Minton brings hoops, home to Gulf
By Wayne Amann
Academy Spirit Editor
For decades, the Harlem Globetrotters have pioneered playing basketball around the world, leaving lasting impressions with those they've touched.
Today, that same good will ambassador mindset is the driving force behind "Operation Hardwood II," a United Service Organizations and Armed Forces Entertainment combined program bringing hoops from home to GIs in the Persian Gulf.
This year's program sent some of the top NCAA basketball coaches and personalities, May 23-29, to coach the region's top military's players in a championship tournament.
The traveling group included former Air Force head coach Reggie Minton.
The Connecticut native led the Falcons for 16 seasons, 1985 -2000, the longest stint in Academy history. Compiling a 150-296 record, Minton faced and overcame the challenges inherent with coaching at a military academy. His bluesuiter years made the retired major appreciate what troops are facing half a world away.
"It's special here, 40 miles from Iraq. The people coming through here are truly in harms way," Minton said in a phone interview from Camp Victory, Kuwait. "We brought a number of guys that made sacrifices to be here, but those are small compared to the sacrifices the armed forces are making."
Minton played on many service teams while in uniform and was named to the All-Air Force team five straight years. That background served him well in gauging the level of play overseas.
"Some bases are small and some are large. It's like small high schools against big high schools," he said. "It varies based on the number of people to draw from."
Minton's Camp Victory team was comprised of security forces guarding the closed base until all the equipment was shipped out.
"We're struggling," Minton said in assessing his club. "We're not too big, not too athletic and we don't shoot too well. But, they do a great job doing their duty every day."
This year's "Operation Hardwood II" tournament involved 12 teams, divided into three pools. The top teams went into a single-elimination round. The coaches whose teams got bumped joined the surviving teams' staffs to continue working with the GIs to show their appreciation.
The list of coaches read like a who's who among the collegiate ranks. Joining Minton on the tour were: Rick Barnes, the University of Texas; Jim Crews, the U.S Military Academy; Mark Gottfried, the University of Alabama; Tom Izzo, Michigan State University; Billy Lange, the U.S. Naval Academy; Bobby Lutz, the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; Dave Odom, the University of South Carolina; Kelvin Sampson, the University of Indiana; Tubby Smith, the University of Kentucky; Gary Williams, the University of Maryland and former Duke University player turned ESPN commentator, Jay Bilas.
Gottfried, Odom, Lutz, Izzo, Sampson and Bilas are veterans of "Operation Hardwood I" and were inspired to return.
"I told the general here (Camp Arifjan, Kuwait) as long as we have funding and they want the coaches, I'm sure they'll come," said Minton, who is the Deputy Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
As a member of the NABC's management team, Minton is responsible for working issues directly affecting college basketball coaches, and works with NCAA legislation to improve the game for players and coaches. He's the NABC's primary contact for Coaches versus Cancer, the Coaches Support Network and Alumni Program. He's the chief liaison for the association's preseason basketball tournaments and coaches clinics. He serves as a trustee for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and on the board of directors for USA Basketball where he is Vice-President for men's programs.
From Kuwait, Minton and company headed to Bahrain to visit Navy troops before going home.
"We wanted to salute them on a flat top (aircraft carrier), but it's a little too far out to sea," the coach said. "So, we'll go to their base and let them know we're thinking of them, too."
The dean of Falcon hoop mentors also thinks about the Academy's two NCAA Tournament appearances in the last three years.
"We're so proud of what the players and coaches have done," Minton said. "Hopefully, they'll keep playing the way they have, and represent the Academy and the Air Force in a great manner."
Much the way deployed GIs are playing for the love of the game.