- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2012

During two deployments in Iraq — one for 15 months, the other for 12 — Sgt. Daniel Lucas wore an American flag patch on the left shoulder of his uniform — a daily reminder of the cause for which he was proudly serving.

As a uniformed Sgt. Lucas watched Team USA practice at the D.C. Armory on Saturday, the delicately stitched American emblem still graced his same sleeve. Only now, it’s a different patch.

The old flag — one that saw more than two years of warfare — now has a new owner.

At the conclusion of the 2012 Olympic basketball team’s practice, Sgt. Lucas stood at mid-court with Team USA member Kobe Bryant and gave him the patch. Sgt. Lucas wore it while representing his country overseas. Now, Bryant will carry it as he does the same.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to give him my flag,” Sgt. Lucas said after the ceremony. “I was a little bit [star-struck].”

Sgt. Lucas learned just an hour before practice began that he’d been selected to give Bryant his flag. For a lifelong basketball fan, it was a moment he’ll never forget.

It carried a similar significance for the NBA star.

“We look to them for inspiration in a lot of things that we do,” Bryant said. “We carry a great sense of honor in representing our country because of what they do for us. This is our way to show appreciation and gratitude for everything that they have done.”

A flag exchange has been done before. Team USA point guard Chris Paul still cherishes the one he received in 2006 before a national team exhibition game in Seoul. Col. James Markert was thrilled to be involved in another.

Col. Markert said the idea for the ceremony was concocted Friday night at 11 p.m. The next morning, 18 soldiers were selected to participate in the exchange. Each member of the men’s and women’s Team USA received a patch.

“We go overseas all the time to represent the nation, but it’s not always in the friendliest of circumstances,” Col. Markert said. “When you can pair up with someone like this who’s also going over to show the world just how competitive and how great the USA is, it’s nice.”

At the conclusion of the exchange ceremony Saturday, Bryant used one hand to shake Sgt. Lucas‘, the other held tight to the symbol of their bond. Moments later, some players stayed on the court to pose for pictures with service men and women, while others introduced themselves to the wounded warriors on the sideline.

Just like it was Saturday, Team USA will be the center of attention in the coming weeks as it attempts to win its second straight gold medal. But as far as center Tyson Chandler is concerned, they’re not just playing for the hardware. They’re also fighting for those who, every day, selflessly fight for them.

“Every time we get tired and every time we approach a game, all of us should take a look at this flag and understand who we’re representing over there,” he said.

“They are the real heroes. If they get any joy out of watching us play and seeing us go for the gold out there … we’re going to give it all for them.”