War reaches home courts everywhere


January 17, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

There were basketball games all over the map yesterday, at Carver and Patterson and dozens of other high schools, at Towson State, at Navy, at Maryland. Players jumped and sweated. Fans cheered and groaned. Coaches cursed and cajoled. Not a single dribble seemed without the usual hurrah.

The imminent threat of a war in the Middle East did not stop the routine of life here. Nor, probably, will the realization of war. People will still get up in the morning and go to work. Students will still come home and do their homework. Sports are no different. Games will still be played. Standings kept. Champions declared.

To say that business is as usual would be wrong, though, for it is not. A mixture of dread and anticipation hangs in the winter air. Minds are wandering. The lots of citizens seem much less important. That goes for points guards as well as CEOs.

So many people are touched, involved. Spread a tree of family and friendship from a root of 450,000 troops, and you have an enormous tree. Fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors. This is a crisis hitting close to home for millions. Suddenly, they all have war stories.

In the basketball locker room at Navy last night, players were thinking not only about beating Richmond, but also about Cliff Rees, a smiling kid from Ellicott City who was the Middies' captain just two years ago. He is now among the Marines gathered in Saudi Arabia.

At Towson State, coach Terry Truax was thinking about Greg McClinton, his team captain four years ago, now also in Saudi Arabia. The players were thinking not only about beating Rider, but also about about teammate Scott Heidler, whose father is an army commander over there.

At Northwestern High School, more than a few students walking the halls were thinking of Wendell Braxton, a football player who won the school's scholar-athlete award just last spring. His girlfriend is still in school, a basketball manager. Wendell shipped out at Christmas.

At Loyola College, the top scorer on the basketball team, Kevin Green, was thinking about his brother, Russell.

"I'm worried about him over there," Kevin said yesterday after practice. "I never thought it'd go this far, but now that it's here, it's hard to get it out of your mind. Basketball is awfully trivial compared to a war. We keep playing the games, and you put the other stuff out of your mind for a couple of hours. But it isn't easy."

His brother is an army cook who enlisted five years ago. Kevin last saw him in November. "He came to the Towson game," he said. "He's sent a few letters, made a few phone calls. I haven't talked to him. I guess I kept thinking they would settle it peacefully."

They didn't. "We pray for Cliff Rees every day at practice," said Pete Hermann, the basketball coach at Navy. "Our games do go on, and they're important, but there is a sense that the real game of life is up for grabs over there. It's a concern all of our players have daily. The games are still the same, but the atmosphere here is very apprehensive."

That, no doubt, is because there are probably thousands of academy graduates involved in the war effort. All it takes is one friend, though, to bring it all into your living room.

"Maybe it's just the way I am, but I find myself thinking a lot about Greg McClinton," Truax said. "I almost kicked him off the team when he was a sophomore, but he turned it around, grew up and became a leader. You don't forget those faces. I like to think he's over there using a little bit of what he learned here."

None of the current Towson players were in school with McClinton, but Truax has made certain they are aware of his circumstances. "I've talked about him a lot," he said. "We played in a tournament in Pensacola, [Fla.] where there's a lot of military, and had a chance to tape a 30-second message to be shown over there. We directed it at Greg."

These stories of pride and melancholy are not unusual, of course, not with so many Americans hunkered down in the Saudi sand. At the city high schools there is a war story in every class, or so it seems. "My principal says probably half our school has a brother or sister over there," said John Nash, the basketball coach at Douglass.

Wendell Braxton was a good football player and maybe a better lacrosse player, and on the night he was named the best scholar-athlete at Northwestern, his mother and grandmother came to the banquet beaming. He thought about college, but he'd been active in the ROTC. "He enlisted after graduation," said Art Milburn, Northwestern's athletic director. "He wanted to better himself."

Now, he is a name to whom friends and family send letters, a mental image to whom they direct prayers. It doesn't matter if you're gung-ho for the war or angrily against it. If you know someone who is there, your best wishes are in their name. They get a piece of your day. Every day.

"I suspect that to a lot of people the events over there seem very far off," Art Milburn said, "until it is someone you know who is over there. Over there on the verge of this great explosion."

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