Outside of my marriage, the birth of my two sons and a couple of huge coaching wins in my career, nothing has given me more pleasure in my life than taking part in Operation Hardwood: Hoops for Troops, a USO and Armed Forces Entertainment-sponsored trip that allows eight current and former college coaches to visit our men and women in the military serving in the Persian Gulf.
I'll be making my third trip there this week and plan to blog about my experiences in this very space. (For security reasons, I can't give you too many details about where we will be heading, at the moment.)
This is the sixth year of Operation Hardwood, the brainchild of advertising executive Rick Kell, who has poured his heart and soul into setting up these trips, with the idea of having the eight coaches each coach teams of soldiers in a basketball tournament over five days. The competition gets hot and heavy and we try to help provide relief from the stress of the battlefield and the 130-degree Baghdad summer heat. We get to meet and talk to soldiers from every part of our great country and get to see them to go about their daily duties.
This year's coaches making the trip are Brian Gregory (Dayton), Jim Crews (West Point), Mike Gillian (Longwood), ESPN analyst Steve Lavin (former UCLA coach), Mark Gottfried (former Alabama coach), Dennis Wolfe (former Boston University coach), Tom Schuberth (former UT-Pan American coach), Jeff Nix (former Knicks assistant general manager) and myself. Although most of us already know each other, we will be bunking together for seven days without the comforts of home, and will get to share experiences of a lifetime.
Last year, we visited one of Saddam Hussein's many palaces that he had built around Iraq. It is now the headquarters for the Multi-National Forces command at Camp Victory. While they always looked opulent on television, this palace was a very poorly constructed building -- almost like a set on a Hollywood lot. I know 50 guys in Brooklyn alone who could put up sheet rock and wallpaper better than his Iraqi contractors did.
One fun part of the tour was hitting golf balls off the roof of the palace with some of the soldiers. Golf balls sent from back home in America are put to good use here. And the helmets and body armor we were issued before the trip came in handy when Hofstra's Tom Pecora and Manhattan's Barry Rohrssen were hitting their 5-irons.
More seriously, the stories of past torture that took place at the palace were chilling. It put into perspective the evil that Saddam perpetrated on his own people and it left the coaches talking about it for days.
As for Operation Hardwood VI, we began our trip today with a visit to our wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. It started inauspiciously when our bus driver didn't have the proper identification to get on hospital grounds, so we walked a quarter-mile. I guess no one told him that security is tight at military installations these days.
Once we got to the hospital, it was a moving experience because of the men and women we visited. Their spirit and mental toughness provide a lesson to anyone associated with the athletic world. Some of these guys have endured enough physical punishment to make Ray Lewis look like a 5-year-old on the playground.
Another valuable lesson learned around these brave warriors is teamwork. Invariably, they tell us about not just fighting to keep America free, but that they want to get healthy enough to get back to their fellow soldiers they left behind. Like a great team, they don't want to let down their comrades. It's powerful stuff.
Once we get to the Persian Gulf, after the long 12-hour flight ahead of us, I will keep you updated on the things we experience. Gregory went winless last summer and we will be razzing him until he gets that first Operation Hardwood win. We will also be attempting to hide Lavin's hair gel all week. That's always fun.
Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at franfraschilla.