Real Commitment On Display

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn basketball and the NCAA Tournament from the site of Auburn's first round game in Tampa.

Tampa, Fla.--The NCAA Tournament, a uniquely American event, began as scheduled Thursday, and that's as it should be. But it was different. While young men of great talent, dedication and determination started their pursuit of a national championship, thousands of other young men and women of great talent, dedication and determination were poised to go to war.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, they will fight not only for their lives, but for all of us. People of good will can disagree on whether this war is wise, but there should be no disagreement about the people fighting it in all of our names. They deserve our respect, our support and our honor. Many of us who write about Auburn and many in the Auburn official party were at Columbia's, a Cuban restaurant when word came Wednesday night that missiles had started flying. We were laughing, talking, having a good time. In Kuwait, thousands of American troops were moving toward the Iraqi border.

At the St. Pete Times Forum, Thursday was for practice and for talking about the great adventure that awaits college basketball players good enough, dedicated enough and fortunate enough to be invited to display their talents in college basketball's biggest show. Off the coast of Iraq, soldiers listened solemnly as their commanding officer told them of the great difficulties that lay ahead.

On ESPN, analysts debated who was favored, who should have been in and who should have been out. Dick Vitale acted as if he were personally insulted by Auburn's invitation to the tournament. Somewhere in the desert, a young man or a young woman wrote a letter home, wondering if it would be his or her last.

Marquis Daniels and others awaited an opportunity to show their talents on a national stage, to become overnight stars. Young soldiers waited to do battle, wondering what it would really be like.

Like most in my generation, I grew up hearing stories of World War II and even World War I. My father told me of taking a nap in the rear of the airplane in which he was the radio operator. Minutes after he got up, a shell penetrated the rear of the airplane and destroyed the cot where he'd been napping. He told me of the horror of being in a convoy going overseas and having bombs fall all around him. He told me of getting the news over Sicily that the war in Europe was over. My grandfather told me of hiding behind a dead cow to keep from being shot on the battlefields of France in World War I. The stories seemed romantic and exciting at the time, but years later the reality of Vietnam brought home just how terrible war really is. Good friends left and never returned.

Yes, like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, I will enjoy the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks. But I will be reminded that basketball is a diversion, a game that has no impact on the great scheme of things. That does not make it unimportant. It is very important to those who have worked so hard to put themselves in position to play for a national championship. It is important to those who coach and whose livelihoods depend on it.

I hope that those who play and those who coach will remember, in victory and defeat, that so many have given their very lives over the years so they could be free to compete and to reach for their goals. I hope they will remember the brave young men and women who volunteered to join our armed forces and now confront evil on the other side of the world. I know I will. And I will say a prayer for the men and women who fight for us all and who really know what commitment is all about.

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