To Master Sergeant Chris Calkins:
Can't imagine how you made time at Central Command in Qatar to answer my e-mail, but I want you to know how much I appreciated it. I hated to bother you, but I had this one question: Do the NCAAs, the NBA, sport itself, matter a spit to the men and women who are risking their lives over there?
I asked it because, for a lot of us here, they don't matter. Right now I really don't give a used wad of chew about sports. Don't care about my brackets or Opening Day. Don't care about locks or jocks or Jayhawks.
But you said the strangest thing. You said you feel just the opposite. You said that soldiers there are hungry for sports news, that sports need to go on if only because they take your minds off the buckling weight of war, give you all a moment to lose yourselves in a small taste of home.
You described the throng that gathers around the bulletin board outside Gen. Tommy Franks's briefing room when updated NCAA brackets go up. How the young soldiers agonize over the teams that lose, feel the players' pain. But then you go back to your freeze-dried meals and dust storms and your 59 tent mates.
"We know that not everyone can be here," you wrote. "You have your job and we have ours. Just let us enjoy our 'diversions' when time allows. We're fighting to protect America's way of life, not to put it on hold."
Yet we almost did. CBS president Les Moonves wondered if the NCAAs should be pushed back a week. Utah coach Rick Majerus said playing games while bombs were dropping didn't seem right. NCAA president Myles Brand considered moving the first two rounds to a later date, then decided to go ahead on schedule. It seemed stupid and wrong, but we carried on.
Before his school's first-ever NCAA tournament game, IUPUI junior guard Matt Crenshaw, 27, a six-year Navy veteran and the Jaguars' leader, took a minute to tell his teammates why he felt this war was just. He did that by describing a close friend and how he had died on Sept. 11 at the Pentagon. When Crenshaw looked up, half his teammates were crying.
Wake Forest senior guard Steve Lepore was anxious every time the phone rang in his hotel room. Lepore's older brother Chris is a naval intelligence officer on the carrier USS Carl Vinson. Whenever the phone rings, Lepore is scared it's going to be somebody telling him his brother is dead.
"If that call does come," he says, "I'll deal with it then. Right now I'm just praying for him." How are you supposed to play your heart out when your heart is somewhere else?