Gulf War Veteran Shooting for Hoop Dreams at 39: Scott Soshnick
Turns out that Dick Vitale, ESPN’s yakety-yak hoops analyst, doesn’t possess a tip-of-the-tongue, top-of-the-mind scouting report for every player in college basketball.
Vitale went silent when asked about the name and game of Jermaine Townes, who, if you ask his teammates, opponents and coaches, is a man among boys.
Not in the bigger, faster, stronger LeBron James way. But, literally, a man among boys. Life experience. Been there, done that. And then some. Real life versus campus life. Life and death.
“Let me be honest here,” said Don Klaas, the basketball coach at College of DuPage, a Division III program in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, near Chicago. “It’s not like I’m out there beating the bushes to recruit a 39-year-old.”
That college basketball coaches at any level don’t mine pickup games of graybeards was no surprise to Townes. So, he took the initiative and sent a player-seeking-opportunity e-mail to Klaas. The correspondence was a little light on personal details, like his age. And experience with a 50-caliber machine gun.
When Townes arrived at the junior college for a conditioning class aimed at hopefuls and wannabes, the coach watched a lithe 6-foot-4 frame consistently demonstrate a smooth shooting touch. It was a start. He was interested. What really struck Klaas, however, isn’t what he saw. It’s what he heard.
“He brought up a Desert Storm story,” Klaas said.
Before another syllable is uttered Klaas wants to make clear that Townes occupies a uniform because his basketball skills warrant a roster spot. No, Townes doesn’t play all that much. What’s important to remember, the coach reminds, is that there are myriad ways for a player to contribute to the winning, to the improving. Better players. Better team. Better people. Better students.
This is the time of year when college basketball fans are inundated with statistics and stories about the sport’s best players, future National Basketball Association millionaires.
We’ll hear a lot -- too much, really -- about the usual suspects occupying the top spots in the Division I hierarchy. There’s Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate, by the way, and defending national champion Duke. And then, among others, Ohio State, Kansas and my alma mater, Syracuse, which has sent more than its fair share of young men to athletic fame and fortune.
You’ll hear next to nothing about a contributor and survivor like Townes, whose parents died when he was seven. He went to live with an aunt. She died when he was 12.
“I bounced around, from cousin to sister to friend until I made it out of high school,” he said.
Off to War
Townes joined the Navy, figuring his $6 an hour job at Marshall Field’s wasn’t a viable long-term employment plan. There was boot camp in San Diego, which coincided with the start of the Gulf War in 1990.
Soon after he was deployed aboard the USS Arkansas, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser. Townes was a member of a four-person Small Caliber Arms Team, or SCAT, charged with defending the ship against attacks by small vessels carrying men armed with machine guns. He came under fire.
“They used small gunboats,” he said. “They knew we wouldn’t blow up an itty-bitty boat with a million-dollar missile.”
Think of Townes during this year’s March Madness, when some high-octane announcer prattles about the pressure on some kid attempting a free-throw with the game in the balance.
Think about Townes and the ship’s warning siren. “You just didn’t know what was coming until they got on the intercom,” he said.
The most difficult part of combat for Townes, who receives treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, was watching missiles launch from the ship. “Knowing they had intended destinations to hurt somebody,” he said.
Townes, nicknamed “Old School” by his teammates, some of them teens, is a valuable member of the group. Only his contributions aren’t measured in points, rebounds and assists. Not solely, anyway.
“He’s got a great attitude, is totally responsible and accountable,” said Klaas, whose club is 14-6. “It rubs off.”
While acknowledging the slim odds, Townes is hoping for a scholarship to a Division I program. Klaas, 63, has sent a number of players to college basketball’s top rung, including Andrew Burton, who in 1981 was drafted by the NBA’s Denver Nuggets out of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee.
Vitale, you probably know, has coined a phrase for just about every kind of player. A PTPer, for instance, is a prime time performer. A Diaper Dandy is a talented freshman. To date, however, there’s no label for someone like Townes or 25-year-old Bernard James, a 6-foot-10 forward at Florida State who was stationed in Iraq as part of his Air Force commitment.
“Nothing but positive can happen with these guys,” Vitale said.
How do you like that. Vitale has a scouting report on Townes after all.
Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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