Colonel Paul Burger, Commander off 88th Mission Support Group at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, poses with the Sinclair men’s basketball team in locker room just before Monday’s game as part of Military Appreciation Night. Eric Deeters/Sinclair Community College
Photo: columnist
Photo: columnist

Archdeacon: The night the military eclipsed basketball in the Sinclair gym

It was 20 minutes before tip-off and the Sinclair Community College men’s basketball team was in its cramped dressing room with the bright red lockers going over some final considerations before taking on the visiting Tiffin University junior varsity Monday night.

Before the Tartan Pride players – all freshmen this season – left their quarters, they had some questions and it’s safe to say theirs were unlike any other last-minute queries in college basketball on this night:

“Do you fly jets?’

“What was the hardest time in your 24 years of service?”

“Why did you join the Air Force and not the Army? Or the SEALs?”

And, one by one, Colonel Paul Burger, the Commander of the 88th Mission Supply Group at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, answered their questions while also posing one of his own.

“You’ve got a guy 6-foot-11?”

The players nodded and when they pointed out Elliott Brook, the towering, tattooed center from Walton Verona High School in Kentucky, the 5-foot-9 colonel seemed impressed.

For the Tartan Pride the feeling was mutual.

Col. Burger had come in to give them a brief pep talk on what has become a very special night for Sinclair basketball each season.

On this Veterans Day, it was Military Appreciation Night in the Sinclair gym, although the embrace – thanks to head coach Jeff Price – goes on all season long.

Monday night’s salute extended through much of the game.

An honor guard from WPAFB – which included Senior Airman Jake Hedges, a Wayne High School grad – presented the colors before the game.

Then Airman 1st Class Melan Smartt, a vocalist with Wright Patt’s celebrated Band of Flight, gave a heartfelt rendition of the national anthem as her 7-year-old son Basilio stood just off the court with a camera phone and beamed when his 28-year-old mom took command of the song and the gym.

Airman 1st Class Melan Smartt, featured singer with the USAF Band of Flight, at Sinclair s Military Appreciation Night basketball game on Veterans Day.Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

She had done the same Saturday night with the crowd of over 13,000 at UD Arena for the Dayton Flyers season opening win over Indiana State. She’s sung the Star Spangled Banner before Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Cavs games, too, all of which is a sidelight to her performances with the Band of Flight, which does some 350 engagements a year.

At halftime – with the Sinclair and Tiffin teams lined up at attention along the baselines — Colonel Burger officiated a swearing in ceremony to 16 new enlisted personnel, a group that included 23-year-old Christopher Landrum II, a former basketball standout at Northmont and Troy Christian, and Alina Brown, a 17-year-old Wayne senior who is a sprinter and hurdler on the Warriors track team.

Following the ceremony, Smartt returned for a stirring version of God Bless America

There was also an impressive flyover – as Sinclair’s 6 foot-4 Ryan Stowers from Quaker Valley High in Leetsdale, Pa., soared over Tiffin for a game-high 26 points and 10 rebounds in what would end up an 85-68 victory for the 3-0 Tartan Pride.

That basketball was sometimes eclipsed by the military on this night was fine with Price.

“This is about exposing our guys, getting them outside their 94-by-50 (feet) world,” he said. “Hopefully they get a better appreciation for the people who defend our freedom.

“Regardless of their political affiliations, they could see those 16 people – all of them about the same age they are – step up to the plate and say ‘I got you…I got your back.’”

Colonel Paul Burger, Commander off 88th Mission Support Group at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, conducts swearing in ceremony of 16 enlistees at halftime of Sinclair ‘s Military Appreciation Night basketball game on Veterans Day. Eric Deeters/Sinclair Community College)
Photo: columnist

‘Pride and Accomplishment’

After high school, Landrum said he worked as a community activist.

“My life is changing tremendously now,” he said. “I just got engaged and we have a child on the way. My fiancé and I talked about it and I believe this is the best chance for our family and at the same time I’ll serve our country.

“I’m proud I’m getting this opportunity to give myself to others. It’s pretty much what I’ve been built on and the way I was raised. And now I have the honor to be able to do it on a higher scale.”

Alina Brown she said she thinks the Air Force is her best option, too:

“I don’t feel I’m ready for college coming out of high school and my grandpa was in the military. Both my grandpas were and so was my dad and my aunt.”

Although Monday’s oath was strictly ceremonial – the enlistees had been sworn in earlier – Alina said she felt a real sense of “pride and accomplishment’’ as she stood at midcourt, her right hand raised, and pledged to support the nation and the Constitution .

Price understands that kind of thinking. His son Michael is in the U.S. Navy, a commander on a nuclear submarine. And his father fought in World War II, a cousin fought in Vietnam and a nephew is in the Navy.

“Military Appreciation Night is something that’s been close to my heart,” Price said. “That’s why we’ve done this for something like 10 years.”

Appreciation for military

In 10 days Sinclair goes to Annapolis, Md. to play a game at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Every season Price takes the team to visit the Dayton VA Hospital and in recent years the players had befriended Sgt. Charlie Krandall, who had fought in World War II with the 36th Army Infantry Division and ended up enduring 21 months as a prisoner of war.

The Sinclair players would visit him regularly and once he sat on the Tartan Pride bench for a game. He died at age 100 last year.

Each season Sinclair takes one trip to play some games and visit places Price feels will inspire his players.

Over the years his teams have been to Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard, visited the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials in Washington, D.C., been to the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia and spent time on the amputee ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Price especially looks forward to Military Appreciation Night and folks at the base recognize his support and enthusiasm.

The Honor guard – which has a pool of some 40 airmen – handles 4,000 military funerals a year across parts of six states. They take on requests like Monday’s when they can and the Sinclair game struck a chord with the group because all had been high school athletes themselves.

Senior airman Rodney Petrie played basketball in Syracuse, New York. Staff Sgt. Sean Chapman was a football player at Princeton in Cincinnati, Kevin DeLuna Tier was a wrestler in Maui, Hawaii and Hedges played soccer at Wayne.

Airman 1st Class Smartt said when it comes to the anthem – which she first started singing as a 4-year-old growing up in Detroit and kept singing a music major at Tennessee State and then, a music teacher at River Rouge High in metro Detroit – there are certain times she’s especially moved by the song.

“I sang at a wreath laying for air medic nurses who had died,” she said. “Their co-workers and family members were there and there was a lot of emotion and I teared up too.”

The Sinclair team felt a connection to Colonel Burger, who came to WPAFB three months ago from the Pentagon. He talked to them about his job at the base, his time in Afghanistan and how the importance of teamwork gets you through tough times in war, just as it does on the basketball court.

He was especially impressed by the way Price and the players embrace Military Appreciation Night.

When it was time to head to the court, the team and the colonel huddled up, put their extended arms together and gave a final chant.

As they headed out the door, the players – including the 6-foot-11 Brook – looked up to 5-foot-9 Colonel.

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