Just after 7 a.m. one sunny morning last week, a dozen young men in camouflage t-shirts and basketball shorts jogged up to the west side of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where they slowed down, and quietly entered the park. Heads down, with lowered voices, they spread out along the length of the memorial, occasionally pausing to peer up at some of the more than 58,000 names, or to run their fingers along the wall’s surface.
Four minutes later, the George Washington men’s basketball team gathered in a huddle at the wall’s east end, next to a small sign requesting visitors “honor those who served.” The Colonials were about to begin an hour-long workout around the Mall, what has become the centerpiece of their offseason conditioning program. First, though, they paused to reflect.
“You kind of get stuck in the moment,” forward Kevin Larsen said later, describing what those few minutes of silence were like.
The next hour could have doubled as a Washington tourism video. The players ran a full-speed lap of the reflecting pool, leaving from the northwest corner and sprinting to a finish line at the southwest corner, joining joggers and bicyclists and the first few eager tourists of the day. They did four sets of push-ups while facing the Lincoln Memorial, and four sets of jumping jacks while facing the Washington Monument. They rolled and crawled and tumbled and sprinted in the grassy field just north of the Lincoln Memorial Circle, and then they ran back up 23rd Street to their Foggy Bottom campus.
And during the entire workout, each player remembered the name of one veteran from that wall.
“Jordan, what was your name?” called out Matt Johnson, the team’s director of strength and conditioning, before the third set of push-ups.
“Burton E. Small,” responded freshman guard Jordan Roland.
“Yuta, what was your name?” Johnson asked sophomore forward Yuta Watanabe.
“David Stone,” Watanabe replied.
What was going on here? The idea first came to Johnson when he saw some of the basketball players interacting with World War II veterans during an Honor Flight visit in the spring, the young players listening, rapt, to men in their 90s. Johnson — whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all veterans — thought the experience sparked his players to think in broader ways about words that are sometimes used cheaply in sports, such as “commitment” and “sacrifice.”
That led to the twice-weekly trips to the Mall with five players during the school’s first summer session, and then to virtually the entire team joining him around the monuments this month. Each morning starts with a jog down 23rd street and then a walk along the Wall, followed by a team huddle and an almost-whispered discussion. Sometimes they might talk about family members who served in the military. Other times they might each describe their worst moment from the last year.
“A huge part of being a team is listening when somebody speaks from their heart, and knowing somebody on a deeper level than just dribbling a basketball and putting a ball in an iron cylinder,” Johnson said. “I really wanted to kind of get them to see the peripherals. And not just straight ahead, not just basketball, but to gain perspective and learn from things outside of basketball.”
Players have appreciated the change in routine, sweating their way through an environment more interesting than the inside of a gym. And the trips also place the players squarely in their school’s urban setting, whether in pouring rain or stifling humidity — “being a part of the city, the sights and the sounds, the aesthetics of the whole thing, that’s really empowering,” Johnson said.
Even amid hundreds of Washingtonians working out in fluorescent clothes and headphones, this group stands out. Cabbies have called out words of encouragement; tourists have cheered them on; and strangers have thanked them for visiting the Vietnam memorial. (They’ve also gotten some confused stares, as you’d expect from a bunch of 6-foot-10 guys doing calisthenics in matching camo shirts.) Tuesdays, the players embark on longer morning runs that take them past the White House, down 17th street and around the Washington Monument. They’ve learned D.C. geography along the way, and visited sites that longtime area residents sometimes neglect.
“There’s not many schools where you can walk two minutes and you’re at the White House, the [Vietnam] memorial, the Lincoln,” Larsen said. “That’s one of the reasons I came here: because we’re in the middle of so much history. It gives you a little bit of extra motivation, looking at such great buildings, historical events that happened here. It makes it a lot easier to work hard.”
The Wall and its names — each player chooses a different one each day — begin and end the workouts. Back at the school’s Smith Center weight room last week, the players lined up in front of a white board and recorded the names they had chosen, one by one. The next time they entered the room, 15 computer printouts — with details on the 15 men whose names they had recorded — would be plastered to the weight room’s walls. That would bring the total number of names recorded this summer to 179.
“A lot of it is just to acknowledge them,” said senior guard Joe McDonald, a Northern Virginia native who had never been to the Wall before this summer. “We’re not doing a full background check and trying to learn everything about them; it’s just acknowledging them and knowing what they did for us.”
Larsen has been selecting names in chronological order, one panel at a time. Patricio Garino, an Argentine, often searches for Hispanic names; one time, he was stopped short when he realized his veteran had died at 22, his own age. McDonald tries to remember not to “just go find a name and then keep walking; kind of go up to it, look at it.”
What does this have to do with basketball? It’s probably impossible to say. Multiple players recorded the fastest mile times of their lives last week, and McDonald said he has never been more fit than he is right now. Players also described an interdependence that emerges from working out as a group in such a public setting.
“Good things will come from it,” McDonald promised.
Johnson, though, is thinking well beyond the upcoming basketball season. He choked up when talking about this summer’s workouts, and about the hours he and his players have spent just a few blocks from their campus.
“I want these guys to remember this when they’re 30,” the 30-year old strength coach said. “I’m in this great city, I’m working with this phenomenal program, with these phenomenal, high-character kids on a daily basis. And if my dad was on this wall, I wouldn’t even be here; I wouldn’t have this phenomenal position. So I’m very blessed. That’s what runs through my head every single time.”