Not just about basketball

PHOTO: US PRESSWIRE

USS BATAAN — In the record book years from now, there won't be mention of the 2012 Navy-Marine Corps Classic. Florida head coach Billy Donovan hopes that's not the case in the minds of his players. The Florida team was able to spend two days around men and women in the military to give back, but after a wounded warrior spoke Thursday night, it was the Gators that took a lesson away from the trip.

The cancellation at halftime when Florida held a 27-23 lead over Georgetown was the only disappointing part of the trip for the Gators. There were still opportunities to spend time with men and women in the military and put on a show during one half of basketball.

The trip was supposed to be about encouraging the members of the military for their unselfishness to serve the United State of America. The Gators were the ones that left humbled and refocused.

After a long day of traveling, shoot around and practice, there was another moment on the schedule for Florida on Thursday night. A wounded warrior was scheduled to speak to the team about his experience, and it turned into one of the most meaningful moments of the trip.

The man, whose name Donovan didn't want to reveal, spoke about his experiences in combat. His best friend dove on him as a mortar came flying in his vicinity. The man survived, but his friend, who jumped on him to serve as a shield, did not.

The room was silent—all eyes of coaches, players and staff members on the wounded warrior speaking.

"Totally taken back," Billy Donovan said about the mood in the room. "His life was negatively impacted by what he had to go through. The guilt he had of, ‘why am I still here while my best friend in my unit isn't here?' There are so many different stories."

The wounded warrior enlisted in the Army as a 19-year-old out of high school shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001. He had the opportunity to go to college instead, but he elected to put that on hold to serve his country.

That's what stuck in the minds of the Florida players. At 19 years old, the same age most on the Florida team played as freshmen on the court, the wounded warrior was serving his country.

"That was an amazing story," Florida junior forward Will Yeguete said. "It was special. We don't realize how fortunate we are and how committed we have to be to stay together. His story was a strong story that we took a lot from."

The age conversation was a theme between the Florida players.

"That's my biggest thing for our players. Sometimes it's easier to take an incredible message when it's your peers involved," Donovan said. "They're the same age, and our guys worry about ‘my toes hurt, my back hurts or I don't feel like practicing.' One of the most impactful thing he said is that after all this happened—he lost five people from his unit that were all close, personal friends—he was expected to get back up the next morning and go back out into war and do his job to take on his mission.

"He didn't have any time to mourn or do anything. He needed to do that for the guys that were still alive, out there and still fighting. He had to come focused and ready."

Donovan was careful with his comparisons. The experiences the wounded warrior went through were so painful that Donovan didn't immediately want to compare his trials to what happens on a basketball court. After hearing the stories, what happens on the basketball court seemed to have less meaning.

But there were lessons involved for his team.

Spending two full days with members of the military and being around their spirit and enthusiasm, it would have been impossible for the Florida team to feel the same when they left.

"There are so many parallels between military and athletics and sports," Donovan said. "Obviously, we're not putting our life on the line as they are, so I'm not saying what we do is important, but there is unity, commitment, discipline, focus and unselfishness. Those are things we're trying to preach to our team."

The first half of the game was full of memorable moments for the players. After the under 12-minute media timeout, there were around five people who were sworn into the Navy and enlisted to serve their country. The moment was powerful.

While Donovan and John Thompson III separately scribbled away on dry erase boards in their separate huddles, both came to a realization of what was happening on the court around the same time. Both huddles stopped talking about basketball.

They stood, observed and clapped. When the timeout was over, the five players on the court for each team went to midcourt and shook the hands of each person on the court.

"There's such a high level of respect when someone enlists themselves to go back to putting themselves in harm's way," Donovan said. "That's celebrated and appreciated in our basketball team."

The only disappointment on either side was what happened at halftime. The teams came out of their makeshift locker rooms to warm up for the second half, but there was a light glaze of moisture on the court. Despite around 20 people on hands and knees with towels, the condensation didn't go away.

The surface that was constantly being stepped on by players was staying dry. However, it was the corners and areas on the floor where players weren't often standing that started to add moisture.

Florida and Georgetown went through their seven-minute warm ups to see if the court was playable, but after getting loose one final time, Donovan and Thompson III agreed to call it off. Both coaches addressed the crowd and again thanked those military members in attendance for their service. The game will not count as a win or loss for either team.

"The thing that any coach is trying to do is share a lot of values that the military shares," Donovan said. "Our guys are not in life and death situations. Talking to a lot of the men, women, captains and admirals, the thing that sticks out is the sacrifice, unselfishness and being a part of something bigger than themselves. They're putting their life in the hands of someone else. Someone else is putting their life in the hands of them.

"Those are messages you try to get across to your team. It's not the same level — our guys aren't going to war — but as it relates to their basketball future and career, there are so many valuable teaching lesson in this."

The halftime adventures only made the situation more unique. While it caused problems and will force the game to be ignored in the records for both teams, it provided memories and lessons learned for the Florida team.

"Our guys definitely had something personal they took from this game," Donovan said. "There's no question."

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