Players give up more than just their time

Rose, Horford, Brook and Robin Lopez, Evans, McGee, Miller and Augustin were at the USO event. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

A group of eight NBA players went to Hawaii last week and hefted real M16s in a simulated firefight, got up close with an array of makeshift bombs, heard the coordinates barked for a desert air raid and ran in a stuffy, dimly-lit gym or two with soldiers either just back from, or headed to, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Along the way, they showed that, despite the NBA lockout, the league still cares. Or at least some of its players do.

The eight players -- Derrick Rose, Al Horford, Brook and Robin Lopez, Tyreke Evans, JaVale McGee, Mike Miller and D.J. Augustin -- did all that as part of a four-day USO tour of Oahu, the first featuring current professional athletes. They met with, and performed for, military personnel at Hickam Air Force Base and the U.S. Army's Schofield Barracks.

If you were only vaguely aware of it, there's a reason. The organizers wanted it that way. They practically discouraged media attention, declining offers by NBA TV, ESPN and TNT to promote and televise the goodwill mission's two exhibition games, one on each military site.

Unlike the battles pitting NBA players from different playground or summer-league crews, there weren't any Twitter messages or other forms of advertising by any of the participants, either, because there was no point. Admission was free to military personnel and their families only. It barely got out to the public that the games were streamed live over the Internet.

And in stark contrast to the recently postponed six-game, four-continent World Tour, the players were not promised six- and seven-figure contracts to make the trip. They were promised and received nothing.

Check that -- they received nothing monetary. Instead, quite unexpectedly, they were given a profound dose of perspective. They participated in a simulation, where they sat in, or walked by, a column of Humvees as they rolled into a desert town as villagers scattered and, suddenly, armed enemy soldiers opened fire. They talked to bomb unit specialists about to be redeployed to the Middle East, every one of them with scars, embedded shrapnel and lost comrades to show for their previous tours. They learned about the constantly evolving game of chess that is the battle to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They heard about mistakes made by men and women their age that didn't result in lost games but lost lives.

"I don't think any one of us knew what we were getting into," Horford said. "I know I didn't. I just heard 'Hawaii' and said, 'Sign me up!' I couldn't have imagined the connection we'd make with all these troops, bonding with them just by talking about sports and family. Hanging out with the kids in the clinic was probably what I liked the most."

The two clinics drew hundreds of kids, almost all of whom had never seen an NBA star in person, much less shook his hand and received a lesson in how to play the game. Then again, the instruction became secondary after the players realized these were kids who had not seen at least one of their parents in months and had no idea when or if they'd see them again.

"Let's be honest, when we came over here we didn't really know that much about the troops and what they go through, leaving their families, Skyping with their kids, risking their lives every day," Rose said. "We leave our families and we're on the road and we face a lot of pressure, but it's not even close to what they deal with. And they're our age or even younger. It's amazing to meet them and talk with them and it definitely makes you feel you shouldn't take anything for granted."

The eight players didn't just make their obligatory appearances, either. Brook Lopez, the Nets center, went to lunch and toured Honolulu with a soldier who shared his affinity for comic books. He also donned a padded jacket for a firsthand taste, despite protests by advisers, of what it's like to be attacked by a trained military canine. (Memo to Nets GM Billy King: He's fine. Not even a scratch.)

"They've obviously enjoyed having us here but we've enjoyed just as much being around them," Lopez said. "Words can't describe the experience."

The players went through the mess lines on base with other soldiers. Augustin shared dinner with one at the Barracks' Wounded Warrior Center. "You watch movies, you hear about it on the news, but to hear what it's like out of their mouths is different," he said. "I've been to a lot of places around the world, but it's not like seeing some of the things they do to protect us. They're just like us. This soldier, guy named Cervantes, told me how he drove over a bomb and how it messed up his leg and all the Botox he had to have to fix his face. He was walking and talking just like me, but he'll never be the same. Sharing their lives with us like that was incredible. I'll never forget that guy."

The games, which included military players mixed into the squads, were as competitive and highlight-studded as any put on this summer anywhere. The White squad won the first game 81-78 on a stepback buzzer-beating 3 by Evans. The Red squad claimed revenge two nights later 101-95, a win sealed in the final minute by a lob from Rose to McGee for a thunderous dunk. Miller, a fan favorite for his barrage of ridiculously deep 3s for the winning side, afterward heaved his jersey and shoes into the delirious crowd. Several other players saw the reaction and did the same.

After they all climbed onto the bus, unshowered thanks in part to an absence of towels and chest-high nozzles, and before tucking into a postgame meal of cold pizza and water, a USO Tour representative thanked them. McGee, the same one recently excoriated for comments made after a players' association meeting, went to the front of the bus, unprompted, and thanked the tour organizers for bringing them.

"This," the USO Tour rep said, "is something that is going to be talked about for years."

As the bus pulled out, players gazed through the windows at the soldiers and their families smiling and waving, distracted for the moment from the realities of their commitment to serve and defend.

Several players nodded to themselves. Yes, indeed, this surely would be talked about for years. By those on both sides of the glass.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.