Commentary

Recollections from the 9/11 generation

Nine college basketball players affected by the Sept. 11 attacks share their memories

Originally Published: September 9, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Generations have moments. Sept. 11, 2001, was my generation's moment.

Since that fateful day, 5 million American men and women have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. In August, as he prepared for the Sept. 11 anniversary, President Obama saluted the "9/11 generation," his term for the millions of young volunteer soldiers who have willingly borne the brunt of sacrifice of the two wars that followed al-Qaida's attacks on U.S. soil a decade ago.

[+] EnlargeEmpire State Building and Twin Towers
AP Photo/Marty LederhandlerThe Sept. 11 attacks had a profound effect on the children and teenagers of the "9/11 generation."

For those who were in middle school, high school or beginning college in 2001, the term "9/11 generation" resonates in its own way. Many were just beginning to understand the world around them. They've -- we've -- since grown up in the post-9/11 world. This world's politics are polarized. Its attention spans are increasingly fleeting. Its psychological scars are far from healed.

What does all this have to do with college basketball? Nothing. In the face of this horrid day's 10th anniversary, college basketball's importance -- insofar as college basketball is "important" in the first place -- seems microscopic by comparison.

Still, in advance of Sunday's 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I decided to ask some current college basketball players to discuss their personal experiences during and after that tragic day.

Some were directly affected; Penn State forward Billy Oliver knew four families that lost loved ones in the attacks, and Illinois forward Meyers Leonard's brother Bailey Leonard has since been deployed to Afghanistan twice. Some grew up in the New York area and were in the city at the time. Others watched in horror from afar.

Together, we talked about memories, fears and lessons learned. I compiled their responses below.

If you're looking for a tidy 9/11 story neatly wrapped and tied with a bow, this isn't it. There are no overreaching conclusions here. Instead, we just talked. This is what came out.

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Jordan Theodore, a senior guard at Seton Hall, was a sixth-grader in Englewood, N.J.

Theodore: "I live in Englewood, which is about seven minutes from the George Washington Bridge. You could actually see the smoke by my school. You could see all the fog, everything in the air, and nobody knew what was going on. It was a scary feeling -- everywhere I looked it seemed like there were reporters saying it was terrorists. Terrorists hit America, and we don't know what's going to happen next."

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Kim English, a senior guard at Missouri, was a seventh-grader in Baltimore.

English: "I was in my seventh-grade history class when one of my teachers came in and said a plane had hit the twin towers. I had been in New York a bunch growing up. When you're young, you're oblivious to depth perception, so when she said it I remember thinking 'Well, the twin towers stick really high up in the air, so it must have just been an accident.' Of course, you realize in retrospect how low they actually are, and that a plane would actually have to try to hit it. But once we saw it wasn't an accident, we started to realize what was going on. That's when it got scary."

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Kyle Smyth, a senior guard at Iona, was at his school in River's Edge, N.J.

Smyth: "I remember not knowing why my school was making us go home. I was confused by the whole situation. Then when I got home -- my mother had picked me up -- the TV was on. Me and my older brother and my mother were all home and we were glued to the TV. At that age it's hard to understand everything's that going on at the time. But what I saw on TV, I was worried moreso because the only one that wasn't in the house was my father. He works at the Metropolitan Opera in the city. … That's the first thing that initially hit -- I was worried that possibly something could happen with my father."

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Billy Oliver, a junior forward at Penn State, was in Chatham, N.J. He knew four families on his street that lost loved ones in the attacks.

Oliver: "They held us late in school. My most vivid memory is both of my parents coming to pick me up -- that was unusual. I always walked home from school, so I knew it was especially serious. We walked to the elementary school and got my siblings. I remember my dad frantically calling people. My best friend was our neighbor and his dad worked in the World Trade Center. My parents were trying to get in touch with him, but the cell phone reception was so jammed that you couldn't get any calls through. That's something that will always stick with me."

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Rhamel Brown, a sophomore guard at Manhattan, was at P.S. 41 Walter White in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Brown: "I remember I was in the fourth grade, I was 9 years old, and my teacher was speaking to another teacher. Me and other students didn't really know what was going on. Then we saw a lot of people running around seeming like they were panicking. The teachers told us the towers were hit by planes. We could actually see the smoke out our window. It was a shock to us. A lot of kids in the class was panicking because they had family members that worked there; they didn't know if their family members would be OK or not. A lot of people were scared and felt unsafe all of a sudden, like anything could happen or anything could be hurt at any minute, and there was nothing we could do to stop it."

