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Cohen, NBA Stars Swap 'War Stories'

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2000 – If you've served with the military, you probably have "war stories" to tell. Whether you've spent a year in uniform or a career, no one ever forgets basic training or some of the other aspects of duty life.

You never forget the mind-numbing clean-up details, nit-picky inspections, rigorous field training or world-engaging deployments. And, you never forget the camaraderie you develop with your comrades in arms.

David Robinson and Greg Popovich are two military veterans who have reached the heights with the National Basketball Association's San Antonio Spurs. Robinson, the team's 7-foot-1 center and future Hall of Famer, and team coach Popovich credit much of their career success to their military experience.

The two sports stars met with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in early March in San Antonio. Cohen, a former U.S. senator from Maine and the nation's 20th defense secretary, readily admits he once dreamed of becoming an NBA player. The secretary and the sportsmen shared their "war stories" with about 350 Junior ROTC cadets at the Alamodome.

"Your military experience is going to serve you for the rest of your life," Robinson told the high school students. "You don't think when I step out on this basketball court that I don't rely on my military experience?" he bantered. "Every day!"

Robinson, a 1987 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, said the friendships he made in the military are among the strongest bonds he has in his life. One of his best friends is a Marine Corps pilot who ran track with him at the academy.

"I get a chance to see him when he can steal a plane and come to San Antonio," Robinson said, quickly casting a glance at Cohen and recovering. "Uh, when they let him get away for a weekend on one of those leave things," he stumbled. Cohen first scowled good-naturedly and then laughed, as did the 350 cadets in the audience. Smiling, Robinson told the secretary, "I won't tell you his name."

Robinson's father is a Navy veteran. The Spurs star said he grew up around military people and saw the Naval Academy as a way to get a great education, be with great people and end up with a job with responsibility.

"One of the things I loved about the military from the beginning was that you get more responsibility in your job in the military than you get anywhere," he said.

"When you get out," he told the cadets, "you'll be somebody who's desired in the civilian world. They'll see you and they'll say, 'Man, this guy has had responsibility. This guy took care of his business.' This guy knows what it takes to be part of a team. This guy understands what it means to be successful.' That's what the military experience is going to give you."

Reaching this point, however, requires some major adjustments, he pointed out. "When I first went to the Naval Academy, I spent the first day in my room just crying because everybody was yelling at me," Robinson recalled. "I was running around the hallways. I was lost. The Naval Academy has the largest dormitory in the United States and they were yelling at me for not finding my room.

"They're calling me all kinds of names. They're asking me why did I even come to the Naval Academy, they're going to kick me out anyway. They said, 'You obviously came here just to play basketball, didn't you?' I said, 'No, sir! I came for an education, sir!'"

The first six weeks were incredibly difficult, Robinson admitted. He had to memorize things and be prepared to recite them. "Each day 15 pages out of this book -- and they give you no time to learn it!"

When an academy trainer stopped him in the hall and demanded the middies' morning meal menu, Robinson said knew he was supposed to know two meals in advance but he didn't have a clue that particular morning. Since he had to say something, he recalled, he exploded, "Sir, the middies' morning meal is scrambledeggsrawbaconplaintoastbuttercoffeewithsyrup, Sir!"

Was it worth it? Most definitely, Robinson told the students. "It challenged me mentally. It challenged me physically. Nonstop. They tested me. They tested my knowledge. They stretched my abilities. It is an experience you won't get anywhere else." And beyond the daily discipline and stimulating challenges, the military offered him unique opportunities.

"Before I got to school, I didn't get a chance to travel at all" he said. "Going into Washington, D.C., from Norfolk, Va., was a big trip for me. In my first two years at the academy, I got a chance to go to Japan to play basketball against the Air Force and the Army. I got a chance to travel all over the world. I would never have gotten that experience anywhere else.

One summer the NBA player spent time on three different submarines. "Two fleet ballistic missile submarines, which are huge submarines that carry big Trident missiles, and one fast attack submarine, which is a small submarine that I was kind of crammed in. I couldn't even stand up straight, but it was a great experience!"

Robinson also learned about personal sacrifice and patriotism. He recalled when he got to "play Marine" for a week, fired an M-16 rifle and an M-60 machine gun and ran around in the woods in war games.

"Of course, I got killed every time, but that doesn't matter. I got a chance to do it," he said. "It was a lot of fun, but it made me realize what guys go through when we're in a war situation. A lot of people don't understand or respect what we've gone through as a country, what we've given up.

"Every time they play that national anthem I stand at attention for a reason -- because of people who laid down their lives so that I could live the way I live today. So I could do the things that I do. I don't take that lightly. We have a tremendous history here in the United States, and yeah, there are a lot of things wrong with the United States, but it is still the best country in the world. It's worth defending."

Spurs Coach Popovich, a 1970 Air Force Academy graduate, also highly values his military days. "All the things I do as a coach, as a father, as a citizen and as a member of this community in San Antonio are based upon the principles I learned at the academy," he told the JROTC students. "It's good to be on time. It's good to do for others. It's good to work hard at whatever you're doing."

