Honor and reverence at the Pearl Harbor Invitational

Players from all four competing teams, including Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, had a chance to meet some real heroes Monday at the Pearl Harbor Invitational.

Daryl Oumi/Getty Images

The Oregon men’s basketball players huddled together prior to their matchup against Navy on Monday night, arms slung around one another’s shoulders, preparing to take in another pregame speech.

But they were not in a lavish locker room and the speaker wasn’t sporting designer clothes or a professional jersey – he had on a Hawaiian shirt and a hat that bore the words USS Pennsylvania.

Michael Ganitch, 96, delivered a message to Oregon’s players so simple yet profound that it left the Ducks no choice but to be inspired.

“Team spirit is what counts – work together and get the job done, just like we got the war won,” said Ganitch to the young men before they took the court Monday afternoon.

His message is one that remains as true today as it was 74 years ago, when “Mickey,” as Ganitch is known, survived the horrific attacks on Pearl Harbor and helped the United States through a devastating time.

Ganitch, a Bay Area native, attended the Pearl Harbor Invitational with other veterans as part of a group called The Greatest Generations Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring the sacrifice of veterans and ensuring that their legacies are recorded and retold in perpetuity.

Mickey’s stories wove their way into the fabric of Oregon’s game Monday night, emphasizing teamwork and perseverance in the Ducks’ 67-47 victory over the Midshipmen.

“Yeah, Mickey, he is a great man – he expressed ‘team’ and how he played football when he was in the military,” said Oregon forward Dillon Brooks. “He was just telling us to play hard and go out there because he almost lost his life. He kept expressing ‘team’ because his team had his back – we were just fired up after that and we just wanted to play hard.”

Brooks finished with team-high 19 points and six assists.

Ducks sophomore guard Casey Benson echoed his teammates’ sentiment about their guest speaker.

“It was just a surreal encounter,” said Benson, who finished with 10 points and three rebounds. “I mean, to have somebody come in who has gone through what he’s gone through – it makes you take a step back and look at life. It was a great experience to meet him and have him speak to us – it was an honor.”

The Ducks struggled against a very good UNLV team Friday night before heading to Honolulu, but rebounded from the 80-69 loss to by jumping out to an early lead over Navy. The injury-riddled Ducks took Ganitch’s message of relying on one another to win to heart, utilizing only eight players but evenly distributing scoring among the five starters in their victory at Bloch Arena.

“We knew we had to come together,” said Benson. “Obviously we have some guys banged up, so other guys had to step up and we just had to be so together – unity was key for us tonight. We knew it was all about the team and not about ourselves.”

Veterans, fans and servicemen and women witnessed a great matchup between No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 8 Villanova to kick off the Invitational, and though the score of that game was close at the half, the Sooners eventually ran away with it, defeating the Wildcats 78-55. But the Navy-Oregon game stole the show. Not only did it feel like a home game for the Midshipmen, but also periodically throughout the contest, veterans were introduced and cheered for by the enthusiastic crowd.

The result of the Oregon game is one for the stat books, but the memory of Ganitch’s pregame speech, and the entire Pearl Harbor experience, is one for the history books.

And Oregon’s experience was just one example of what this Invitational was hoping to accomplish.

“FOX Sports came to our command through our public affairs officer, pitched an idea to honor not only people who serve today, but also served in World War II, especially here in Pearl Harbor – came up with this idea to honor those American service members, and we thought it was a great idea,” said Lieutenant General Anthony G. Crutchfield, the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

Honor was clearly the order of the day – from the unique uniforms worn by players with words like Respect and Integrity on the back to the special upgrades FOX Sports made to the gym to ensure it would be of the highest quality for the teams to play on.

Even the student-athletes embraced the spirit and significance of this particular date in time – the Oregon players handed out their jerseys after the game in a show of gratitude for the sacrifice and service the men and women in attendance make for them every day.

“What impressed me the most is just how enthusiastic they are about the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that come up to them – it’s a genuine friendliness and they are interested in what these young men and women do,” said Lieutenant General Crutchfield.

When asked what he felt his players got out of the entire experience, Oregon head coach Dana Altman summed it up with a simplicity that would make Mickey proud.

“I think the biggest thing is an appreciation for December 7 and what it means,” said Altman.

Appreciation took center stage during Oregon’s game as one Pearl Harbor survivor was making his way slowly to the exit when cheers broke out throughout the stadium – a standing ovation for a member of the Greatest Generation. A “U-S-A!” chant also erupted, and the veteran raised his hands in the air, pumping his fists – the universal sign of victory.

“Patriotism flows through the veins of all Americans, but it encounters peaks and valleys,” said Fleet Master Chief Mark W. Rudes of the moving display. “But the men and women who serve – they are patriotic every day.”

Representatives of the Invitational said there was no announcement yet on whether the event will become a yearly fixture. But there is no denying the impact it made on everyone involved.

“I think at the end of the day it was all about realizing what life is about,” said Benson. “Obviously basketball is a huge part of our lives, but there is so much more to life. So to see all these people give their lives for us is an honor and to meet them is a privilege. I just wanted to say thank you to all them.”

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