant in the United Service Organizations (USO) and Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE) Operation Hardwood II from May 23-29.
Kentucky's Tubby Smith, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Alabama's Mark Gottfried, Maryland's Gary Williams, South Carolina's Dave Odom, Indiana's Kelvin Sampson, Charlotte's Bobby Lutz, Army's Jim Crews, former Air Force coach Reggie Menton and Navy's Bill Lange joined Barnes.
"I can tell you one thing," Barnes began. "It's not really so hot in Texas. The temperature there was about 116 or 117 degrees. And, it can get to be 130 degrees.
"It was hard to grasp the enormity of everything. We were just on a small part of the base in a dorm."
The coaches led military basketball teams in a championship tournament in the Persian Gulf region. The event, which is sponsored by Nike, was created a year ago in order to boost morale and bring recreational services to the United States military personnel and their families.
Operation Hardwood II's tournament consisted of 12 teams of service members from the seven Kuwait military camps.
"I had a 48-year-old guy on my team and another two guys in their mid-30s," Barnes said. "I had two females. One was a student at Marquette. She was in the reserves and her unit was deployed. One of my guys was from South Carolina."
Barnes said they worked hard and were disciplined.
"If we weren't playing a game, my team wanted to practice," he said, with a hint of a laugh. "I would have liked to have had my guys over there to see that."
Barnes was impressed as he watched his team's first scrimmage.
"You could have called a foul on every single play," he said. "No one stopped. Everyone kept playing and never said a word. The discipline of the players was impressive. They loved it."
There was time away from the basketball court for the Operation Hardwood II coaches, who were issued fatigues with Operation Hardwood II and their name on the shirt.
"We rode in a tank and a Humvee simulator where we were turned upside down," Barnes said. "We also had a photo-op with the ambassador in Kuwait City."
Asked about the camel ride that was advertised, Barnes replied wryly, "Didn't do it. The camel looked at Gary Williams, Tom Izzo and Kelvin Sampson and decided against it."
In the end, it got down to basketball for the men who make their living leading young men, some the same age or just a little younger than the soldiers they worked with during the visit.
"I was impressed with the way my players handled the crowd at the game," Barnes said. "None of them had played before that many people."
It was the people who touched Barnes during the stay, which he said went too fast.
"One of my guys told me at the end of the tournament that he'd had his dream fulfilled," Barnes said. "He told me he always wanted to play for a Division I coach. He gave me a card that really meant a lot to me."
Asked what he would remember most, Barnes again talked about the demeanor of the troops.
"All of them approached what they were doing with the attitude that they had a job to do and they were going to do it," he said. "Their humility was incredible. Also, you could hear a pin drop in the gym when they played the national anthem."
A week removed from the 18-hour plane ride home, Barnes said he would go back in a minute.
"I wish I could bring everybody here over there," he said. "It would make an impression."
As it did on Barnes.