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Cheering LeBron in Jalula

A former Ohio National Guardsman recalls being dunked on by LeBron James as a teenager — and how the NBA superstar helped get him through the Iraq War.

He looked familiar. Besides his height, close to 6-foot-3, what I noticed about this 14-year-old boy were his splayed feet. When he walked on the basketball court, his feet flared out at wide angles. This made him appear anything but agile. When the game began, I had to guard him. This was the fall 1999 Shooting Stars basketball league in Twinsburg, Ohio. Most of the players — freshmen and sophomores like me — were in this Sunday league to prepare for the upcoming high school season.

Early in the first half, the point guard threw me the ball on the wing. I saw no one open down low so I quickly threw a bounce pass back to the guard. Somehow, my man, with his long arms and huge hands, reached out and grazed the pass with one finger. The ball bounced toward half court. I turned to run for it, but before I could reach the ball, my man flicked it forward, took control, and began to dribble. I ran beside him, waiting to swing my hand at his next bounce, but I struggled to keep pace, moving my feet as quickly as possible next to his long, rhythmic strides. After three dribbles he jumped off one leg and I reached to grab his arm, to foul him, but he kept going. Higher. With his right hand, he cocked the ball back and catapulted it through the hoop. The ball bounced hard once off the gym floor and I caught it on the way up, stepped out of bounds, and threw it in to our guard, who looked right at me. “Shit,” was all he said.

Soon after the dunk, I overheard the name my man’s teammates shouted at him: “Bron.” I realized what this was short for. This was the same kid I’d played against two years prior in a Shooting Stars camp at Western Reserve Academy. I hadn’t recognized him because he’d grown at least four inches and all of him — torso, shoulders, hands — had widened. Below his small head, his body looked too big, too long, too heavy, but he dominated the game and seemed to move up and down the court at half-speed with a facial expression of stern indifference. He had just finished eighth grade, and was a year younger than me. This was the kid who had won all the awards at that camp. Who had scored at will and taken over games whenever it felt necessary.

This was LeBron James, a name I had found unforgettable since our camp director first announced it for an award. At the time, I had no idea how to spell LeBron. A few weeks later, when he’d play his first game for St. Vincent–St. Mary, I’d open up a local newspaper and see, next to 15 points, in the small game summary against Cuyahoga Falls: LeBaron James.

But soon they’d call him the King.

In B.H. Fairchild’s poem “Body and Soul,” a group of men in Commerce, Oklahoma, show up for their weekly Sunday baseball game. The opposing team is one man short. Hanging around the sandlot is a 15-year-old with a “boy’s face under / a clump of angelic blonde-hair.” The short-manned team indifferently picks him up to play and he ends up hitting five home runs, both left- and right-handed. The team wins, and afterward they learn his name: Mickey Mantle. Watching the boy play, one man understands that he’s “encountered for his first and possibly / only time the vast gap between talent and genius.”

For most athletes, there are moments when they realize they’re simply not good enough to continue their careers. This can happen over the course of a season, the course of a game, or even the course of one play. It can also occur when witnessing genius. As I defended LeBron that Sunday afternoon, I noticed that he would score only if his team was down, which was not often. For most of the game he would make quick, precise passes that flew from the flick of his wrist: behind-the-back, no-look, full-court bounces between running defenders. All of these usually hit a teammate in the chest or the hands before they tossed the ball into the basket. Even then, I knew I had never seen anyone play like this. Not in any league. Not in any tournament. Not on television in the pros. Barely a ninth-grader at the time, LeBron controlled the ball with a beauty I could only compare to Magic Johnson or Pete Maravich.

For most Northeast Ohio boys about my age, being dunked on by LeBron is not that remarkable. Anyone playing basketball in the state probably ran into LeBron on a court somewhere around Akron or Cleveland. But that delicate and powerful act of his dunking my turnover with one hand as his feet skimmed the air above me was probably, at least in my subconscious, an epiphany. It meant I would not go to the NBA, as I had secretly believed in elementary school. If I didn’t understand it after the dunk, I would understand it soon, as my high school basketball career mostly transformed into my sitting on the bench studying cheerleader chants and formations. The King and I wouldn’t have much in common after those first years of high school. However, there was one thing: The Ohio High School Athletic Association would try, unsuccessfully, to take LeBron’s H2 Hummer; a couple of years later, insurgents would try, mostly unsuccessfully, to blow up mine on a road in Jalula, Iraq.