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John McArthur, a sophomore guard at Santa Clara, was 9 years old and living in Danville, Calif. His current coach, Kerry Keating, lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. In March, on a trip for the College Invitational Tournament, Keating took his team to Ground Zero.

McArthur: "I remember, I was in my bed, my dad had just left to go to the airport and my mom came in my room and got me out of my bed and made me watch the TV. I saw the second plane hit the towers. I was asking whether it was a TV show or a movie or what. My mom was crying. … I knew my dad was at the airport. I tried to call him, but my mom reassured me that he wasn't going on the plane, that he wasn't going to fly out."

Theodore: "It was scary. I'm in sixth grade, I'm 12 years old, and I really don't know what happened or what they're going to do. I don't know what's going to happen to me and my family. I don't know what's going to happen to my friends. It was a scary time. I remember my brother coming to pick me up, and him telling me 'Mommy says you have to go home and to keep you safe in the house.'"

Smyth: "When my father got home it was a sigh of relief for me. He sat me and my brother down. I just remember being confused, and all three of them explaining everything to me."

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AP PhotoThe stepmother of Kim English was working in the Pentagon on the day it was attacked.

English: "My stepmom actually works in the Pentagon. When [a plane crashed into the Pentagon], it got real. I called my dad and my real mom, and I had to catch the bus home from school. I remember being scared not realizing what was going to happen. I felt like the world was going to end. It was that kind of feeling. … To think that if the plane would have hit the other wing of the building, it could have been her. I would have been sick."

Oliver: "Another neighbor across the street was actually lost in the attack. We had six or seven families on our street that had someone working in the World Trade Center, so it was a very scary time. Trying to get in touch with them and not knowing what was going on -- it was a very scary time. … I think my parents tried to hide it from me as best they could. But you can tell something is wrong in your family."

Theodore: "I was in New York every day going to practice. My mother kept me away for a week or two until everything died down. She didn't want me close to the bridge, in case terrorists decided to attack the bridge and I wouldn't be able to get away."

Smyth: "Everybody was just -- everything in life kind of paused for a while there. We had to rethink everything."

Theodore: "I lived in fear of going to New York for about two years. There were times when I would take the bus across the bridge and I would be looking both ways on the bridge, looking to see if there was anything coming to take us out. I was doing it by myself, and really I just didn't know what was going to happen. If they can hijack planes and hit the towers, they can do anything, you know?"

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Maurice Harkless, an incoming freshman forward at St. John's, was in third grade in Queens, N.Y. Like most of the players in this space, he recalled his childhood fear of New York City and his struggles to understand the attacks in the days and months that followed.

Harkless: "I was always nervous around the city. It was the first time I'd even heard of a terrorist attack, and it happened right here. I would try to imagine how it could have happened. I went to see Ground Zero once, and it was impossible to imagine."

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Kidani Brutus, a junior guard at Manhattan, was in middle school in the Bronx.

Brutus: "I was scared to go to school for about a month. I'm thinking, like, 'Is a plane going to come and hit my school?' Every time I heard a plane go by, I would look up and just … think."

Smyth: "Anytime you got into any type of building that was a little bit bigger than a school or a house, you got that feeling. Anytime you had to really look up there, it definitely gave you the thought in the back of your head."

English: "For a day or two at least, we talked about it hypothetically -- what we would have done if we were on the plane."

Oliver: "There was this sense of anger that we were attacked like that, in my neighborhood and town and in our country at large. It's something -- you just don't know why it happened. And you can't understand it."

Brown: "All of my friends were scared. We felt like we were vulnerable to anything. At any moment, the same thing could happen to us. The world outside seemed bleak, and what happened on 9/11 just proved it."

Theodore: "I was very angry. I was always very angry. I was always trying to understand why they would do something like that, especially to innocent people."

McArthur: "I remember one of my friends asking what the big deal was -- you know, it's just a couple of planes, what's the big deal, man? But the older I got the more I learned about it and the more it weighed on me."

Smyth: "It started right after it happened. I started paying attention more to politics, the world around me, the economy. In sixth or seventh grade I wasn't exactly thinking about this stuff 24/7, but I was aware of it now. I think that's the key. I wasn't studying it, but if it was on the TV I paid attention to it. You didn't just flick the channel to the next one. It woke all of us up."

