Operation Hardwood – Hoops with the Troops: Episode 1

In 2006, 12 NCAA basketball coaches traveled to Kuwait to coach soldiers in a March Madness-style basketball tournament as part of "Operation Hardwood II."

Operation Hardwood was created in by the USO in 2005 to boost morale and bring a touch of home to those in uniform.  The USO has a long tradition of bringing sports figures and sports-related events to troops overseas,“Operation Hardwood” has deployed more than 35 NCAA basketball coaches and sports personalities to Kuwait and Japan.

In 2006, a group of elite coaches participated in “Operation Hardwood II,” coaching the basketball teams in Kuwait, and participating in combat drills, tank simulations, and visited injured troops in the hospital.
As part of a special four-part series, FOX Sports is looking back at this unique USO trip to see how it changed the lives of the soldiers and the coaches.  Through new interviews with some of the coaches – Rick Barnes, Tom Izzo, Kelvin Sampson, and Gary Williams – viewers get to see how their lives have been affected by the trip.  We hope you enjoy this series.  Let’s get it kicked off with Episode 1…

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USO of New England and the Boston Celtics Put Families in Touch…on the Jumbotron!

Recently, USO of New England and the Boston Celtics made dreams come through with their “Seats for Soldiers” program, giving away free tickets to over 500 service members and their families.  Even more amazing, these families were virtually connected to local soldiers live on the Jumbotron from USO Baghdad!

Executive Director Jean M. Mallon shared some thoughts on the event, giving “A big kudos and thank you from USO New England and all of the service members and families of the 101engineers who participated in the live video “shout out” at the Seats for Soldiers Celtics game on Friday evening.

We invited the families of the members to the game, and in addition to seeing their loved ones hailed by the crowd we were able to bring them to the AV room, so they could have a few moments to say hello in private. It was a great morale boost for all.”

Jack Swayze, the IT Administrator for the USO, was called in to coordinate the technical aspects so the families could connect.  “This was an amazing event,” explained Swayze.  “Not only were we able to bring happiness to the troops and their families, but I was able to use some fun technology to achieve the goal. I’m not a big Basketball fan, but I did watch the entire game with the guys, so I could watch them enjoy themselves and see their excitement when  they talked to their families and loved ones. It was one of the best video streaming events I have been apart of.”

We are so proud of our staff, volunteers, Boston Celtics fans, and everyone who brought this event together.  But most importantly, we’re proud of our Troops serving here and abroad; we’re honored to provide that touch of home for them.  Check out the photos below!

Troops at USO Baghdad share some smiles and laughter as they realize their families are viewing them on the Jumbotron during the Celtics "Seats for Soldiers" event.

It's a family reunion of sorts in the AV room at the Garden as a Mom and her Daughter say hi to Dad, serving overseas and on screen courtesy of the USO.

Service members were also honored at the game. Several of them took the opportunity to pose with the Celtics Dancers on the court at half time.

Big East Salutes Our Troops

Coaches and an American President Offer Thanks to our Men and Women in the Armed Forces
By Brian Price, Reporter for SNY

The assignment was simple enough: Take a few minutes at the Big East Tournament to gather some words of appreciation from a few coaches for our American troops.  But everyone wanted in on the action, including President Clinton, who was watching in the stands.

Brian Price: What do you think of our troops and their service in Haiti?
Bill Clinton: The fact that troops made contributions to the Haitian recovery effort (http://clintonbushhaitifund.org) was profoundly moving. They’ve given enough to our country already. I’m grateful for their service and I’m grateful that they care about other people. And those that were not deployed to Haiti should know that, once more, the American military did America proud. They were unbelievable down there. Many Haitians in the street had been taught that America occupied Haiti from 1934 to 1950, and therefore felt negatively [towards America]. When the American troops left there were people running up and down the street begging them not to go. The people begged them to stay because [the Haitians] thought [our troops] performed better than anybody else.

