Focus on War takes a toll

SALT LAKE CITY-The NCAA Tournament is billed as one of the nation's premiere sports events, but for many it's taking a back seat to the war with Iraq, as well it should. CBS has interrupted the action and even moved games to another network when war news or updates take precedent. There are some things more important in life than basketball, and life itself is certainly one of them.

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The players understand, just as we all do, that we need to be especially appreciative of our armed service personnel, because without them we might not have the privilege of enjoying so many of our national pastimes. As the players prepare for the next opponent, turmoil in the Middle East has brought an awareness from this current event to what's important in life.

"(Iraq) is the reality of the real world," Duke guard Dahntay Jones said. "What we're doing is secondary to the rest of the world. We're playing a sport……those guys over there are risking their lives. Yes, CBS should have switched over. We have to support those guys over there."

Basketball is not life or death, it's just a game.

"We understand that what we're doing is a game and the winner and loser still live when the game is over," Wildcat sophomore center Channing Frye said. "Our hearts go out to the soldiers. We're really touched by the fact that they really want us playing during the war because it gives them a way to keep their mind off what's happening over there."

The war and the news coverage have also made me painfully aware of something else. It's robbing many of these players of the opportunity to truly enjoy their last hurrah. For three Wildcat seniors it's not only the Big Dance but the last dance, and they want to go out on top. With the war it's sometimes difficult to focus as much as one would like on the task at hand.

Jason Gardner, Rick Anderson and Luke Walton are putting the finishing touches on their careers with a spotlight on Iraq. Anderson and Walton are both fifth-year seniors on this Wildcat team.

The focus during the first two days of this event have been on the war. Everyone - coaches, players and fans alike - wish it could be on the basketball court, but it just can't be that way.

"We've been talking basketball, basketball, basketball, a little war and more basketball," Anderson said as the team prepared for Saturday's game with Gonzaga.

Anderson wants his last run in the tournament to be something special, yet he readily admits the war has made it difficult to focus solely on this special event. In some ways it's taken some of the fun out of being here.

"(The war) is very emotional," Anderson said. "I've never been so focused on basketball. It's my whole life right now. Sometimes I want to get my mind off it, so I turn on HBO and watch five minutes of a movie. Then I see it's Top Gun with Tom Cruise and can't even watch it, so I switched back to basketball. It's a real emotional time right now with the war. It‘s the most important thing right now."

Walton also wants to go out on top but says the war has taken some of the focus away from game preparation.

"(The war) is a distraction," Walton said, "but you get in the film room and on the practice floor and that's where our focus is. So we'll be ready to go (Saturday)."

The war may have taken some of the focus away from the basketball court, but it hasn't diminished the appreciation of being in the tournament.

"I just think (the war) puts a perspective on things and how special it is to be here and how hard it is to win and move on," Walton said. "It makes us proud to be able to play in an event like this with so much more important things going on in the world."

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