Infantry Hoops in Iraq

First Lieutenant Ted Janis is the platoon leader of 3rd Platoon, Angel Company, 3rd Battalion, 187 Infantry Regiment of 3rd Brigade Rakkasans, 101st Airborne Division. He is stationed along the Euphrates river, a short drive from both Baghdad and Fallujah.

And he spends as much of his time as possible playing basketball.

I have heard from soldiers in Iraq from time to time, and have gotten the impression that many of them are playing regularly. I sent word to Janis that I was wondering about basketball in Iraq. He e-mailed that "local nationals" seemed to be addicted to soccer, but the American soldiers were very into hoops:

Basketball is key for the troops. All I can really speak for is my company, which is composed of three infantry rifle platoons of about 35 men each. We all live on different bases (two of them tiny) yet each one of us have a basketball set-up of varying quality.

The platoon that lives on the big base has a decent backboard rim and, luxuryBasketball at Patrol Base Kemple of luxuries, concrete. My platoon has a newly constructed backboard attached to our mini-gym, and we play on hard-packed dirt. The third platoon has a rigged up backboard and plays on dirt/gravel mix.

Despite the condition of the court, each one gets enormous use. We have been deployed for more than seven months now, seeing the same thirty-odd guys every day, patrolling in the same couple towns, we need everything we can get to break the monotony.

Sports are the number one attraction. At my patrol base, if nothing's going on that evening, we play quick games to seven of three-on-three (all that the court can contain), swapping out the losing team from the guys waiting to play, all the way until the sun is well below the horizon.

All of us get completely covered, from head to toe to teeth, in the dust of the cradle of civilization.

For me, it displays the magic of sports: No matter what has been going on that day, or what we are anticipating the next, for those couple minutes in a heated game, nothing else matters except the action on the court. It is the ultimate escape, wherever, whenever.

Janis agreed to explain more about their games.

Did most of you play basketball back home? Can you give me a sense of the level of play? Are there dunks and alley-oops, or is this more like the game at my local Y?
We obviously come from a variety of backgrounds, from all the towns, suburbs, farmland and Pacific Islands that America has to offer. One thing we generally have in common, as the Infantry, is an inclination towards athletic activity. Almost all of us played high school sports, basketball among them. As far as I know, none of us played beyond that besides pickup games (and intramural at college in my case).

However, the games are suprisingly decent. We all go on patrol about once a day, and do regular physical training daily, so everyone is in good shape. The hoop is probably about six inches off regulation, so there is the occasional alley-oop/dunk. Although the inadequacies of the court don't allow much fancy dribbling, the basic pick-and-roll and movement to and from the ball keeps things pretty good.

It looks like [more photos after the jump] the surface might be somewhat akin to playing tennis on clay -- where players learn to kind of slide around instead of cutting and stopping precisely. Do you have to learn special techniques?

Tennis clay is about right. Definitely have to refrain from sprinting hard for a ball because you're liable to wipe out.

We need the rules: Winners outs or losers outs? Can you go right back up with airballs, blocks, and steals, or do you have to clear everything? And where do you clear it to -- is there some kind of marker on the court? No three-point line, right -- so everything is worth one point? And does anyone even try to honor the "three in the key" rule with no key, or do offensive players just camp out under the hoop?
Winner's ball, take back only on rim, back to an old crop line about 10 feet back (the whole base used to be farmland), no three-pointers (it's by ones), no three-second rule, but generally everyone is good about moving around and not camping out. Underneath the basket is where the dirt has become the most torn up and loose, so hardest to get a foothold. That makes a kind of naturally-enforced three second rule. (Speaking as the big goon in the photos, I like to think I stay out of the key most of the time).

Also, how about putting the ball on the floor -- the bounce must be a little unpredictable, I'd imagine? I can see some rocks and bumps here and there in the photos. Seems like this environment might really favor passing and shooting.
Definitely all about passing. You quickly get to know the areas where you can and cannot get a predictable bounce, and towards the back is pretty much asking for a steal if you try to dribble.

Naturally we play you have to pass in. Personally, I like how the dribbling is largely eliminated. More of an old school style of play: All about the team, not the individual, requires smart passing, movement off the ball is key.

Who built the backboard? Are rims easy to come by in Iraq?

