Standing Tall: Separating Fact From Fiction as Ex-Hoopster Outwitted OBL
In the aftermath of Navy SEAL team 6 dispatching Osama bin Laden to hell (equivalent status even if satisfying 72 virgins is what transpired), the White House unveiled a photograph of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet inside the Situation Room, watching the daring commando raid unfold on May 1, 2011.
POTUS (Occidential, Calif., JV player) apparently wasn't the tallest ex-college hoopster in the room. Standing just outside the frame of that famous pic was an anonymous Central Intelligence Agency officer ("CIA John") who tracked OBL as a dogmatic deputy chief and reportedly was also influential as one of the principal proponents of drone deterrence. Two days after OBL was transformed into marine treat when dumped into the North Arabian Sea, "CIA John" accompanied then CIA Director Leon Panetta to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Intelligence Committee received a full briefing on the mission.
As most Americans are aware, an athlete from a Midwest university recently became a wanted man for self-centered interviews as a big butt of jokes across the nation because of a fake relationship. Unless the government is perpetuating a hoax putting the travails of Lance and Manti to shame, our country should still be interviewing and celebrating a selfless athlete from a Midwest university for kicking the butt of the world's most-wanted man but can't honor him because America's biggest hero might be underground with a fake identification.
According to AP accounts at the time, the meticulous senior intelligence analyst was the first individual to put in writing that a legitimate CIA lead had been assembled on possibly locating OBL. He spearheaded the collection of clues for nearly 10 years, leading the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and its epic counterterrorism success. Our freedom-loving nation is eternally grateful that his accuracy as a deep-cover agent in pinpointing OBL's whereabouts stood in stark contrast to his free-throw marksmanship as a deep-bench player (barely over 30%) for multiple NCAA playoff teams.
A riveting film "Zero Dark Thirty" is atop the U.S. box office. The inspiring movie focuses on a young female CIA operative, allegedly also from flyover country, showing her tenacity, dedication and courage in primarily monitoring a vital courier for al-Qaeda's upper brass. According to Esquire, the shooter who killed OBL gave the magazine out of his gun as a souvenir to bloodhound "Maya." While the film doesn't do justice to the male super spy, the patriot is likely to defer anyway to the concept "there is no 'I' in team." Naturally, Langley issues a perfunctory "no comment" because concern exists about publishing his name and running biographical details that might make him a target for retribution.
Over the decades, there have been other notable "Secret Agent Men" in the CIA who were former college hoopsters. In fact, a Final Four player isn't required to hit a decisive basket or be selected Most Outstanding Player to be a hero. He doesn't even need to participate on the court. Bob Ames, a member of the Tom Gola-led La Salle teams in 1954 (national champion) and 1955 (runner-up to San Francisco), never got off the bench at the Final Four those two years although he was the only La Salle player to hit more than three-fourths of his free throws the season the Explorers won the NCAA title.
"Our coach, Ken Loeffler, only used seven guys, and Bob was the eighth man," said Frank Blatcher, a starter for the Explorers each season and their leading scorer with a total of 42 points at the Final Four on the championship team. "He had the talent. He just never got a chance to show it."
Ames, a pre-law major who scored a total of eight points in three NCAA playoff games in 1955, did have an opportunity to show his ability in another more vital endeavor, however. He joined the CIA and worked his way up the chain of command to become the Director of the CIA's Office of Analysis of the Near East and South Asia. "The Spy Who Loved Basketball" worked closely with both the Carter and Reagan administrations.
Regrettably, Ames was killed in Beirut in 1983. A truck loaded with TNT on a suicide mission rammed into the facility where Ames was staying while serving as a liaison trying to allay contacts among the Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis in hopes of calming the escalating discord.
"Here was a guy that turned out to have had a greater influence on our lives than just about any 1,000 other basketball players you can name," Blatcher said. "It just shows you that you don't have to be a star to accomplish something." Something like becoming a genuine American hero.
Elsewhere, the CIA's deputy director under George Bush in 1976 was Hank Knoche, the leading scorer in the Mountain States (Big Seven) Conference with 16.4 points per game for Colorado's 1946 NCAA Tournament team. Knoche, the father of former American University coach Chris Knoche, reputedly was the first player selected in the NBA's first college draft in 1947 after enrolling at Washington and Jefferson (Pa.) to play on a 16-4 team with two of his brothers. But he never appeared in the then-fledgling league, which doesn't have any official draft records prior to 1949. The franchise that selected him, the Pittsburgh Ironmen, folded shortly after the draft, and his rights reverted to the New York Knicks.
"I didn't know I was the first No. 1 pick until a writer from Atlanta called me for a story," Knoche said. "An NBA historian had informed him of my alleged status."
The elder Knoche, who went to live in the Denver area, chose not to play in an uncertain situation for little money. "I never received any contact from the Ironmen," he said. "The Knicks sent a contract offer in the mail, but it was for just $3,500 and that's if I made the team (many NBA standouts earn five times that amount every quarter).
"I chose to play industrial basketball, where I remember playing six times one year against seven-footer Bob Kurland (Oklahoma State three-time first-team All-American who never played in the NBA). That wasn't much fun going against Kurland because I was just a 6-4 center."
Knoche was recalled to the military during the Korean War, where he was assigned to intelligence work for the Navy and later embarked on a civilian career leading to a job with the CIA.
In the shadowy world of the CIA, no precise clues exist as to whether a basketball background for "CIA John" contributed to helping POTUS develop a comfort-zone bond with him like other ex-college hoopsters in his inner circle - Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Harvard), Attorney General Eric Holder (Yale), former "body man" Reggie Love (Duke) and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen (Navy). But it isn't ridiculous to suggest there might not have been a second inauguration for President Obama if he didn't trust "CIA John."
A vital hurdle approving the raid came when the SEAL Squadron leader briefed Mullen on merits of the mission. According to Esquire, Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of Joint Special Ops Command, compared the raid and its fighters to the basketball movie Hoosiers in a final briefing with the participants.
A pithy precept occasionally surfaces in basketball trash talking that "some talk a good game and some play a good game." Depending upon your point of view, Time's Person of the Year in 2011 and/or 2012 should have been "CIA John." Surely, Time managing editor Rick Stengel, a backup for Pete Carril-coached Princeton in the mid-1970s, would have encouraged his colleagues to give "CIA John" special consideration after the White House acknowledged him and his colleagues as "unbelievably competent professionals."
Deserved or not, other individuals may get the bulk of the glory. When, if ever, will our nation get the opportunity to pay homage to our latest authentic hoop hero? Heaven only knows that we need one these days. But at the moment, it will simply be "The Greatest Hoop Story Never Told."