RAMSTEIN AIR BASE – UConn players and coaches ran a one-hour clinic for the children of service men and women stationed here.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of young moms and dads with small children growing here on the base, and it gives a certain joy to an environment otherwise dedicated to such serious business.
Shabazz Napier eats this stuff up. You can tell he wants to be a coach some day and he dives into working with kids. He and Ryan boatright and Niels Griffey ran a shooting drill. Uconn's big guys, Tyler olander, Phil Nolan, et al, ran a bounce pass drill. Karl Hobbs conducted an intense dribbling drill.
“It’s great when you’re around kids and you’re a hero to them,” Napier said. “You can be a role model and they look up to you. I didn’t have a role model when I was growing up, so I love being around kids and try to be a role model to them.”
Kevin Ollie addressed the kids before and promised enthusiasm. He moved from drill to drill, making his presence known. Star of the show, this kid with wild spiked hair. I sent a pic.
Now it's practice time, 8 p.m. Here on the base.
Into The Wild, Blue Yonder
The players, coaches and staffers filed back from their C-130 ride. "It was a great experience," associate head coach Glen Miller said, "we were all strapped in, and in groups of threes we got to go to the cockpit."
Phil Nolan was saying, "I thought they were going to open the back door, but they couldn't." … Believe it or not, UConn players were hoping the back door, used for parachuting troopers, would be open, but because it is again very overcast here, the pilots didn't want to do that.
The players have a two-hour study hall at The Base hotel this afternoon. This is a tough stretch of travel – grueling, though the locales are exotic. Between Germany and the Virgin Islands, with a home game in between, the Huskies will be on the go virtually every day for two weeks.
Academic advisor Felicia Crump was telling me the key was to get plans and goals in place for all the players before they left Storrs. Each player has his list of assignments, what is due during this stretch, and is given time to get the work done at hotels, on planes, wherever possible.
Newington High Football Connection
I met up with a Connecticut couple at the base today, perhaps one of them will ring bell for state high school football followers.
Just a few years ago, Steven Chamble was carrying the football for Newington High, savoring a big win over Aaron Hernandez's Bristol Central team. Now, Hernandez is, of course, a young star with the Patriots.
And Chamble, 23, is here, Senior Airman Steven Chamble, keeping his emergency response unit ready for anything.
"We're the Air Force's equivalent of FEMA," he says, as he maneuvers a specially designed vehicle around his headquarters. "If something happens, we'd be involved with the response management, making sure the resources are getting to where they are needed."
Chamble's response team is also with handling hazardous materials. His vehicle is a SEANBURN response unit that can deal with chemicals, radioactive and nuclear materials if needed.
"Steve really embraces it," says his wife, Jessica, also 23, who comes from Wetherfield and went to ECSU. "I'm just happy seeing him so happy."
Chamble's father, Benjamin, is a long-time state trooper who stressed discipline. In the Air Force, Steven says he just found a new level. "I was a loose cannon," he said. Chamble is also the nephew of former Hartford major Eddie Perez.
The Chambles came to Germany three years ago, and enjoy being able to explore Europe when they have time. Jessica works with children in before-school and after-school programs on the base. They anticipate an assignment to McGuire AFB in New Jersey next year.
She makes a sad face when asked about the UConn game coming up on Friday. It does not look like they will be able to make it. Steven, who still has the signed T-shirts from the UConn men's and women's teams at the 2004 championship parade, will be on duty, helping to keep his unit ready.
"Everything here has to be ready [to deploy] in 24 hours," he said, "so all the equipment has to be maintained."
A Hangar Becoming A Court
Just took a walk over to Hangar 5, which is being readied for the UConn-Michiangan State game in about 32 hours. The court has been put down in place, the baskets set up. It looks like a basketball arena, it really does. Reminds me a little of a larger version of the Pitt Center down at Sacred Heart, which is nice.
I chatted with a few of the airmen who have been working on the project. There were weekend meetings beginning five months ago, to plan the electrical work. computer and lighting needs to turn this enormous, wide-open space into a basketball venue.
Normally, it houses just one C-5 plane, which is sitting out on the runway outside.
The roughly 3,000 seats have been installed, red and blue plastic seats on steel risers, shipped from overseas, as was the court. As you see, I have tweeted a ton of pictures, which will soon be up on our site, showing what looks from the outside like the last place one would find a college basketball game, but now, on the inside, looks like the perfect venue.
ESPN is saying that more of these events are in the works over the next five years, at bases in and out of the United States. One is planned eventually for Pearl Harbor.
