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Spurs owner Peter Holt's past puts NBA offseason in perspective

By Mike Wise
Friday, July 16, 2010; D01

An NBA owner I hadn't spoken to in a few years called the other day. Before we talked about the reason for our conversation, he asked, "What'd you think of the LeBron-a-thon?"

"A bit much," I said.

"Yeah, maybe just a bit," Peter Holt said through a laugh. "I don't know what went wrong there, but they must have had some bad blood when you hear everything."

In a way, Holt also had to deal with a 25-year-old leaving home this past year. Like any owner/fan, he has a paternal side too. But free agency and South Beach weren't trying to whisk his baby away from the San Antonio Spurs.

Holt's daughter was leaving for Vietnam, for the first time.

Her father went back -- for the first time in 43 years.

"Unbelievably emotional," Holt said.

She saw where her daddy fought and almost died. She saw him weep over his friends who didn't make it back. She saw him sit down across from the same people who tried to kill him all those years ago, before he was the heir to the Caterpillar heavy-machinery manufacturing fortune and instead was just an irresponsible kid who, after drunkenly leading a police chase across South Texas, was given the following choice by a Corpus Christi judge: "Jail or the Army?"

That's how the son of a millionaire ended up in the Tet Offensive, pulling the trigger as an infantryman alongside poor kids whose fathers' connections and money couldn't get them out of Vietnam.

"I think it gives her a more worldly view of where I was at her age as opposed to where she is now," Holt said. "It helps with perspective, no doubt about it."

It's been a grim week or so in the sports-owner business, a week that needs a story not about a feud in Cleveland or funeral for the Boss in New York or even Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban. We need one about an original Texan, how he continues to make sacrifices four decades after he served his country.

Holt called to say he was personally pledging $1 million to the construction of an education center to be built beneath the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, an $85 million project that will give the names on the wall a human face and identity beyond the chiseled granite. On Wednesday, he asked fellow Texans to meet that pledge in order to honor their 3,416 names on the wall, the third-most Vietnam casualties by state.

The goal is to display all 58,267 photos, along with stories, letters and many of the more than 100,000 mementos now stored in a Bethesda warehouse by the National Park Service.

"Some will be of them in football uniforms or with family members before they left," Holt said.

"We don't want them remembered as just fighting and dying in Vietnam. We want people to know that this was someone's cousin or uncle or brother or grandfather. They're going to be immortalized in a way they haven't before."

According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, about $26 million has been raised for the museum -- meaning, as chief fundraiser, Holt has his work cut out for him. In this economy he knows not all the other 49 states can go to www.buildthecenter.org to match his pledge. But he's hopeful people will not forget, either.

Holt was in country by September 1967. During the spring of 1968, a fragmented bullet lodged in the base of his neck. He had volunteered with two other soldiers to rescue his fellow soldiers from a burning tank in the middle of a large cemetery.

Holt played dead for seven hours, using the bodies of two comrades to blanket himself until the North Vietnamese eventually pulled back. As he saw the Americans roll past, he stuck up his arm and was pulled to safety.

"We got ambushed and I had no place to go," he recalled. "It was an open field. We were on one side, and they were in a tree line on the other side. It was daylight and there was no cover."

There were other firefights, and in Holt's unit, only one other soldier who originally came in with him returned home alive. He personally knew 54 soldiers from his company whose names are on the wall. He was later awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.

During his tour of duty, no one ever knew he was the son of a millionaire, or that his old man later told Holt's commanding officer at a reunion that he could've gotten his son a deferment but that, "Peter wanted to pay his dues."

"They didn't choose to go," Holt said, through a slight drawl. "And we did the best we could when we got there."

During his trip back with Gen. Barry McCaffrey, 11 other veterans and his wife and daughter this past January, Holt finally met the enemy face to face during a lunch and reception in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon.

"They call it the 'American war' over there," he said. "Some of the men were amputees. Some were wounded in other ways. Look, we were invading their country. At the end, we were talking soldier to soldier, two guys who had gone through similar experiences, thankful we were survivors and still sad many of our friends weren't."

Gifts were exchanged. Tears were shed. No one was "Charlie" anymore.

When I spoke to Allen Wetzel, Holt's commanding officer, several years ago, he described his radio operator as "this lanky Texan with a baby face and that silly grin, a 19-year-old, sharp-talking kid with a hard mouth, to be honest. But Peter was a good soldier, a real good soldier."

Holt chuckled at first. Then he added solemnly, "I know the reason I came home is because some of the people I fought next to didn't. We kind of all know that."

It's why the last two days of his trip to Vietnam were spent on former battlefields, south of Saigon, where vivid recollections he never expected returned and his daughter saw Vietnam in '68 through her father's pain.

"It brought back the obvious sort of memories, but also the memories of the individuals themselves," Holt said. "Not so much the battles, but the faces of the people I was serving with. I got very emotional."

It's why, when he came home, Holt became more driven than ever to bring back those faces, the portraits of the kids he kept seeing in his head before they were killed in action.

I am sitting in front of my computer typing this the night after an encore presentation of "The Decision," LeBron and ESPN's prom night, which got the country heated and fueled so much of a scorned NBA owner's animosity that Jesse Jackson felt the need to weigh in.

And all I can focus on is that question Holt asked me when he first called.

"What'd you think of the LeBron-a-thon?"

After hanging up with Peter Holt, I think, like a lot of things in life, it doesn't matter any more.

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