By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Angela WalzFebruary 18, 2009
WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2009 - Arizona Army and Air National Guardsmen were honored for their combat service Feb. 15 with an opportunity to score against National Basketball Association greats Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson during the 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend here.
But this competition didn't take place on a basketball court. Instead, the troops vied for a chance to play the pros one-on-one via an Xbox Live video-gaming system.
Spc. Aaron Patten, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, climbed his way to the top of the brackets in the EA sports NBA Live 09 game to play against O'Neal, a Phoenix Suns all-star, in the finals.
Staff Sgt. Steven Barrett took second place and played against David Robinson, former star of the San Antonio Spurs, who is among this year's finalists for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
O'Neal and Robinson signed autographs, posed for photos and shook hands with the troops. Robinson also played a wounded warrior recovering from his injuries in Iraq live via satellite.
O'Neal played deployed Air Force Master Sgt. Anthony James and his family live via satellite, as well. O'Neal hoisted Trey James, the sergeant's son, up to the Web camera for a surprise appearance and conversation with his dad.
The father and son have been separated for two years due to James' deployment in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Greg and Addie Zinone, co-founders of "Pro vs. GI Joe," came up with the concept of matching professional athletes with returning and deployed troops.
Addie, who twice deployed with the Army Reserve, realized first-hand the importance of maintaining morale for deployed troops.
"So many of them are gamers on their down time anyway," she said. "We were able to team up with the USO to enable deployed troops to play against celebrities who are stateside."
"This was definitely a morale booster," Patten said. "These athletes have a lot of time to do so many other things, and taking time out to play with us is so cool."
Although Robinson competed against the troops, he also took time to honor the Guardsmen who are still deployed overseas: "Hang in there," he said. "We really appreciate what you're doing. It means a lot to us, and it doesn't go unnoticed. When you come back, we'll give you a hero's welcome."
Robinson is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Navy veteran. O'Neal's father is an Army veteran. O'Neal was named co-Most Valuable Player at the all-star game later in the evening.
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Angela Walz serves in the Arizona National Guard.)