My recruiter, Staff Sergeant Sampson, came to my house on a winter evening in 2001. His boots shone as he walked across the tile of our kitchen floor in his green, pressed battle dress uniform. My mom turned on the lights in the dining room with the long wooden table we never used. I sat on one end, Sampson on the other. Under the light, I could see that Sampson’s skin was the wind-whipped red that someone got only from spending much of their life outside. He eased in before discussing the military. He complimented the house, its decorations, and he made my mom laugh. She brought out a bowl of salted peanuts and set them on the table. I remember being strangely fascinated with how this man, so military-hardened in my eyes, could be so satisfied by peanuts.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, scooping a handful with his thick fingers. “I love peanuts.” He threw his neck back and shoveled them into his mouth, and that’s when he really looked at me.

“So, where you at in school right now, Hugh?”

“I’m a junior, graduating next May.”

“OK, so you could get some time in even before high school ends.”

He asked more questions and then I went through a list of specific concerns I had about basic training. At the end of our talk, my mother, who had mostly listened through all of it, jumped in and asked, “Are there any chances that he might be sent somewhere?”

Sampson smiled and shook his head: “No. You don’t have to worry about that.”

It was nine months before September 2001.

Even today, I don’t regret joining. Because Sampson spoke to me in the spring of 2001, I believe he answered my mother’s question honestly. Who would know that the Ohio Army National Guard would soon have its largest overseas deployment since Korea? I wasn’t joining the Marines; I wasn’t even joining active-duty Army. Although I wanted to get a taste of military life, no part of me had any desire to see or experience war. At most, I was excited to drive a tank in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

When people ask why I joined, I usually say “college money” or “to experience boot camp.” But that’s a massive oversimplification. Like most people, I joined for dozens of reasons: because I knew my life as an athlete would end after high school; because it bored me to think of leaving high school and simply attending a local university like Akron or Kent State; because I had been a terrible student and I wanted to improve myself and I thought the military could help; because I wanted to get girls; because I wanted to have a bigger, stronger body; because I wanted to impress my friends and family; because I wanted to make money; because I wanted to broaden my limited perspective of the world. The list goes on.

Three weeks into the fall 2003 semester at Muskingum University, I found out that our unit was deploying to Iraq. Hundreds of thoughts passed through my head as I spent the next few days withdrawing from class and packing my belongings. Although I considered the larger issues at hand — the war, leaving home, soldiers dying daily — I also found myself pondering lesser, somewhat trivial silver linings. I wouldn’t have to take an upcoming chemistry test; I wouldn’t have to write an essay on “Beowulf”; and the math class I was struggling in no longer mattered. There were also minor disappointments that, juxtaposed with going to war, seemed absurd: I wouldn’t be able to rush a fraternity; the textbooks I’d bought couldn’t be refunded; I would miss LeBron’s first professional game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team I’d rooted for since childhood.

During high school, I had become a dedicated fan of LeBron and the shows he and his St. Vincent–St. Mary team would put on against their opponents. I’d been to about 20 of his games to watch him play some of the top high school teams in the country. Anyone who lived around Akron and Cleveland back then remembers the aura that surrounded LeBron and his teammates in high school. Games were sold out and played in the nearby University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena. The team often played against nationally ranked opponents stacked with Division I recruits. Some games were televised on pay-per-view, and watching the dunks, passes, and steals — usually from LeBron — was arguably more exciting than watching many professional teams.

As we trained at Fort Bragg and in Kuwait, then drove to our base in northeastern Iraq, I kept up with the Cavs consistently. I couldn’t watch games, but during downtime, when Internet was available, I read articles about the team and checked LeBron’s box scores. Through emails and care packages, many friends and family members helped me maintain hope about getting through the deployment. I was surprised how other aspects of home helped keep me grounded and sane in a combat zone. LeBron and the Cavs represented life in a place where I wanted to return. It wasn’t just his genius as a player. LeBron meant all those things I longed for and thought about incessantly as a 20-year-old in Iraq: boyhood, sports, community, Akron, Cleveland, Ohio in general. The landscape of northeastern Iraq consists of miles of desert hills. In our area of operations we frequently dealt with IEDs, mortar attacks, and random shootings. After months in this environment I began, like many if not most soldiers, to romanticize what “home” meant. For me it was, among other things, Ohio.