BP: What are some of your most vivid memories of your service?
Lou Carneseca: In 1945, I was serving as a 2nd class pharmacist for General H.P. Freeman in World War II. We were on an AP 143 troop transport ship carrying the 82nd airborne. We pull into port at Yokohama and the first thing I see are four guys playing 2 v. 2 on a homemade backboard. Me and a buddy jumped off the boat and yelled out: “We got next!” I haven’t thought about that in over 60 years but there are certain things you never forget. To all the troops: we love you very much and we all know what you’re doing. Keep it going and God bless you all.

University of Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey, dressed in desert camouflage uniform and boots, cheers his team during the championship game of the USO-sponsored Hardwood IV "Hoops With the Troops" basketball tournament at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, May 27, 2007. Brey's LSA YAH team lost to Wake Forest University's Skip Prosser's Camp Arifjan Defenders, 79-74. (USO photo by Mike Theiler)

Mike Brey, Notre Dame: I was with “Operation Hardwood,” two years ago for the USO. It was unbelievable. I still have my wristband on [showing a green O.H.  rubber bracelet]. They put this on me when I left Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and I keep it on to support the troops. Being with the troops was the most powerful personal experience I’ve ever had. I’ve stayed in touch with guys that played for me over there [when I coached them during Operation Hardwood] and I just recently spoke with our ROTC group on campus.

Being at Camp Arifjan was the greatest example of teamwork I’ve ever been around. I was there two years ago for a week and I look forward to going back and spending more time with our troops.

I told them when I was there: “I so appreciate you having our back. When you return to the United States I have yours.” They’re all winners and exemplify teamwork to the fullest. It was motivating for me, as a leader, to be around that. Many of the sayings I heard, while over there, I brought back to Notre Dame and used with my team.

BP: Such as?
MB: “Always forward,” which is the theme at Camp Arifjan. Also, “Adjust and overcome.” That’s a great military saying and I think it’s a great saying when you’re working with a basketball team. Both those sayings are up on our [locker room] wall.

BP: What can we make people in the sports world aware of when considering the armed services?
John Thompson III, Georgetown: We truly appreciate everyone that serves our country. It drives me crazy when people in athletics use war analogies: “We’re going to war in tomorrow’s game.” No. We’re playing a game and having fun. Our troops are over there. It’s always an analogy I stay away from. We were proud to put the American flag on our jerseys out of respect and love for our troops and our country.

Keno Davis, Providence College: Too often we talk about games being “battles” and “the war.” We’ve all become more sensitive in understanding that our true patriots are out there fighting for it and dying for it. What goes through my mind when we stand during the National Anthem is: there are people doing things so much more important. Yes, we’re playing a basketball game and we’re trying our best to win but at the end of the day there’s more important things out there. I appreciate everything our troops do to allow us to live in the best country in the world.

When you’re in airports and you see people applauding our troops, that means a lot to them. It’s a little thing for us, but I think we all have to do our part to show our appreciation.

BP: Any messages for our troops?
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati: I saw a few soldiers from Cincinnati over Christmas break so I want to say hi to those guys. I know they’re over there following and watching the Bearcats. I hope March Madness can help keep everybody overseas stay positive. You guys hang in there. We’re proud of you and we wish you were back here watching March Madness filling out your brackets, but I’m sure you’re doing it over there. Thank you for everything.

Bobby Gonzalez, Seton Hall University: They allow us to do what we’re doing because of the sacrifices they’re making by being away from their families. We’re free to live our lives and play college basketball because of the young men and women who are over there. It’s incredible. It’s the ultimate sacrifice and we’re all so thankful.

Buzz Williams, Marquette: I don’t know that there’s any group of people that citizens of this country should be more thankful for than our American troops. What they do allows us to play games. Games don’t really matter. What they’re doing is life and death. They’re leaving their loved ones in order to protect me and my loved ones. Words can’t describe how thankful we are and how much we appreciate them.

Stan Heath, USF: Well I’m so thankful and I know my team and university are as well. We’re all so thankful for the troops and the sacrifices they make to be overseas fighting to give us our freedom. Sometimes we think that things we are doing are so important and we realize what they’re doing is so much more important. We always want to give thanks and appreciation for our troops who are serving this country and keeping our families safe and secure. The thing we want most is for all of them to come back home safely.

