Cameron Indoor Stadium - I spent last Saturday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Cameron, as most of you know, is the home arena for the Duke Blue Devils, the top-ranked college basketball team in the country, but on this Saturday Duke’s basketball team was no where to be found.

My reason for going to Cameron was not to see the Blue Devils, but instead to see their opponent for Sunday’s Veterans’ Day special contest, the Army Cadets.

The coach of the Cadets is an old friend in the coaching business, Jimmy Allen. I met Jimmy back in 2004 when he came to Danville to become head coach at Averett University, an inevitable task that most would not have tackled. The Cougars had lost 32 consecutive games when Jimmy arrived, but by the time he left in 2010, he had led Averett to a record of 97-70, three conference USA South championships and NCAA Division III tournament appearances.

Jimmy coached a couple of my players from Tunstall and I worked some basketball camps with him and I always found myself jotting down notes of drills he was running. His knowledge of the game was off the charts and he constantly was pushing his kids to the brink, allowing them to be everything they could be.

When Allen was named the head coach at Army in 2016, he gave props to Averett, noting the difficulties associated with recruiting at the Division III level compared favorably with those experienced at the service academies.

“Averett was an incredible experience,” said Allen. “It was as great place, a special place that means a lot to me.”

Averett gave Allen his first opportunity to be a head coach and that experience played a major role in landing the top sport at West Point. He had left Averett to become a member of Zach Spiker’s coaching staff, but when Spiker left in 2016, it gave Allen an opportunity to step into the top role.

“My time at Averett was a huge benefit to me,” said Allen. “Because of my time there and the success we had when I was head coach, I think it made it easier to look at me as potential replacement when Zach left.”

When Allen was named the head coach at Army in 2016, he gave props to Averett, noting the difficulties associated with recruiting at the Division III level compared favorably with those experienced at the service academies.

“West Point is not for everybody, but I feel really good about the young men who choose us over other places,” said Allen. “I feel like we have a lot to sell. Our kids have a great opportunity as a graduate of West Point.”

Allen said basketball has brought many of his players to the academy. “I don’t think many of our guys would have been looking at West Point as a potential college choice if it hadn’t been for basketball. Athletics at West Point are a big deal because it helps to teach leadership lessons and the drive to be competitive and that’s what the Army is all about.”

The Cadets were certainly competitive on Sunday as they did their brethren proud in battling the Blue Devils. Bookmakers had made Army a 40-point underdog entering the game, based primarily on Duke’s dismantling of Kentucky on Tuesday night, but as expected, Army battled the Blue Devils every step of the way and were within striking distance through the first 30 minutes of game action before Duke pulled away.

The way in which Army played the game did not go unnoticed by veteran Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Army played terrific,” said Krzyzewski. “The played hard, they played fast and they played together. I hope they play that way all the time when they play in their league. Congratulations to Army.”

Krzyzewski and Allen both acknowledged that schools tried to make the game happen last year, but Allen said they had another game scheduled and were unable to do it. Fortunately, the game could be played this year, and on Veterans Day.

“It was a showcase game for us and for them,” added Coach K, a West Point graduate and former coach of the Cadets. “The United State Military Academy is a part of me big time and to see them play hard and well here at Duke is very special.”

During Saturday’s interview, Allen talked about the game and Krzyzewski’s place in West Point basketball lore. “The game made perfect sense,” said Allen. “Coach K is the most famous alum of the Academy from a basketball perspective and for Army to play on Coach K court on Veterans Day is a special game. Coach K has been very good to me and very supportive of our program.”

Krzyzewski didn’t allow the celebration of the game to overshadow the young men playing now at West Point. “You know, two years from now, a lot of those kids could be anywhere in the world,” Coach K said. “Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world. It was great honor for us to have them here.

As the Cadets practice wound down Saturday afternoon, like all players everywhere, they showed off their dunking skills or in some cases attempted to, and they fired up shots from half-court until Coach Allen blew the whistle and said it was time to go. Before leaving, coaches and players alike gathered at midcourt for a few photos to remember their time at Duke.

For a brief moment, they were just kids again, enjoying a game they love in a very special place.

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