NEW ORLEANS —
As the Defense Department looks for ways to ease the difficult process of transitioning from service member to civilian, it’s also seeking out companies in the private sector who can help lead the way in training and hiring veterans, said Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One of those organizations, the NBA, was already searching for ways to broaden their interaction with service members, said Kim Bohuny, Senior Vice President, Basketball Operations-International for the NBA.
The NBA has a 10-year history of helping active duty service members, veterans and their families through the Hoops for Troops program, Bohuny said.
Since 2004, Hoops for Troops has been the NBA’s umbrella organization for volunteer projects directed at military members and veterans, she said. As part of the program, NBA teams and USA Basketball arranged their own volunteer opportunities during the playing season.
“Because of the tremendous success we’ve seen with our troops … our new commissioner Adam Silver said, ‘I want to make this a year-round program with NBA-WNBA-USAB programming,’” Bohuny said.
So, earlier this year the NBA reached out to the Defense Department, and over All-Star Weekend in New Orleans -- Feb. 14-16 -- launched the expanded Hoops for Troops program with Battaglia’s help.
Thousands of troops, veterans and family members were honored guests at events throughout the weekend, including concerts, visits from current and former NBA and WNBA players, on-court activities and the opportunity to attend the All-Star game itself.
Along with several hundred service members and veterans, Battaglia also volunteered to work on six homes in need of repair in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans -- including four homes belonging to veterans. And players from the NBA’s developmental league as well as current NBA players worked side-by-side with the troops.
The volunteer work was the highlight of the weekend, Battaglia said.
He said he was particularly touched by one of the homeowners, an Air Force veteran named Louis Banks, who, despite being in his late 70’s, was not the kind of person to ask for help. So, Battaglia said, rather than offering a handout -- something Banks was unlikely to accept -- his fellow veterans and Hoops for Troops offered a hand up.
“Even though Louis was too humble to ask for help, the help came to him,” the sergeant major said. “Though he no longer serves, he still feels ‘Airman.’ And that was a priceless award we wear in our chest, not on it.”
As the relationship between the NBA and the DOD grows, some “very exciting” plans are in the works, Bohuny said.
“What we’d like to do is put forth ongoing programing to take care of ... our men and women all over the world,” she said.
A number of similarities exist between service members leaving the military and basketball players transitioning out of the league, Battaglia said.
“We’re all ambassadors,” he said. That ambassadorship is one that makes NBA players representatives of America not just overseas, but with America’s youth, Battaglia noted. Service members carry the same responsibility.
“If you play in the NBA or the WNBA, you are the best in your craft,” Bohuny said. Similarly, she added, U.S. service members are the best in the world. “We take great pride in our craft … We both know what we’re doing on behalf of our country. I think it brings us together.”
“We think there are some ideas and sharing that can take place there. Collaboration is limitless,” Battaglia said. “I think where we’re going to take the next step is how we can improve each other’s [transition] programs.”
For the NBA, the outreach is an opportunity for its personnel to understand the true costs of citizenship and service, Bohuny said.
“I can’t tell you how deeply it affects our players and coaches, especially sometimes when they see how young some of our men and women are that lost their lives on behalf of our country,” she said.
“We want to do this [outreach] on behalf of our men and women to say thank you, but what they give back to us … is to learn what it is to be American,” Bohuny said.
The DOD and the NBA and will continue to look for ways to help the troops together, Battaglia said.
“A lot of our efforts right now are focused toward the transition [process], because we have so many service members -- approximately 250,000 a year -- that are transitioning out of the service,” Battaglia said.
“It’s a growing demand,” he said. “We have to exhaust every effort in the Department of Defense to ensure that we return America’s sons and daughters into society as productive members.”