Wizards host wounded soldiers at practice

December 3, 2012

Like I told that soldier, “Keep your eye on the target.”

On the court, Wizards assistant Sam Cassell talks enough trash to keep a whole team of sanitation workers busy. But when Cassell invited Army Sgt. Chris Powell to the main court at Verizon Center on Monday, he had something in mind other than belittling his opponent: Cassell wanted to help Powell with his shooting stroke. Cassell watched Powell miss a few jumpers, then offered some simple advice to improve his accuracy.

“You know how to shoot your gun, right? It’s similar in basketball. You can’t see the bullet, but you can look at your target. The rim is your target, ” Cassell recalled telling Powell. “When I told him, he was like, ‘Okay.’ I was like, ‘I’m talking your terminology now.’ ”

As Powell shot, Cassell kept encouraging him, saying, “Keep your eye on the target.”

Off to a 1-13 start and ranking at the bottom in scoring and field-goal percentage, the Wizards could probably use the same advice. But they had an opportunity to put their own struggles in perspective as the team hosted members of the Walter Reed Hospital’s Wounded Warriors program at practice.

Players and coaches stopped by to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures with soldiers who have suffered injuries while fighting in Iraq.

“It’s great. It sheds a little light on something sometimes we forget life is about,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Sometimes you worry about wins and losses and what’s affecting us, and then you see guys at a young age putting their lives on the line to make the world a better place. We’re thankful for these people for what they do for us. They’re more than welcome to come out here any time they want.”

Sgt. Darryl Fletcher didn’t catch any flak for showing up to practice wearing LeBron James gear, with the Wizards set to host the defending champion Miami Heat on Tuesday. After getting injured in Iraq two years ago, the Trenton, N.J., native can wear whatever he likes.

“We were extended an invitation to view a controlled demonstration, which went awry. There were corners that were cut. But in lieu of that I survived, but the guy that was next to me did not. But through God’s grace and mercy I’m here today. So,” Fletcher said, his voice drifting off.

Sgt. Ty Baylock was also in attendance. Rookie Bradley Beal couldn’t help but be touched by the stories they shared.

“It just helps you realize the blessing that you have,” Beal said. “They’re blessed to be able to come back, some of the people didn’t make it over there. That’s a blessing in itself and you still have your life to live.”

Fletcher was able to laugh as he explained his attire.

“No offense to the Wizards, but the Heat is my team,” he said. “Again, it’s a pleasure to be here to interact with the players and actually enjoy the session.”

Fletcher seemed to have a joke for every player that greeted them. When Cassell approached, Fletcher shouted, “Living legend!”

“I think, personally that, how can you thank people that fight for this country?” Cassell said. “I don’t think we can thank them enough. Just for them guys to come out and you can tell these guys have sustained some serious injuries over there. I just thanked them, for fighting for our freedom…and everything this country stands for.”

Powell, 26, was a member of the 275th military police and is grateful to be back home after an experience that “you’d probably never go through again if you didn’t have to.” He didn’t go into detail but added, “The one thing that I would say is that people here should be really appreciative of life itself. You know what I mean? You get to come to like a practice like this, you get to go home and see your family, you get to drive. The smallest things I would tell people to appreciate it because you never know when it’s really going to be gone. And a lot of things that we have here that a lot of people complain about you definitely don’t have it over there.”

A graduate of Parkdale High in Riverdale, Powell is a Wizards fan who said he remembers fondly when Michael Jordan and Jerry Stackhouse suited up for his team. Meeting members of the current team served as a morale booster.

“I’m not too happy about the record,” Powell said. “But I know that they a young team and it’s one of those things that they got to come together. One year we’ll be back to where it used to be.”

Cassell said the presence of the soldiers was uplifting for the Wizards. “Some of these guys are their heroes. Like John Wall, a couple of guys said they really admire John Wall from the college days, so that’s big.”

The interaction was personal for Cassell.

“I have an uncle that’s been in the Navy for 30 years. And told me a long time ago, that before the war started, this could be a long time before this war ends. And that was six years ago,” he said. “Right now, we still have troops over there and it won’t be over until every single troop is home. It gives closure to that family that has a son, daughter over in Iraq, to come home safely. Until the last American solder comes home. It’s not over. It’s just that simple.”

That is part of the reason that Cassell put a lid on the trash talk with Powell.

“Not to him. I respect them guys,” Cassell said with a laugh. “But if I was going one-on-one against him, I’d be talking trash to him.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · December 3, 2012