When Popovich left his hometown of Gary, Ind., bound for the academy, he said he knew "absolutely nothing about the military." His parents worked at the steel mills in Gary. He played basketball and studied hard.

"Then I went to the Air Force Academy and I was in shock for awhile," he said. "People were relatively rude to me. They didn't understand why I was so sloppy, why I was a wise guy, why I didn't stand up very straight, why I couldn't get places on time, why I wasn't very responsible at the beginning."

Academy trainers quickly let Popovich know what he was good at and what he needed to improve. "I thought they would never allow me to graduate, because I probably needed to be there about 20 years to do everything they wanted me to do," he recalled. "But somehow I figured it out."

Like Robinson, Popovich said he remains friends with people he met in the military. "I call them," he said. "I talk to them after wins and losses. I respect the people I served with because we had common principles and we cared about others, not just about ourselves."

The academy gave Popovich confidence and taught him how to work with other people. "You need to know what a team is to do the best job you can for your country and for the world at large," he told the cadets.

"I can honestly tell you all, that after living 51 years on this earth, going to the Air Force Academy was the singular most satisfying experience of my life as far as achievement is concerned. When you take on a challenge, you learn about yourself. You learn about relationships with people. You learn what your limits are, what your strengths and weaknesses are.

"There will be times when you're going to say, 'What am I doing this for? Why is so-and-so on me? I can't seem to do anything right.' But as time goes by, you'll feel very proud to be part of this group. I just want to encourage you to do everything that's necessary to give yourselves an opportunity to be great. Because in the military, you can do that."

When it was Cohen's turn to address the students, the defense secretary stressed that no one knows where life's path will lead them. "Forty- five years ago," he said, "I was a member of the Junior ROTC program in my hometown of Bangor (Maine)."

Cohen said he thought life was preparing him for a basketball career. His father, a baker who worked 18 hours a day for 18 years, dreamed his son would one day play pro basketball. "There were two things that precluded my achieving that," the secretary said. "One was size. The second was talent."

Nonetheless, he practiced hard and one particular game taught him a lesson he's never forgotten.

"I scored 43 points," he recalled. "I was puffed up, I was preening, and I thought I was just about the greatest. My dad came over to me and I looked to him for some reaffirmation of how great I was that day, and he said, 'Son, if you hadn't missed those two foul shots, you would have had 45.'"

Cohen told the students his father was never satisfied with the products of his own work, always seeking to make the best bread and rolls. He held the same high standard for his son.

"He was never quite satisfied that I didn't achieve the maximum," Cohen said. "That was a great uplifting experience for me. I would always remember never to be too shy of perfection." With this lesson ingrained, he went on to college, then law school and ultimately to the halls of Congress. After serving as the mayor of Bangor, Maine's third largest city, he ran for Congress.

"I ran by walking," he told the young people. "I walked all the way from New Hampshire to Canada. It was 22 miles a day, shaking every hand along the route in order to make myself known to all the people of Maine." The 700-mile walk produced severe blisters, several dog bites, and a seat in the House of Representatives. He also learned another lesson that he has heeded throughout his career.

"You have to reach out and listen to people and their problems," Cohen said. He served three terms in the House and three terms in the Senate. He spent 18 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee and 10 on the Intelligence Committee. In 1996, after announcing his retirement after 24 years in public office, the president asked him to serve the nation a while longer as the secretary of defense.

"The greatest experience of my life has been being secretary of defense," he said. "I can't tell you how enthusiastic I am about this position, to be able to represent the best military in the world."

The U.S. military not only has the best equipment and technology, but also the best people, the secretary said. Attracting the best and the brightest, however, has become a challenge due to the strong economy. The secretary told the JROTC students that military experience would put them in high demand by potential employers.

"Private companies are going to want you because of your skill, discipline and sense of order and respect -- all those qualities that are so important in the military are also very important in the private sector. The question is, how do we attract you?"

The military has to appeal to aspirations beyond the desire for a good job, he said. The services have to attract those who want to contribute to the welfare of others as they protect the country and, at the same time, have a great experience traveling the world.

"I think you are on the road to giving great definition to your life," the secretary concluded.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSan Antonio Spurs center David Robinson (standing), talks about his military days with Junior ROTC students at the Alamodome in San Antonio while Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich (seated left) and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen (seated right) listen in. The defense leader and the National Basketball Association sports stars swapped "war stories" in early March as part of DoD's joint public outreach initiative to gain the public recognition for the military. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSan Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich (standing) addresses Junior ROTC students at the Alamodome in San Antonio while Defense Secretary William S Cohen (seated left) and Spurs Center David Robinson listen in. The National Basketball Association sports stars and the defense leader swapped "war stories" in early March as part of DoD's joint public outreach initiative to gain the public recognition for the military. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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