While deployed, soldiers often spend their long hours on patrol making wishes and plans to fulfill when they get back to the States. One friend made lists of places where he was going to eat; others looked online for the car or motorcycle they hoped to buy. One thing I wanted was to be able to sit on a couch in front of a television and watch LeBron play in the NBA. This daydream — there are so many while being a soldier — was about more than just watching basketball. It was the idea, the promise, to return home to Ohio and to have those things that epitomized the comforts of American domestic life: the couch, the television, sports. I knew returning would be much more complicated than how I envisioned it, but having this simple and achievable goal provided me with some form of solace, something tangible to look forward to. In Iraq, following LeBron helped me keep those parts of myself — athlete, civilian, Ohioan — alive as I lived this other, temporary life as a soldier.

While driving one evening at dusk down the main road in Jalula, I was thinking about rockets. It had come over the radio that two rockets had been shot at our base just a few miles away. (This was not all that uncommon.) The radio chatter ended. I heard the routine loud groan from the Humvee’s engine as my foot pressed the pedal, moving us about 20 miles per hour. To the right were three- and four-story buildings with closed shops. To the left was a long stretch of desert cut through with a river of sewage and stacks of burned trash. Beyond this were dozens of homes, windows, small alleys, and mud walls.

First I felt a forceful gust of wind push into me from the right. Immediately this was followed by dirt, small rocks, debris — all of it scattered on my face so thoroughly and quickly that my eyes closed reflexively. Still holding the steering wheel with both hands, I ducked below my elbows. All I heard was a loud pop, like a large balloon.

A couple of seconds later, I just barely opened my eyes because dust still fell, though more slowly, against my oily right cheek and neck. I immediately thought: IED. Then I slammed the pedal and took off down the center of the road. We’d been trained to drive through IEDs and to just keep moving, since one goal of the insurgents was to disable a vehicle and then attack with RPG and small-arms fire. I remember gritting my teeth together as I whispered “Fuck,” watching the road through the opening below the top part of the steering wheel. I was waiting for another IED to explode. I was waiting for an RPG to come through the small square window beside me.

“Stop. Martin, stop,” my platoon sergeant, SFC Kent, yelled from the passenger seat. I veered right, sped up, and stopped our truck near a sidewalk where there was no trash, no broken concrete — nothing that could conceal another explosive. Still, I don’t know why he wanted to stop. He might’ve felt the bump of the blown front-right tire (I didn’t). He might’ve panicked and just wanted to assess what had happened.

As we sat there, I frantically scanned the open-air windows, the mud walls, and the alleys from where I expected men to start shooting. Kent spoke over the radio to our lieutenant, who was in the first of four Humvees on the patrol. I opened the door and as low and fast as possible ran around the front of the truck. I took cover behind the hood, aiming my rifle at the homes no more than 200 meters away.

Sergeant Strom, a gunner in the truck ahead of us, later said that when he’d heard the blast, he’d turned around to see our khaki-colored Humvee completely vanished inside a cloud of black smoke. He said he’d almost vomited. “I thought you were all dead.”

On Kent’s side, the ballistic windshield, three inches thick, had shattered from the outside — this was the pop, the sound I had heard. Kent’s side-view mirror, his door, the entire front right body of the Humvee had deep holes from where it had been peppered with shrapnel. Kellerman, our gunner on the fifty-cal, had been briefly knocked out from the blast and the pile of bricks that hid the bomb.

As I leaned down on the hood and studied the homes through my red-dot Aimpoint, I noticed that shattered glass had left small trails of blood streaked down Kent’s neck and cheek. His face was unusually white. Besides an intense fear and the feeling, which surfaced every so often, that I was going to be killed, I thought of my own helplessness. I thought of home — my parents, my family — and how no one could do anything to save me. We were 15 men on four Humvees with loads of ammunition in a town 80 miles northeast of Baghdad where, especially after the blast, it seemed like no one wanted us alive. Most of us were from Akron, Barberton, Canton, Medina, Kent. Although this IED had mostly failed, it was so close that I was convinced then that I would die, if not that evening, then one of the evenings or mornings in the next seven or so months we had to go.

