A group of military men stood at attention at Gold Crown Foundation Friday morning. The National Anthem played. The Color Guard presented the flag. A 21-gun salute rang out.
This wasn’t a drill.
No, they weren’t preparing for armed combat, but they were readying for a fight – not on a battlefield, but a basketball court and beyond.
Military base basketball teams were in Denver for the Military Basketball Association Finals — or the MBA — over the weekend. And though this isn’t the NBA, it’s not your YMCA pickup game either.
The league features a diverse talent pool from amateurs to former college basketball players like Luke Air Force Base’s Staff Sgt. Darian Donald, who played NCAA Division I at Mississippi Valley State University.
“Division I is definitely a different speed,” said Donald, who also has experience in semi-pro basketball and was named an MBA All-Star.
“But you got older and more mature players so it’s more like technique and skill compared to just straight raw athleticism like college.”
Active and retired servicemen, contractors, GS civilian, reserve, national guard, and military dependent are all eligible to play as long as they are stationed on their respective bases. All players must show identification to prove location — lest we see some MBA super teams.
For all the talent and competition, the league is fighting a bigger battle
Now, I know what you might be thinking: military men playing sports ala the infamous Top Gun volleyball scene. And while you’ll find the same camaraderie and fun-loving play, there is much more to this league than just guys getting together on the court.
The MBA has worked to promote mental health and suicide prevention within the military community since it was founded in 2017.
“We gotta start combatting those behaviors at every military community and every installation,” said Major Mike Meyers, who is the MBA Commissioner. “That’s what I’m trying to do as a volunteer coach and as commissioner for the MBA.”
Meyers, a 20-year Active duty veteran of the Army, has been coaching military basketball for 12 years starting at Fort Riley in 2010. His resume includes two national championships with Ft. Hood and medals with the All-Women’s Army team. He is currently stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs and coaches the Colorado Military Basketball team.
Meyers is passionate about this mission because he’s dealt with PTSD himself. He sees coaches as a beacon of hope for players.
“That’s who they confide in, that’s who they talk to. The biggest things we hear is comfortability and being able to confide in other people about what’s stressing them out,” Meyers said.
The Wounded Warrior Project has helped the MBA with their mission. And the league also brought awareness through 22 Remembered. That campaign’s name came from a jarring statistic: 22 suicides occur each day in the veteran community.
That’s over 8,000 people a year.
Army Sergeant Major Thomas Campbell was the guest speaker at the MBA Finals Hall of Fame Ceremony over the weekend. He shared his struggles with mental health and refusal to seek help during his military career.
“There are myths still out of why not to get help. And, there are still myths out there that it’s not worth it or I’m going to have to pay for it with my career,” Campbell told Denverite.
“Mental health is the last place you wanted to go because you were pulled out of your platoon. You were stuck in the headquarters and nobody talked to you. You were shunned.
“So, there were a lot of people who needed help but never got it.”
Sgt. Maj. Campbell likes how the MBA promotes mental health awareness. He believes the military has done better to address those concerns, but there’s still more work to do.
“Right now, our biggest challenge is availability. We don’t have enough providers,” Campbell said. “We got some work to do on the need to get help. But, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Playing the long game
The first MBA Finals tournament was held in Colorado Springs in 2018.
There were twelve teams and it was held at a high school gym. A women’s league was created — though there wasn’t a women’s tournament this year due to the lack of teams.
There’s still a long way to go. The league and its teams do not receive funding from the Department of Defense.
“Everybody is here on their own dime. There is no Department of Defense dollars for this,” said Angel Acevedo, who is the Deputy Commissioner in the league and coaches the Ft. Benning team.
“Everybody pays for everything basically. If the bases support the team, they get some gym space. They get maybe some basketballs and uniforms. For those who don’t get supported, they have to come together and chip in.”
The MBA is hoping to attract sponsorships from bigger companies and groups who support the military.
And even though the game is long, many note the league has made major strides.
The MBA All-Star Games will be held in Oklahoma City in August. And the MBA Finals will be held outside of Colorado for the first time in league history in Wichita. As for the finals? There were three match locations this year.
“We’re playing at the Gold Crown Arena and we’re playing at Metro State, and the University of Colorado Denver,” Tournament Director Albert Mayon said. A far cry from a solo high school gym.
“That’s how far we’ve come.”