FORT BRAGG, N.C. — There was a swift course correction in Funk Physical Fitness Center on Monday afternoon at Fort Bragg.
The Duke men’s basketball players were on the floor stretching when an Army of soldiers walked into the gym.
The Blue Devils hopped off the ground as if Coach Mike Krzyzewski was urging them to get back on defense, but basketball wasn’t the priority at the moment.
Duke’s players stood to their feet to salute the soldiers with applause.
“It was really just a spur of the moment thing,” Duke freshman Amile Jefferson said. “That aura that they bring is amazing.”
As it should be, Krzyzewski said.
The soldiers in military fatigues hoisted their cellphones and started taking pictures of the tall guys in blue-and-white jerseys and shorts, as if the players were the most important people in the building.
“It’s just the opposite,” Krzyzewski said. “I think sometimes we, as a country, take our military for granted, and the sacrifices that these troops and their families make so that they’re always playing away games. Thank goodness we don’t play home games.”
Krzyzewski said the purpose of practicing at Fort Bragg was to honor the soldiers. He used to be one, a former West Point cadet and Army officer.
“I just want our guys to be around the best team in the world, and the best team in the world is our military,” Krzyzewski said. “For a day, we’re going to have that honor.”
Duke’s students are on fall break, and the players arrived on base Sunday and slept in barracks.
The team rose Monday at 5:45 a.m. for physical training. Soldiers put the Blue Devils through the paces, getting them in formation and marching them to a field for the PT that included miles of running, rope climbing and an obstacle course that left Duke senior Ryan Kelly with blisters.
The obstacle course is proof that soldiers are a well-conditioned bunch, Kelly said.
“These guys are doing something much more important than we are,” Kelly said. “I love what I do, but I appreciate what they do more.”
Krzyzewski said he’s not so sure the guys he coached in the Olympics would have messed around on the obstacle course.
“There’d be a lot of nervous NBA owners,” Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski said the early morning workout was tougher than he expected.
“I heard grunts and groans,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s why when they came in here, they were pretty dirty. So they’ve had a real good workout. I’m not sure how strenuous a practice we’re going to have.”
The trip to Fort Bragg was about shaping the team for the season, Kelly said.
For Krzyzewski, it was business and pleasure.
“We’re not going to put in a system to try to beat a team,” Krzyzewski said. “The main thing is to have some fun with the troops and maybe put them in a few situations, some pressure situations that they see our guys in, like a last-second free throw or a last shot, stuff like that.”
Soldiers rattled the bleachers by stomping their boots while Duke senior Mason Plumlee shot a free throw. He made it.
Several soldiers stepped to the charity stripe, their fellow soldiers still making noise.
Spc. Quaniece Spearman launched a free throw and missed, but Krzyzewski blew his whistle and claimed there was a lane violation. She put up two more free throws but missed those, too, blaming it on having to shoot with a men’s ball.
Spearman said the Duke players encouraged her when she went to the line, and she appreciated the ovation that they gave the troops.
“It shows me that a lot of people have a lot of respect for us,” Spearman said. “We’re more appreciated than what we think we are.”
One of the soldiers managed to fight through the noise and knock down a free throw.
Duke senior Seth Curry put up some shots before practice but didn’t participate in the intense drills and scrimmaging because of a leg injury.
Duke redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee didn’t practice, wearing fatigues instead of sweatpants, and had a medical boot on his left foot. Duke announced Monday that he has a stress fracture and will miss 6-8 weeks.
On two occasions, Krzyzewski, with his players around him, walked over to where the solders were sitting and shared from his heart, told them that they were part of the best team in the world.
“We do a lot for our country, and we’re glad Coach K brought that up in his speech because that shows the pride that the country has in itself with us,” Spc. Tarance Carr said.
Krzyzewski said the military did a lot for him, and he wanted to expose his players to that.
“Really, the military is the best team we have in our country, and it’s the most respected part of our society, I believe,” Krzyzewski said. “Anytime we can have any interaction with them, it’s a plus for us. No question about it.”
Duke’s players did everything the soldiers ordered them to do, Krzyzewski said, agreeing that there’s a military style to his basketball program that might have made the Blue Devils particularly compliant.
“We like to think we have discipline,” Krzyzewski said. “When you hear military, a lot of times it’s like someone yelling in your face all the time or whatever. Really, the military is all about doing what you’re supposed to do to the best of your ability at the time you’re supposed to do it. It’s called discipline.”
In the military, soldiers cross a line of departure with the purpose of hitting a target, and then they regroup and do it again.
Basketball is that way.
“I’d like to be as efficient as they are,” Krzyzewski said about the soldiers.