In the moments after the blast I waited for small-arms fire to pepper us from dark windows. We’d dealt with many IEDs by then (at tour’s end, our company would clear more than 150). This was just one night.

As I held the rifle to my cheek, I noticed how my right leg shook. Quickly looking at my desert-colored boot tied tight, the pants tucked in around the ankles, I watched the whole leg shake so hard that I couldn’t stand on it. Looking back into the rifle’s scope, I lifted my foot and kicked the air, repeatedly. I tried kicking the shake away, even hopping up and down to make it stop. None of it helped.

Oscar Wilde said, “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” In the winter of 2005 I returned home and spent a lot of time sitting on a couch in front of a flat-screen television at my parents’ home in Ohio. I don’t remember the first time I actually sat down and watched a Cavs game, but I do know that I watched almost every game that winter. The act of sitting and watching the low stakes of basketball — men running back and forth on a screen — became a relaxing routine that put me at ease. Even when the Cavs lost, which was often, I was happy just to watch.

On the last day of that 1999 Shooting Stars league, my team faced LeBron’s in the championship game. Our teams had the two best records, but there were only six teams in the league, so it wasn’t much to brag about. I only remember LeBron dunking once that game. He grabbed an offensive rebound amid three defenders in the key, then jumped up and slammed it with two hands. Our team lost, as expected. Some of my teammates, myself included, were pissed off, disappointed. The camp director, Chris Marciniak, handed out championship trophies to LeBron’s team. It’s strange to remember jealously watching LeBron hold that small trophy in his already huge hands. Eventually, he’d hold four NBA MVP trophies.

Now, almost 10 years since returning from Iraq, I’m often surprised at how LeBron and the war have been focal points in my life. As a former athlete and basketball player, there is something profound in watching the way LeBron moves on the court. Physically, he is a celebration of the human body and what it can do in a sport that involves so much agility, strength, and grace. When he dunks or throws a crisp no-look pass, we revel in that moment of brilliance.

Maybe it’s because I was rooting for LeBron and wanted him to become great and he did. You can feel better about being dunked on when the person who did it to you ultimately goes down as one of the greatest athletes in his sport. Maybe it’s because my friends say LeBron perfected his dunking skills on me. Maybe it’s because I wanted to experience that familiar joy, which I’d felt while watching him play in high school, of beholding genius firsthand. Maybe it’s because when I tell anyone I grew up near Akron, people always ask about LeBron, and I always tell them about that dunk. Since returning from Iraq, that’s how many of my friends identify me: He went to Iraq; he was dunked on by LeBron.

LeBron and I have little in common. We have basketball. We had problems with our Hummers. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I dream of going back to that game in 1999, that moment when he deflected my pass, tipped the ball to himself, and then dunked on me. On that court, LeBron is not the King yet; he’s just my man. I’m not a soldier, not a veteran, not someone who has known war intimately. September 11 hasn’t happened. Many of the future soldiers are living their childhoods and don’t know they will die in Mesopotamia — a place they might’ve studied in school. The civilians who will die in these wars are still alive. Some are yet to be born.

I think of being on that court because back then I couldn’t imagine how great LeBron would become. I think of being there because I couldn’t imagine the decadelong war I, like so many others, would find myself fighting. When I see LeBron now, he is a symbol and a reminder of who I was before Iraq.

After that championship game, I left the gym and walked out to the small breezeway. The October air came in fresh against the stench of the gym. Inside, my dad was still talking to some parent or coach. I sat on a nearby ledge, stared out the window, and waited for him to take me home.

LeBron and his teammate Dru Joyce walked out of the gym with their duffel bags slung over their shoulders. They carried their plastic trophies in their hands. They slowly moved toward the doorway near where I sat. I remember thinking that I should say good game and shake their hands even though we had already done the mandatory postgame hand-slap. I should ask where they play because I knew if I wanted to be better, I should play with them. They approached the doorway and turned to walk through it.

I didn’t say a thing.

Behind Dru, LeBron walked on the sidewalk, his splayed feet pointing out against the concrete.

If I could go back, maybe I’d yell to him and say something stupid: Don’t go to Miami. He’d stop and turn. He’d say, Watch yourself — then pause — over there in old Babylon.

And both of us would laugh at all of it. 

Hugh Martin is the author of The Stick Soldiers. He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and will be the 2014-15 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

Illustration by Andrew Janik.