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Friday, May 25, 2012
Hoops from Home really hits home

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

In the quiet of Arlington National Cemetery, Sean Farnham glanced over the rows of markers and spied his 6-year-old son, Jack. The boy was kneeling at a grave, gently adjusting a flag and talking privately with his great-uncle Adm. Michael Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Riding to Arlington in the official motorcade for Mullen's retirement that morning, Jack had peppered his great-uncle with questions about SEAL Team 6. He knew of the special military unit because of its involvement in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, but also knew that a few weeks earlier, some of the team members had been killed in a helicopter crash. He wanted to know whether they were buried in Arlington.

Adm. Mullen
Adm. Michael Mullen and his great-nephew shared a special moment at Arlington National Cemetery.

"So I look over, and [Mullen] was leading him over by the hand to the area where they were buried,'' Farnham said. "I had no idea what was going on. They were maybe 60 yards away. It was this amazing moment, and I thought, 'OK, my son gets this.' This is why I want to help. It starts with us as individuals.''

And this particular individual hatched an idea in a Charlotte, N.C., hotel room that is so simple and obvious it has left almost everyone asking one simple question: Why didn't I think of that?

The former UCLA forward and current ESPN analyst has launched Hoops from Home, a nonprofit organization that will bring free basketball camps coached and run by current and past NBA stars to the children of military personnel living on bases all around the world.

The first camp is tentatively scheduled for August at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

The organization, which Farnham dreamed up while watching the NCAA championship game in April 2011, already has some serious backers -- the Knicks' Baron Davis has pledged his support, and Jerry Ferrara, better known as Turtle from "Entourage," has contributed financially and plans to attend the camps.

"It's such a simple and obvious idea, but the simple ideas happen to be the most brilliant ones,'' said Ferrara, who met Farnham when the pair co-hosted a radio show in California. "Sean hit it out of the park with this one.''

Farnham initially planned on tapping his collegiate resources -- perhaps even partnering with Operation Hardwood, a USO-coordinated event which matches college coaches with basketball teams of American servicemembers -- but because the campers are at a prospect age (9 to 17), they are off limits to college coaches.

It's such a simple and obvious idea, but the simple ideas happen to be the most brilliant ones.

-- Actor Jerry Ferrara

Instead, Farnham turned to the NBA, where he found a receptive audience more than ready to help. He won't name names but said he expects a good roster of current and former players for his initial camp and those he plans for the future.

"I've known Sean for a long time, and I know he'll be successful in achieving the mission of Hoops from Home,'' Davis said. "It's a great cause that will do amazing work in creating an experience for these kids.''

Farnham is not from a military family, but attending various functions with Mullen -- the uncle of Farnham's wife, Sarah -- gave him an appreciation for what the military does. And talking with Mullen and his wife, Deborah, taught Farnham about what the families, in particular the children, endure.

Since 9/11, American troops have deployed well more than 3 million times, with most returning for multiple trips.

According to a recent study by the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, children who have a parent deployed are 2 1/2 times more likely to have mental health or behavioral issues than American kids in general.

Deborah Mullen raised a family while her husband was away from home for months at a time, but she said there is absolutely no comparison between her experience and what families are facing today.

She traveled the world with her husband, meeting with countless families who have endured multiple deployments.

Like her, they have to deal with the constant reshuffling of family dynamics -- who pays the bills and metes out the discipline when Mom or Dad is back between deployments, for example -- but everything, she said, is compounded by the fact that for 11 years, the U.S. has been at war.

"These families are extraordinarily proud of their service member and what they are doing, but they are also stressed like they've never been stressed before,'' Mullen said. "And the children are dealing with their mothers and fathers away for long periods of time, but also watching people come home injured or hearing that people have been killed and knowing that could happen to their parent. We can't possibly understand what it is to be exposed not only to that sort of separation, but to that anxiety every single day.''

Jerry Ferrara
Jerry Ferrara grew up around sports in his Brooklyn community.

A basketball camp can't solve all of that, of course.

It can, however, help in countless ways.

Many of these military kids have grown up with one parent not around to show them the ropes in sports and the other parent busy juggling twice the responsibilities.

Ferrara can relate. The child of a single-parent home, he grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst with a mom who loved sports and a community in which every park was packed with kids playing or doing something. His role models were coaches and uncles, people who took the time to teach him how to properly shoot a free throw and helped educate him on the art of team building.

"When I started reading about the stress levels, that really hit home,'' Ferrara said. "I was always an anxious kid, and when I played sports, it was the only time I didn't experience that. It was a release.''

More than that, Farnham's camp is doing one very simple, yet incredibly important thing: It's showing military families that people care and that they recognize their sacrifices.

By simply showing up and making a commitment, Farnham is doing that.

"These families don't want our pity; they just want a sense that what they're doing is appreciated,'' said Deborah Mullen, whose two sons are active military members. "It's not about whether you agree with the war. It's just about appreciating what our service members are doing for us and what their families are sacrificing.''

Mullen said that in her time, she has seen countless ideas take root only to fizzle before actually coming to life.

Launching Hoops from Home, Farnham admits, hasn't been easy. He's had to work with people from all walks of life -- from Hollywood to the Pentagon -- and has spent most of his free time plotting, planning, organizing and fundraising. (He will not take any form of a salary from the organization, nor will Davis or anyone else affiliated with it.)

He doesn't have any intention of letting it fizzle.

"It's been a lot of work, but as I was watching my son at the cemetery, I thought, 'I'm not going to wait around for someone else to run a program,'" he said. "I don't want to wake up in the morning and just say, 'Boy, am I lucky. Boy, am I fortunate,' and then go about my day. I want to do this.''

For more information on Hoops from Home, please go to the organization's website: www.hoopsfromhome.org.