Theodore: "I remember a lot of people getting into arguments. I went to a high school of mixed race. There were a lot of different people in the school. We had some Muslim people in our school. There was a lot of confrontation in our classrooms. … Sometimes in conversation it got a little disrespectful. It did. People were angry and upset. They wanted to know the answer why."

McArthur: "I definitely remember arguments with friends. We'd be sitting at the lunch table in high school and everyone would be around. There were arguments there, arguments in class, arguments all the time, really. It changed everyone's whole view on things."

English: "A short time after [9/11], I really started traveling for AAU. We were playing in New York and New Jersey every weekend, and we'd fly to Las Vegas and Florida. … As I got older I learned that that racial profiling was really, really wrong, but it's natural for a kid. We believed whatever we saw on TV. … I remember I was with my 16-and-under team and an Arab guy got on, and we were looking at each other like, 'Yo, if he does something, we might have to' -- you know what I mean? When you get older, you realize that how incredibly wrong and disrespectful that is. But as a kid you believe what you see and what you hear."

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Meyers Leonard, a sophomore forward at Illinois, has a brother, Bailey, serving his second tour of duty for a Marine Corps motor transportation platoon. He is currently based at Camp Leatherneck in Washir District, Afghanistan. Leonard's father died when Meyers was 6. His brother Bailey was 8. He was in third grade in 2001.

Leonard: "It didn't have an immediate effect on me in 2001. But thanks to that day, my brother decided to join the Marine Corps. He's putting his life on the line due to that situation. …

"Bailey and my mom, we've always been tight-knit. My dad's passing when I was so young made us closer, and it's always been the three of us pretty much battling. We didn't have a lot of money. My brother unfortunately wasn't accepted by the sporting clique like I was when I was growing up, so he was always kind of looked down upon in school. And then after high school he decided he wanted to serve his country.

"Just recently he went on a 2½-week mission. I hadn't heard from him and he hadn't posted anything on Facebook, so I got really worried. But he eventually called me and let me know he was doing OK. It was a huge relief. Recently, he was on a patrol and the Humvee directly in front of his was struck by an IED. There were a few casualties. It could have been him. I just pray every day and hope that nothing happens to him.

"My brother and I have always been really close. When he left the first time, my high school team was in the state tournament. My brother would get newspaper clippings and all that, and he would say the guys would crowd around him and could see how proud he was."

Theodore: "It made me find God at a young age. My mother was really big on going to church and being able to talk to God for the strength to get through that time and be able to stay focused and keep working toward my goals."

Brown: "Basketball helped me. It was right around the time I first started playing basketball. It helped me make a lot of new friends. It kept my mind off things going on around us. After time, the only thing that mattered was basketball. That was the only thing we knew for sure we could control and that we could enjoy. Me and my friends basically used that as our escape from what was really going on in the world."

English: "In 2002, I was so happy Maryland won a national championship, and in 2003 so happy with what Carmelo did at Syracuse, we really spent most of our time talking about that at lunchtime. Once I hit high school, it became the subject of heated debates and how you feel about it. I just kind of stayed away from that whole argument. Basketball was an outlet."

Leonard: "Honestly, I try not to think about [my brother]. It scares me when I do think about him. His life is at risk every day. I try not to think about it, but there are certain days or certain time periods where I won't be able to talk to him and it's on my mind even more. Basketball is an escape from pressure. Whatever the pressure is. Whether it's homework or worrying or just needing to clear my mind, I'll go run and get some shots up and clear my mind and escape before going back to what I was doing before."

In May, after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, college students around the country flooded the streets of their campuses in celebration. Some questioned the display of happiness at another person's death. On National Public Radio's "This American Life," one Penn State student said the reasons for the celebration were less about drunken revelry or hateful revenge, but instead were borne from the long-term fear 9/11 instilled in an entire generation of children too young to process the event in real time.

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AP Photo/Andy ColwellOn the night Osama bin Laden was killed, massive crowds -- like the one gathered here at Penn State -- filled campuses all over the country.

Oliver: "I personally think he deserved worse than what he got. In general, I would hope that people around here weren't -- and I don't think they were -- celebrating killing somebody. I think they were celebrating a tangible goal reached for the reasons that we're over there and our troops and their lives have been on the line. It became a sign of progress. There was definitely a celebration here at Penn State, one of the biggest in the country, and I think it happened because it was a weight lifted off everyone's shoulders knowing he's not out there."

