Q&A: Gen. Dempsey on basketball, service

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Wednesday, ESPN's Jay Bilas moderated a USA Basketball panel in the Pentagon auditorium. The panel, which featured Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith and UConn national title winners Geno Auriemma (women's team) and Kevin Ollie, discussed leadership (and cracked jokes) in front of more than 400 Pentagon personnel. It can be viewed online here.

The panel was introduced by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey spoke to ESPN.com about the launch of "Commitment to Serve," a partnership between college basketball and the military that he hopes will create a new network of young people devoted to public service.

How did this initiative come about?

Dempsey: I want to find a way to allow our young men and women serving, who are widely admired ... I want them to keep thinking about service. It's not just about going to Iraq and Afghanistan, it's about what are you doing for your country today.

Another extraordinarily admired group, the elite athletes of the NCAA -- whether it happens to be in basketball or football or in other sports, but we're going to start it with this particular group -- we're going to help them understand their responsibility beyond themselves. Some of them do, some of them don't, all of them could use a little more of it, all of us could use a little more of it.

So this is about making a shared commitment to serve -- that's kind of the headline, commitment to serve. We're starting with what I described as connecting the best with the best. Connecting the best and most admired athletes, and we're working with the NBA, but talking about college here, with [those] who understand the military profession better than anybody on the planet, to make a commitment to serve.

I don't know where it's going to go beyond that, but that's OK. That's a great place to start. And today, (the coaches and he) spent some time together actually unpacking the idea. We want to establish a framework into which military bases can plug, into which athletic programs can plug. By plugging into the framework, they will get to know each other, they'll make a commitment to serve, and they'll make a difference in their communities. And that's really what it's all about.

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned the age demographics involved. What are some of the parallels involved here with leadership for groups of people ages 18, 19, and 20?

Dempsey: The parallels are kind of remarkable. I'll just rattle off a few. They have to recruit and train. We have to recruit and train. And by the way, the recruiting pool for them is very limited, and for us it's very limited -- only one in four men and women can get into the military. So recruiting and training.

Second thing is, you have a new team every year. They have a new team every year, I have a new team every year. You know, hundreds of thousands get out of the military either by retirement or they just choose not to stay for another tour, and hundreds of thousands come in. So we have a new team every year.

That brings me to the third parallel, which is transitions. I transition young men and women every day back into civilian life. They transition athletes every day -- well, not every day, but at the end of every year. And by the way, you'd probably be interested in this statistic: Only about 5 percent of the elite schools' athletes, and we're talking about basketball now, get in the NBA. Five percent. Only 17 percent of the military actually goes for 20 years and retires. So it means that 83 percent will never reach retirement. They'll transition out at some point before retirement, and they have to be reintegrated. And the 95 percent of kids that don't make their way into the NBA, they have to reintegrate into some kind of normal lifestyle.

So we've got a lot to learn from each other about building our teams, bringing them in, training them and building our teams to transition them out.

What are the outcomes you're trying to approach, or the things you're trying to hammer home, to service personnel transitioning out of the military?

Dempsey: The big idea here is that the country deserves to be served. The people of America, which is our greatest natural resource, deserve those who have been given certain talents and benefits. They deserve to have that group of people understand that service matters.

My view is that there's a trend that's probably been developing for some time, that has been exacerbated by social media, that it's really all about yourself. With social media the way it is today, you could literally live a life kind of independent of outside distractions.

I know several people who do.

Dempsey: No, that's right! And so what we want to do is recognize that maybe young men and women don't have a service ethic -- the soul of a servant would be the poetic way to describe it -- to the degree that they should. And we're trying to help build that, actually. Or at least illuminate for them the rewards of service.

Back to connecting it with the best of the best -- if we can have these really well-known and admired athletes, and these really well-known and admired service men and women, partner in serving their communities all over the country -- because we have bases every place, they have schools all over the place, the NBA has franchises every place, the NFL [too]. So there's a web out there that can be turned into a network on this issue of service, commitment to service. I think it has some real potential.

Have you seen some benefits already from the crossover between college basketball and the military, in events like the Carrier Classic, the Armed Forces Classic? It seems, with USA Basketball as well, that there has been some increased coordination already. Have you seen any fruits there?

Dempsey: Sure. You know the phrase "a thousand flowers blooming?" There's been a lot of this happening already. Some coaches will bring players to a base; the base will bring service men and women to practice.

But I want to expand it. What we've got now is what I would describe as a mutual respect. What we're looking for is a mutual commitment to serve their communities. I would describe it as we're trying to create a framework. Willing partners can plug into the framework. I don't want to make people that are doing good work now discard that in favor of what we're advocating. I would like them to plug that in to our framework.

And then maybe the idea we've got is that once a year we come together and celebrate it. But the rest of the year it would really be about local. The effort would be decentralized and people would plug into this framework and commit to serve. And I'm actually pretty excited about it.