Why the Carrier Classic is more than a game to Williams

Buzz Williams’ team is less than 12 hours from tipoff aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, where they’ll face off against No. 4 Ohio State in the second annual Carrier Classic in Charleston, S.C.

It’s a historic event for Marquette, and while Williams said he has dedicated the last two weeks scouting Thad Matta’s talented group, he understood long ago what playing in a game of his manner meant to the country and to Marquette veterans across the world.

All thanks to one special email.

The Golden Eagles, fresh off two wins in the 2011 NCAA Tournament against Xavier and Syracuse to advance to their first Sweet 16 since Dwyane Wade’s 2003 run, gathered around Williams following a practice at Seton Hall in preparation of their upcoming game against North Carolina.

The video is three minutes, two seconds long. The soldier’s name is not revealed.

And as Williams pulled out his cell phone to read an email he received from a Marquette alum and, at the time, U.S. Armed Forces member serving in Afghanistan, one could hear a pin drop as he read aloud the passionate message.

Buzz Williams reads aloud a letter from a Marquette alum and soldier fighting in Afghanistan in 2011. (Screenshot, YouTube)

A small smile can be seen from Williams’ face as he reads the first sentence, the anonymous soldier congratulating Marquette on advancing to the Sweet 16 and wishing the team good luck as “we” prepare for the second-seeded Tar Heels.

The soldier, a graduate of Marquette’s Army ROTC Class of 2009, says in the letter he is finishing up a year-long deployment in Afghanistan, two years after walking across the stage in Milwaukee to receive his Marquette diploma.

“This past year has definitely challenged me in ways I could not dream of a few years ago as I was in the Bradley Center rooting for Buzz and the boys,” Williams read aloud.

The soldier tells Williams in the email he has watched “about a half dozen” of Marquette’s games on the Armed Forces Network while on duty, waking up in the wee hours of the morning to catch his alma mater playing back in the States.

Williams reads from the letter that the soldier came home on mid-tour leave in November, and found time to attend two non-conference games to cheer on his or her beloved Golden Eagles.

The soldier also recalled reading a story in which Williams was quoted, following Marquette’s second round win over Xavier a week earlier, that moved him or her while on duty fighting overseas.

“[Buzz] said something to the effect that it wasn’t just about basketball. That Marquette had a special meaning to them,” Williams read. “That same special feeling gets me out of bed in the middle of the night to sit in this tent and watch two and a half hours of well-coached, tenacious, hard-playing Marquette basketball. For those two and a half hours I get lost and forget I am thousands of miles away from home.

“I guess the biggest message I would like you to pass on is: Thank you.”

Williams finishes the email by relaying that this unknown soldier plans to wake up at 3:15 a.m. on Friday to watch Marquette take on the Tar Heels (3:30 a.m. tipoff local time), hours before starting another day without knowing what life-altering events may lie ahead in enemy territory.

“And I will do so with an ear-to-ear smile on my tired face. Let the boys know, win or lose, all of Marquette Nation is proud of them,” Williams reads. “Let them know that for two-and-a-half hours that day, they are allowing at least one of their fans escape from the realities in Afghanistan.

“And please be sure to pass on to them, that We Are Marquette.”

It’s not difficult to see why Williams jumped on the opportunity to play in the Carrier Classic the moment he heard the option was available.

Yes, it’s good publicity, will help with recruiting and gives Marquette an early test in one of the top teams in the country.

But Williams told Deputy Athletic Director Mike Broeker he didn’t need to know who Marquette’s opponent would be, rather that it would be an honor, regardless, to play in such a historic event held on this Veterans Day weekend.

“If you know anybody who has something like this or any type of event like this, just tell them we’ll play,” Williams joked at Thursday’s press conference.

And it’s no surprise that Williams wants more than just 40 minutes of basketball against Ohio State for his team on their visit to Charleston.

Marquette partnered with Hoops From Home yesterday, an organization that attempts to “promote healthy, positive development to military children by bringing an all-star basketball camp experience to U.S. bases around the world.”

Marquette has plenty to learn about the aircraft carrier they’ll play on tonight, and Williams has made sure his team did just that. (Via assistant Isaac Chew)

For two hours Thursday, Marquette and Ohio State hosted a clinic aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown for 160 families, running drills and contests and signing autographs for the children following their own practice aboard the ship.

“We need to learn something other than they just put a court down where planes normally are,” Williams said.

Williams also was expected to take the team on a tour of the aircraft carrier yesterday. Members of the U.S.S. Yorktown would run the tour to give Marquette players a feel for what those Naval officers and midshipmen went through on a daily basis. The Yorktown is out of commission and now acts as a museum.

Williams said he took his sons onto the carrier after explaining to them the history of Charleston and the U.S.S. Yorktown to give them a better understanding of where they’d be watching Friday’s game.

“It’s much bigger than the winning and losing,” Williams said Thursday. “Obviously we want to win, and I’m not trying to justify that. But to be able to represent our country in a small, small, small way for what our country, and men and women of our country have done to be able to provide us this chance to do it. I’m telling you I was so fired up this morning when I came over.”

Williams’ players understand it, too.

“The honor of doing this is way beyond what words can explain,” junior Jamil Wilson said. “To provide entertainment, to be an escape for them for a couple hours and get some excitement out of their life, and they don’t have to be duckin’ and dodgin’ bullets, is pretty cool.”

Friday evening the Golden Eagles may learn something about their basketball team. They may even come away with a win. But Williams, stemming all the way back from the moment he read aloud that letter in March 2011, knows there’s much more than 40 minutes of basketball to this special and historical weekend.

“To have the opportunity to play on this stage, for what it represents and the pride that swells up in you for our veterans and for the people that are currently fighting so that we can play ball,” Williams said, “it just seems so minuscule.”

Below is Williams, reading the 2011 letter aloud to his team.

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