The former top officer in the world’s mightiest military has taken command of the world’s mightiest basketball program.
Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the close of a 41-year military career, was elected chairman of USA Basketball in mid-November. His relationship with the group began during his days as JCS chair, when a fellow West Point graduate came to him for a bit of advice.
“I became chairman in 2011, and in 2012, Mike Krzyzewski [West Point ‘69] and Gino [Auriemma, legendary women’s coach] were taking their teams to the Olympics,” Dempsey told Military Times in a Dec. 2 interview. “Mike contacted me and said, ‘You know, one of the things we want to do besides turn these young men and young women into the best basketball players they can possibly be is we want them to learn what it means to represent their country.
“So it was kind of an open-ended question. He said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ and I said, ‘Sure I do.’“
The men’s and women’s Olympic teams toured the Pentagon, laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, put on a clinic for military families, then met up with a group of service members for a special ceremony.
“We had the … players, men and women, line up on one side of half court, we had the military members line up on the other side,” Dempsey said. “And at the moment we instructed them to do so, the military members came forward, took the Velcro flag off their uniform and handed it to the players and said, ‘Here you go. This is what we do. You represent us, go represent this. Carry it with you.’ Honestly, it was a very profound moment.”
Instilling a sense of national pride will be a top priority for the retired four-star when it comes to USA Basketball’s international competitors. But the program includes other levels of hoops at multiple ages, including youth-league support that Dempsey’s already familiar with via his role as chairman of the Jr. NBA Leadership Council.
He’s hoping to expand USA Basketball’s licensing and credentialing role to more youth leagues, working to provide as many players as possible with a safe, structured atmosphere to learn life skills like teamwork and dealing with defeat.
While a relationship with USA Basketball came late in his career, Dempsey’s no stranger to the sport. He played in high school, met with Krzyzewski and his players while a grad student at Duke, and traveled with the U.S. Military Academy team while teaching at West Point. His son Chris and daughter Megan played hoops at the academy – he stuck with lacrosse, but is still active on the hardwood.
“‘Active’ is a relative term,” he said. “But I do love the game. I still love to play it. It doesn’t love me as much as maybe it once did, but it’s like golf – I love the game, it doesn’t love me.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
Around 2008, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rolling toward what seemed a far-off end date, Dempsey said he began to see the value of bringing sports stars and service members together.
“There was something powerful and profound in combining some of the best athletes in the world with the best military in the world,” he said. “And I thought it was a good message to America – that these extraordinary elite athletes weren’t just worried about themselves, and the military wasn’t just part of their lives when they’re in combat, but also right back here at home.
“And if you’re mainstream America and you see the world’s best athletes interacting with the world’s best military, I just think that’s the right message. It kind of grounds both of them.”
Part of his new mission will be ensuring the athletes who make up Team USA remain grounded as they battle ever-improving international foes, especially as new Olympic qualifying systems eliminate free passes for former champions.
“The ‘special sauce’ is not 3-point shots or crossover dribbles or in-your-face defense or height or length, the special sauce is heart,” said Dempsey, who retired in September 2015. “And if we can make these kids, and they are kids, make them feel a sense of responsibility for what’s on the front of their jersey, the big letters ‘USA,’ then we’re going to be fine. Because they are unbelievable athletes.”
JCS TRANSITION ADVICE
What about others making the move from officer to civilian – especially those without a four-star resume, who won’t be made an Honorary Knight of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which happened to Dempsey in October?
Dempsey said the subject frequently comes up, in both mentorship sessions with former colleagues and at seminars and classes he leads as a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University.
“I always admit to them while I’m talking to them that the opportunities for a retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs tend to be a little bit more robust than, you know, if you’re retiring as a lieutenant colonel,” he said. “But the fundamentals are the same.”
“Why did you stay in for 30 years, or 25 years, or 15 years? You obviously stayed in because it was the way you made your living, but you also must have been proud of it. If you weren’t proud of it, and you stayed in, you’ve got to really reassess your level of common sense. But if you are proud of it, why is that? … We stay in the military because of the values that define the military. The military gives you a sense of belonging. You belong to a team. Secondly, it gives you a real, genuine sense of meaning, in the sense that you know exactly what your contribution means to yourself, to your teammates and to your country. …”
“My advice is only do those things that you are proud to do. Because you’ve been proud to be in the military, that’s been an important part of your life. … If you’re proud to teach, go teach. If you’re proud to be in development of future weapons systems, go do it. But be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and not just for the paycheck, because you won’t be happy, I don’t care how much money you make.”