- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Some people love Duke basketball; others hate it. But there is no doubt how some fans half a world away in Iraq feel about the Blue Devils.

“Six thousand guys had Christmas because of Coach K,” Col. Bob Brown said of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Krzyzewski’s first head coaching job was at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and Col. Brown was one of his better players as a junior during the 1979-80 season. That was Krzyzewski’s last season before going to Duke, but they have remained close — a relationship first reported by the New York Times. Col. Brown today commands 6,000 troops of the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division in Mosul, Iraq.

In December, a family-assistance organization at Col. Brown’s base in Fort Lewis, Wash., put together thousands of Christmas stockings filled with gifts to be sent to Iraq. But Army mailing priorities did not include such items.

“We’d be lucky if the gifts arrived by Easter,” Col. Brown said from his office in Mosul.

In stepped Krzyzewski, who wrote a personal check for $10,000 to ensure delivery. The gifts arrived Dec.24. Col. Brown said Krzyzewski also helped raise about $20,000 for the assistance group and got a Duke corporate sponsor to donate about 2,000 phone cards.

None of this surprises Col. Brown, who will be rooting for Duke, along with most of his men, when the Blue Devils begin play tonight in the ACC tournament at the MCI Center.

“Anybody that played for Coach Krzyzewski becomes family,” he said. “It’s the neatest thing in the world. Guys who walked on and didn’t play but a minute for him can call him at any time. You’re really lucky if you meet a special man like him.”

As the New York Times reported, Krzyzewski keeps on his desk a folded flag that Col. Brown flew on one of his combat vehicles. Col. Brown also sent 20 of the patches worn by his unit, also known as the Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The Duke players will wear them during the NCAA tournament.

In 1998, Krzyzewski unwittingly participated in some basketball diplomacy when Col. Brown was stationed in Bosnia. Krzyzewski sent several hundred basketballs and T-shirts, which Col. Brown, then a battalion commander, made sure were distributed to children in the area. That came in handy when dealing the Serbs.

“They would not open up to us, not tell us anything,” he said. “All of a sudden, when we started handing out the balls and T-shirts, we became real popular. They started telling us everything that was going on.”

On one occasion, Col. Brown said, a disturbance in Bosnia involving about 1,500 people and the kidnapping of a U.N. worker was peacefully resolved when a local police officer intervened.

“The reason he did that was, we had a relationship with him,” he said. “He had a teenaged daughter, and I’d given her a basketball and done a clinic. It all comes back to basketball.”

Col. Brown, who had 12 knee operations stemming from playing basketball, said he tries to impart to his troops lessons on leadership and teamwork he learned from Krzyzewski.

“West Point is the greatest leadership school in the world,” he said. “But I learned more on the basketball court than anywhere else.”

Krzyzewski, who was not available for comment, told the New York Times, Col. Brown “is going to be, when all is said and done, one of the great Americans. I’m as sure of that as I was of Grant Hill being a great player, and Christian Laettner and Jason Williams.”

His brigade, which includes infantry and armor, is a “combat fighting element,” Col. Brown said, adding, “We are not a support element. Every day, we go out and fight the terrorists.”

Col. Brown said his brigade averages about 10 captures a day and also works with Iraqi officials, helping train soldiers and rebuild the infrastructure.

“We do a lot of humanitarian work,” he said.

The Stryker Brigade helped ensure that the recent elections were held without any major problems. Col. Brown called it an unqualified success even though, he said, “there’s a lot of evil out there.”

He has seen a lot of terrible things in Iraq and has survived some harrowing experiences. One of his best company commanders, he said, was killed by a suicide bomber recently. Col. Brown, standing 30 feet away, was unhurt.

Recently, while riding in an armored vehicle, Col. Brown noticed a suspicious car parked by the side of a road and immediately told his men to get down. Seconds later, the car exploded.

“They told me that was a good call,” he said.

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