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Men’s Basketball: Hardwood & hard times

Chris Hine | Tuesday, September 4, 2007

When Mike Brey went to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, with his friend, former Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser, this summer, he was struck by the intense and immediate reality of war he saw in the soldier’s faces.

He was shocked a few weeks later when he learned Prosser had died – on July 26 – of a heart attack.

“We connected because we had similar backgrounds. We both started as high school guys. So we had struck up a pretty good friendship,” Brey said. “He and I talked a lot two years ago when we were both having tough years and he was having a really tough year. Of course, we got going last year and they had another tough one.

“I’m not na’ve to think that doesn’t take its toll because well, it does. It is what it is. We all know what we signed up for and it takes its toll.”

Brey and Prosser were in Kuwait as part of an eight-man delegation to coach teams in Operation Hardwood, a basketball tournament sponsored by the United Service Organizations and Armed Forces Entertainment. Brey’s team faced off against Prosser’s team in the finals of the tournament, with Prosser’s squad claiming the title.

“At the funeral, I had a flashback because I walked into the foyer of the church and there’s a picture of him in the championship game coaching in the background,” Brey said. “The funeral was unbelievably emotional and unbelievably classy. It was a real tribute to him and the people he touched.”

Aside from the memory of one of his best friends, Brey left Kuwait with a different outlook on life and coaching.

On the fourth day of the trip, the delegation visited Camp Buehring. The camp – located 15 miles from the Iraq border – is a staging and training area for U.S. troops bound for Iraq.

“Buehring was the soldiers’ camp. That was the locker room before the game,” Brey said. “They’re going north into Baghdad and all the hot spots.”

But before Brey arrived there he met someone that made him feel a little more at home.

“[Camp] Arifjan where we were, is command logistics,” Brey said. “But on the tarmac before the ride to [Camp] Buehring, the pilot gets out and puts his Notre Dame hat on.”

The pilot was Capt. Ben Lacy, a 2000 graduate of Notre Dame. Lacy is in charge of operations at Camp Buehring. Lacy showed Brey and his colleagues the exercises troops go through before heading into combat, which include simulating a war zone so the troops know what to expect once they enter Iraq.

“The only way I could describe today was intense and a real reality check for all of us,” Brey said in a diary on und.com. “It was one helluva day.”

Brey said he was moved by the focus and the gratitude of the troops he met. His experience as coach of a team comprised of troops changed the way he coaches his team back on campus.

“I think I’ve become a better leader and a better team builder from that experience. I’m using lines, sayings, things that I heard with my team over the summer. It was really motivating for me,” Brey said. “It was embarrassing at times, because soldiers over there would come up and thank us and we said, ‘Whoa, whoa. First of all thank you. We’re honored to be here.’ I still get e-mails from guys over there.”

When Brey returned home, he got to see Prosser one final time before the Demon Decon coach’s death. The two shared a flight together on their way to Las Vegas and discussed possible changes they were trying to make as part of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee.

The trip to Kuwait was a fulfilling experience, Brey said, but the death of Prosser will leave a hole in his heart and in college basketball that will be hard to replace.

“I miss him and I think the profession will miss him,” Brey said. “We need more guys like him. I wish more young coaches would watch his style and not take themselves so seriously. He never did.”