Duke basketball humbled at Fort Bragg

FORT BRAGG, NC — Duke’s basketball team is used to receiving standing ovations and adulation, and Monday afternoon at Funk Gymnasium at Fort Bragg, the Blue Devils certainly were adored.

But it was Duke’s basketball team offering a standing ovation to a throng of nearly 1,000 troops from one of the nation’s largest U.S. Army posts, as they entered the gym to watch the Devils practice in a special visit to the military base.

As thrilled as the troops were — and many brought Duke gear for the players to sign in addition to what was handed out to each male and female in uniform — the athletes were equally excited and in some cases in awe.

“It has been a humbling experience,” sophomore guard Quinn Cook said. “I thought we worked out hard at Duke, but doing PT (physical training), these guys do so much more than we do. It was really impressive. And to work out with them was an honor.

“If it wasn’t for the men and women in uniform, not just these guys, but throughout our history, Duke basketball wouldn’t be here like it is.”

Duke is on fall break this week, affording the team an opportunity to make the 90-mile trip. The Devils arrived Sunday evening and spent a few hours watching film before going to bed in the barracks. Comfort was an issue to some of the taller players.

Senior Mason Plumlee, who stands 6-foot-11, couldn’t sleep. Cook awoke at around 2 a.m. and saw that Plumlee was still awake. A few more players got up, and by 2:30 many of the Devils were awake. Since their wakeup call was for 5:45 to participate in PT, they decided to stay awake.

“It’s been a bit rough, I’m real tired,” Plumlee said after the two-hour practice stretch. “I can’t wait to crash tonight.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski graduated from West Point and served four years in the Army, reaching the rank of captain. He wanted to expose his team to what the troops experience physically and mentally.

Breakfast followed PT, which included a two-mile run, and then the team split in half for a leadership reaction course. Plumlee said that was “extremely challenging” but “extremely valuable” as well.

Duke then practiced at Funk Gymnasium from 12:30 until 2:30 running various drills, mostly working on defense. The troops filed in almost halfway through practice, and as soon as the players noticed them they stopped, stood and clapped for more than a minute.

The last half-hour of practice was toned down and included shooting drills in which troops from the crowd were picked at random to join in. A few sank 3-pointers from the baseline and one soldier drilled a mid-range jumper inside the left elbow to lift his team to a victory. Blue Devils high-fived him as the other half of the split quad did push-ups.

“It was really special; you don’t get stuff like this very often,” said Sgt. Jonathan McKeown, 28, of Charleston, SC. “I really appreciate them coming out and doing this.”

McKeown was the first troop selected to participate in free throw shooting. As he stepped to the line the troops got rowdy in the stands, doing their best to mimic the Duke students at Cameron Indoor Stadium, better known as “Cameron Crazies.” It’s an experience he will never forget.

“Nervous, nervous,” he said about shooting the ball. “The (Blue Devil) behind me was making fun of my head. But it was awesome, a great story I can tell. I appreciate it very much.”

Krzyzewski is widely regarded as one of the best teachers in sports. His teams have long been known for their unselfishness, and that’s one reason the Hall of Fame coach wanted to expose his team to what he considers the elite.

“Really, the military is the best team we have in our society,” said Krzyzewski, who is in his 33rd season at Duke and is college hoops’ leader in victories with 927. “It’s the most respected part of our society, I believe. Any time we can have any interaction with them, it’s a plus for us.”

The feeling clearly was mutual.

“It was real cool being able to interact with the players, and Coach K, he’s one of the greatest coaches ever in sports,” said PFC Jamie Johnson, 20, a native of Georgia.

Johnson, who is more of a football fan and says he’ll now pull for the Blue Devils, was surprised to learn Krzyzewski served as well.

“The fact that he was prior military, I never knew that he was a West Point graduate,” he said. “Even though I’m enlisted, it still stuck with me. It’s impressive.”

Senior guard Seth Curry sat out the team drills nursing a minor injury and redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee was on crutches. Duke announced prior to the practice that Plumlee broke a bone in his foot and is out six to eight weeks.

But that didn’t dampen Duke’s spirit. The Devils had tremendous energy, which they attribute to the men and women in uniform.

“It was a great 24 hours to come here and see the way they live and what they go through; it was really a great experience to see this,” junior guard Tyler Thornton said. “Then to come out here and practice with them here, they gave us so much energy. It was a tough morning, but when they came through the room everybody got a little extra boost of energy and it was fun.”