The View From Jay Bilas
Ran into ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who will be working the telecast here on Friday with Dan Schulman, in the lobby of the Ramstein Inn.
"Rebounding is going to be the key to this game," he said, "because there are going to be a lot of missed shots in that building."
Michigan State will have a big size advantage over UConn, he noted, but the Huskies will be quicker in several matchups. He is very impressed with UConn freshman Omar Calhoun, who has hit 8 of 12 on three-point shots in the exhibition games.
"He has a strange shot," Bilas said, "but it goes in. … It's basically a set shot."
Calhoun released the ball from his chest, like an old-fashioned set shot. If one were to stress perfect technique, he said, a higher release point is more desirable. "But he gets it off so quickly," Bilas said, "[blocking] shouldn't be an issue. You want guys to take good shots, anyway, you don't them trying to shoot with people all over them."
More From Germany
During a visit to the USO, the Huskies players heard a talk from Major Maria Elena-Coppola of the USAF, flight commander at the base's Wounded Warrior center. Joe D. says it was a riveting experience, as Major Coppola explained what goes on here on a daily basis.
About 30 members of the UConn traveling party will get to ride in a C-130 plane this morning. I'll ask them about the experience when I run into them later at the kid's clinic. This is another long day for the Huskies, as they try to manage the time difference. They were walking to their team breakfast at 10 a.m., or 4 a.m. back home. They will practice tonight at 8 p.m., or 2 p.m. back home.
The floor is being put down at Hangar 5 this afternoon. The teams won't be able to practice on the game court until Friday. Shooting in such a large, open, airy building could be tricky.
A Connecticut Cook
Still having a blast here meeting soldiers and their families from back home. But staff sergeant Josh Russo, 29, of Danbury takes the cake – quite literally. He is the cook for Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the entire base.
“I was in communications and I didn’t like it at all,” Russo said, “and I was going to leave the service. I saw this job open. I used to cook for all my friends. I interviewed over the telephone, and finally I asked him, ‘You’re not a Yankees fan, are you?’ He said no, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take the job.’ ”
Yes, Russo was not afraid to tweak the commander, who liked it and gave him a shot. Obviously, Russo is a Red Sox fan, but most of his heart belongs to the Huskies. He went to the victory parades after the 1999 and 2004 titles. The third one? “I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the Butler game,” he said.
When he found out the Huskies were coming to him, needless to say, he was thrilled. “He has been talking about this for months,” said his girlfriend, Julie Mantz, from Wolcott.
The commander wanted Russo to cook for a party of German officials on Friday, but Russo was able to wriggle out of it and will be at the game. Mantz, who left a job in New York City, is not active military personnel, cannot go and is bummed. She is hoping to get a job in human resources on the base.
Russo enjoyed talking to this sportswriter and a sportscaster, Joe D., from back home about baseball and basketball.
“This is what I miss being here,” he said. “That love and hate. I see my team only on SportsCenter, and at that point it’s just a statistic, not a game.”
Russo and Mantz watched, riveted, as Kevin Ollie put the Huskies through their paces at the open practice on Thursday night. So, what does a general eat? His tastes are fairly uncomplicated, but for his first big dinner, for a group of Israeli generals, Russo made flank steak, crustinis, watermelon with balsamic reduction, chocolate cheesecake bites. “Oh, and bacon-wrapped dates, but they had to be turkey bacon [to be kosher],” he said.
It got him the job, and he hopes to make cooking his long-term career.
Showing The Huskies Around
The Huskies needed someone to show them around the base, a kind of informal body guard, and Staff Sargent Adam Rowland, 26, from Wolcott, volunteered and he got the assignment. The big, beefy Rowland was wearing a walking boot. “I broke it sticking it up someone’s [butt],” he said as he watched practice. “They got too close.”
He was joking, it’s an old football injury he had addressed. Rowland works in munitions tech at the base, and is also a lifelong UConn fan; he attended UConn for a year. “When I heard they were coming, I was amped," he said.
The Huskies’ open practice lasted a couple of hours. At the end, the team had to make 9 of 11 from the foul line, or else run one or two times up and down the court and try again. It took six tries – three times they made 8 out of 10 and missed. A window into Ollie’s coaching style: Phil Nolan had a rough game at the line on Sunday. “I don’t want your heart pumping about this,” Ollie said. “I want you excited to get to the free throw line. In the game, I want you to go through somebody to get to the basket and be excited about going to the line because you’re going to make it.”
Nolan missed his first two, made his third. A work in progress.