The backboard was built and painted by our soldiers, and is only reliable for straight-forward shots. No one's too sure about the rim, but the rumor is that some local Iraqis welded it because it's got a random number and location of rings to hold the net up, and looks a little less than NBA quality. But yeah, didn't have a problem getting the rim, simple supply and demand.

I imagine the most grave offense in this game would be to hang on the rim -- or do anything to damage the backboard and hoop.
Hanging on the rim is the cardinal sin. We've already had some problems and had to repair it a couple times. Everyone pleads innocence, but it's more than the pull of gravity that's dragging it down.

How are the shower facilities? When you get all that dust everywhere, can you get clean again afterwards?
We have showers on the patrol base, which work pretty consistently. You can usually shower every day if you so choose.

Are there a lot of arguments about calls, or are people pretty civil?
It all depends on the game, and the competition. Ranks are second nature to us, so there are certain times where it is pointless to even bother to argue.

One key example is our company commander, Captain Raymond, and First Sergeant Conn, his right-hand man, think themselves ballers and often team up, and there's little anyone on the patrol base can say when they get rough (which is frequent).

Things do get rough out there, especially with the amount of loose balls caused by unsteady ground. The further you get from the basket, the more it turns into full-tackle. But on the whole, we are a family, and there's no use getting into fights with each other, because when you wake up the next day and the day after that, that guy will still be there, pulling guard with you, going on patrol with you, covering your back in a combat zone. No petty conflict on the court is going to override that.

Occurs to me that so much of the language of basketball "long-range bomb," "shooting," etc. probably isn't nearly as cute if you're in Iraq. I remember they used to call Chuck Person "the Rifleman" for instance, and it had a certain harmless zing to it. You actually are riflemen. Does it seem odd that those of us lucky enou
gh not to be in war would use these warlike words for fun?

Eh, doesn't bother us. We love our job, and pride ourselves on being riflemen, so if people want to use terms from our realm to describe other professions, it's no big deal.

In other words, we know who we are and what our job entails, and that's all that really matters.

Can you watch, or listen, to the NBA? Do some of you? Who are you rooting for?
Each patrol base has a satellite linkup to the Armed Forces Network so we get most of the NBA games. It's hooked up in the chow hall, so it definitely gets watched. I know the Atlanta/Boston series had a good following, and there have been a handful of times when I've wandered in to grab a midnight snack and there's been some lone, diehard fan staring intently at the screen.

I'm a Boston fan, so good year for me.

How hot is it on a typical day?
Recently it's been around 98-104 degrees, but we live right on the Euphrates river so we get a pretty good, cool breeze.

After a day's work, aren't you too exhausted to play?
Rarely ever. Occasionally there will be days when we are just too busy, and our patrols never follow any routine schedule. But if we have the time and the numbers, people play.

Playing sports, win or lose, raises morale, continues to reinforce our teamwork, relieves stress, keeps us fit. Plus, having all volunteered for the infantry, on the whole we're naturally competitive and the court is the best, safest way to channel it.

After the jump: More photos (like the one above, courtesy of specialist Greg Hawver) and stories from recent games at Patrol Base Kemple.

Ted Janis serves with Specialist Greg Hawver, a medic who was nice enough to let us use some of his photos of recent games at Patrol Base Kemple. Captions are based on information from Janis.

American Infantrymen play basketball in Iraq. As Lieutentant Ted Janis frees up the lane, Staff Sergeant Cliff "Country" Sanders tries to drive past Specialist David "B-Rabbit" Morgan.

American Infantrymen play basketball in Iraq. The drive looks good, but his defender Morgan, the wonder-kid of this court, has surprised everyone with his speed and skill.

American Infantrymen play basketball in Iraq. Morgan stopped this drive, while leading the Janis-Tagaloa-Morgan team to victory.

American Infantrymen play basketball in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Jevon Howard grabs the board and is urged by Sergeant Sean "Mirror Man" Hood to go straight up with it (the ball hadn't hit rim).

American Infantrymen play basketball in Iraq. Janis, shown dunking, says hanging on the rim -- which is already a little bent -- is the game's greatest taboo. The symbol on the backboard is a "torii," which is a symbol the Rakkasans regiment earned during World War II.