By Eva Bergmann (USAG Schweinfurt)February 17, 2011
SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- By day Sgt. 1st Class Jermaine Grandison, Staff Sgt. Brett Thomas and Sgt. Anthony Bynum are attached to the 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion here, but once retreat plays, they take off their greens and don superhero outfits - their basketball jerseys.
The noncommissioned officers play for "The Gunnerz," the DJK Schweinfurt basketball team who play in the German 2nd regional league. Currently in second place, they're within striking distance of the league title and coach Klaus Ludwig credits the USAG Schweinfurt Soldiers as an important pillar of the team's success.
"We were very lucky to have our American boys," Ludwig said. But he's also aware of difficulties. "It's not always easy to plan with Soldiers. They have other obligations, are sometimes absent on a short notice, but without them we wouldn't be where we are now, in second place, which is completely sensational."
The sensation is all the more impressive considering the league structure. German sports leagues are organized in a hierarchy. The best teams qualify for advancing to the next league. Teams with the lowest points descend to a lower league. Winning is not a matter of success but of survival.
For the Gunnerz, who advanced to their current league in 2008, and who have never played higher, ranking second place could mean a ticket to the top. Coach Ludwig, speaking in his native German, said that the individual strengths of his American players make the whole team "baerenstark," meaning as strong as a bear.
Bynum stands out particularly. His reliable scoring and ability to produce unexpected and spectacular baskets has brought him the respect and attention of the fans as well as of the media. Ludwig goes as far as comparing his finesse with the Dallas Mavericks' Jason Terry.
"Anthony is of course our high scorer," Ludwig explained. Bynum regularly racks up more than 20 points. "He's very skilled, plays incredibly fast and clever. It might not always be by the book, but it's a joy to watch him."
Asked about his achievements and the growing attention of the local press toward his performance, Bynum modestly states that his teammates are crucial for his success.
Thomas is another of the triumvirate of Americans on the team. Being able to train and play with DJK Schweinfurt helps Thomas to stay in shape and to keep up his dream to play top-level basketball in a professional environment.
"Basketball means a lot to me," said Thomas with a smile. "I played growing up already and it was the reason I joined the Army. I played in the All-Army team and the All-Armed-Forces team in 2004, 2008 and 2009."
"Brett is very tall with a tremendous vertical leap and he's very strong," Ludwig said of Thomas. "He knows a lot about the game. You can tell he's an experienced player and he's also the one that always seems to have the most fun on the court."
Also playing since his childhood days, Sgt. 1st Class Grandison brings great experience and manifold skills to the court. Even though a professional basketball career was never his primary goal, Ludwig knows that Grandison's wisdom and attitude makes him a cornerstone of the team.
"Jermaine is a very smart player," Ludwig said. "He has an excellent jump shot even from a distance. His calmness helps the rest of the team to stay focused even under pressure and he's just an awesome player to have, for the team as well as for the coach."
The appreciation is mutual and Grandison values the exceptional opportunity he's been given.
"Being from the states, it's not too often that you get to experience the European way of playing basketball," Grandison explained with excitement. "It's totally different and it's good to learn about it. I have a lot of fun doing it and the relationships that we build with the rest of the team are great."
Basketball, like any sport naturally relieves stress, but for Grandison, whose family lives in the states, it's also a helpful remedy when he feels homesick.
Being as basketball crazy as these noncommissioned officers are, it's no surprise that they don't only limit their "services" to the DJK team, but also play in their unit's intramural team as well as the Schweinfurt community team.
While they all love the sport, these Soldiers also show great discipline and dedication to their teams. Practices, weight and endurance trainings and games, which are also played on weekends, add up to 18 hours per week, and this does not include their regular unit Physical Training sessions.
Combined with long traveling distances for the games, the participation in the German team comes out to be the most time-intensive, but efforts are made on both sides. Communication within the team was switched to English and the American players are actively integrated with the German players.
"It really doesn't matter if they are German or American," stressed Ludwig. "We are all one team. And when they're on the court there's no difference. They aren't Germans or Americans, they are all Schweinfurters."