Smyth: "The initial thought was relief. It finally, finally happened. But at the same time while you have that relief, there's also the thought that there could be somebody else. It's always in the back of your mind after it happened. That's what was so difficult. But it was still a huge sigh of relief. I was proud for our country."

Theodore: "I didn't feel anything about Osama bin Laden being killed. I really feel like, as I've gotten more into God, you gotta forgive people. Of course what he did was wrong. … He went so long without being touched. And then, you started asking, 'Are we still looking for him? We're still at war, but his name is not even being brought up anymore.'"

English: "My old teammate, Zaire Taylor, his uncle was actually murdered in the WTC attack. He actually tweeted after Osama was killed, saying along the lines of, you know, Osama is dead, but that's still not going to bring my uncle back, so I won't be celebrating. I understand his perspective, and probably most of those kids at Penn State and on campus here probably didn't have anyone directly affected by those attacks. I understand them celebrating. And when you're at college, you do things just spur of the moment. I'm not hating on anyone for celebrating, but I wasn't going to celebrate myself."

Leonard: "After Osama was killed -- my brother was still in Afghanistan -- and I called my mom. She was bawling when she answered the phone. I said, 'Mom, what's wrong?' She was scared there was going to be retaliations. It's just scary in general. She's only got us two, pretty much, and she's done everything she possibly can to make our lives as easy as possible. It's just tough because I know she's scared."

Brutus: "I wasn't really happy when I heard about Osama bin Laden. It wasn't revenge to me. It was justice."

Brown: "After 9/11, we had seen what he could do. Hearing he was dead was just a sigh of relief. You live in fear until you're certain you'll be safe. But if you're not sure you're going to be safe, there's nothing you can really do about it."

Oliver: "It's affected me greatly. Every time you go to the city, it's hard to go. Living that close to the city, it's always around you. You'll drive to the city and know you're going out of the Lincoln Tunnel, and you get this nice beautiful view of the skyline of the city. And every time you look up and you don't see the towers, it's this painful scar."

Theodore: "It will never be in the past. It's something that has impacted everybody's life. Even when I'm walking downtown, I'm always looking at the sky to see if something's coming. The thought -- I mean, it's happened already. So the thought of it happening again is obviously possible."

McArthur: "One thing I picked up [at Ground Zero with Coach Keating] was how emotional it was, how much it meant to him. It could really happen to anybody. … It's had a huge effect on me. Just like, wow, I'm really really lucky to have this opportunity -- and it can be taken away at any time with something like that."

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AP Photo/Oded BaliltyFor children today, 9/11 is something for the history books. For those who were children 10 years ago, it's a memory that's all too real.

Smyth: "I think the first thing I would explain to my kids about 9/11 -- they'll understand that cherishing time is so important. It's so precious. You never know when anything can happen. … The most important thing was a lot of people understood to take each moment that they have -- whether it's with friends, family, on your own, anything -- and really cherish that moment and cherish the moments you have while you have them. I think everybody got closer."

Oliver: "As a kid, you hear all these stories about Flight 93 and the firefighters in New York going into the building to save people by risking their lives. There were so many acts of heroism, and that's something you really look up to as a kid. You can see that as a way that you want to live your life. That's the way you want to be regarded as by other people."

Brown: "I think it made a lot of people our age wake up to the reality of the world. It made people realize that everything is not OK, that we are going to go through turmoil at certain parts of our lives and that all you can do is try get through it together. People will always remember what happened that day. The best you can hope for is that those memories bring people closer. "

Leonard: "Normally I deal with [thoughts of my brother] in my own way. A lot of people know, but they tend not to ask.

"I remember when I was playing USA Basketball, we were at the hotel, and they wanted to show us something. We went upstairs to watch a video. It was about a soldier who had risked his own life, and now he's blind, and he had saved half of his men, seven or eight guys, saved their lives. It was a video of practice with the real USA team, LeBron and all those guys, and he had a headset and one of the players, like Dwyane Wade, would have a microphone on and be him telling him through the headset what was going on. Then the team went in and talked to him and listened to him speak. They listened to the commander speak.

"Then it just hit me. I honestly had to fight back tears. It could be my brother that something like that could happen to.

"These guys put their lives on the line for other people. But it made me appreciate the fact that everyone fights for their country in a different way."

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).