Compiling this piece was an honor. As the week continues, I look forward to adding more messages from courtside. I also want to note that each individual who contributed took time to close their eyes and find their words with thought and care. Lou Carneseca took the recorder out of my hand and spoke into it as if he was addressing our troops personally.

Hopefully, following college basketball this March will provide some much-deserved fun for our Armed Forces in combat zones and disaster areas throughout the world.

Brian Price is a writer for SNY, the online home for all things NY sports.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Brian Price and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

Celtics Fans: Donate YOUR Tickets to the Troops!

Boston Celtics Fans Give Troops Slam Dunk Treatment in Third Annual Seats for Soldiers

The Boston Celtics will again treat troops and their families to a slam dunk event on Friday, March 12 against the Indiana Pacers as part of the third annual Seats for Soldiers program, presented by OmniPresence. Through Seats for Soldiers, Celtics fans donate their tickets to the game and allow members of the U.S. armed forces and their families to attend in their seat.

Last season, more than 500 tickets were donated to Seats for Soldiers and this year the program is expanding so fans anywhere can donate tickets for the U.S. armed forces. Fans interested in donating tickets can call 617-854-8013 or email seatsforsoldiers@celtics.com.  Additionally, Boston Celtics season ticket holders will be able to donate their tickets by logging onto their account at www.celtics.com. All donated tickets are given to the USO for distribution among the military branches.

“Seats for Soldiers has been a tremendously successful program in honoring the men and women of all our armed forces,” Boston Celtics Team President Rich Gotham said. “Our fans have shown amazing generosity the last few years in donating their tickets to these courageous individuals who defend our country. We look forward to working with our partner, OmniPresence, to provide the soldiers in attendance with a fun and special night.”

“The Seats for Soldiers program is an excellent opportunity for us to continue the USO tradition of providing first-class entertainment to our troops and their families,” said Jean Mallon, Executive Director, USO New England.  “The Boston Celtic fans are among the most patriotic, and I am proud of how they demonstrate their support for our troops.  Go Celtics!”

The Seats for Soldiers donations are product of a unique collaborative effort among the USO, Boston Celtics, Celtics season ticket holders and fans that purchased tickets for the March 12 home game. All of the seats donated were voluntarily contributed to allow members of the armed services and their families to attend the game in their place.  Thank you!

Block Leave – DFW USO Helps the Time Pass Quickly!

Sgt. 1st Class Carl Manns, provost marshal office noncommissioned officer for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, enjoys the Dallas Mavericks, NBA Basketball game, Dec. 8, when his rest and relaxation return flight to Iraq was delayed. The USO provided the tickets to Manns and seven other Soldiers, and the Mavericks rolled out the red carpet for the Soldiers. (Courtesy Photo via Blackanthem))

“As service members travel to and from their destinations for rest and relaxation from deployment, groups like the United Services Organization help to make their travel experience a little easier.

For Sgt. 1st Class Carl Manns, of South Bend, Ind., and a provost marshal office noncommissioned officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kan., being stuck at the Fort Worth-Dallas International Airport wasn’t such a bad thing.

After realizing that he was going to be at the airport longer than expected to to some baggage delays, Sgt. 1st Class Manns said that he went to the airport’s USO where he and seven other Soldiers were given free tickets to attend an NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns, Dec. 8…”

Read the entire story at Blackanthem Military News!

Barry Rohrsson Talks Basketball and the USO

Barry Rohrssen on USO Tour

Barry Rohrssen traveled to the Persian Gulf Region for nine days in June 2009 as part of Operation Hoop Talk.

SNY.tv reporter Brian Price recently interviewed Manhattan College Jaspers basketball Coach Barry Rohrsson.  Rohrsson has has twice toured for the USO with Operations Hardwood and Hoop Talk, celebrity entertainment tours that brings top NCAA Coaches to Troops stationed in Southwest Asia.

The coach shared this with Price: “There are so many outstanding people in our army that are dedicated and committed. I really tried to encourage that kind of dedication to the team.”  Click here to read the full interview!