Back in 2003, Bianca Campbell was a U.S. Army Specialist deployed in Saudi Arabia, exchanging letters with a 10-year-old from Akron, Ohio. The youngster complained about a sister and brother who annoyed him all the time, asked where Saddam Hussein was, and wondered whether the U.S. soldier was any good at basketball, because “my dad played in the N.B.A.”
This past summer, Campbell reached out to her old pen pal — who since grew up to be Los Angeles Lakers power forward Larry Nance Jr. — to remind him of their correspondence and tell him she was happy that his dreams of playing in the NBA had come true.
— Bianca aka Mz.BdotZ (@yonkbz) July 21, 2017
Nance couldn’t believe his old pen pal was touching base, and said he hoped they could connect face-to-face this season:
WOW! That's awesome! So cool you kept these… Please by my guest to a game this year. I would love to meet you! https://t.co/2asN2o4ZhX
— Larry Nance Jr (@Larrydn22) July 23, 2017
On Wednesday, they did.
— NBA (@NBA) November 16, 2017
As part of its “Salute to Our Troops” partnership with the Lakers, Delta flew Campbell and her family out to Los Angeles to meet Nance. During a stoppage in play in the Lakers’ Wednesday matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, Campbell took center court at Staples Center, where she was joined by Nance, who’s sidelined by a broken bone in his left hand but was able to come out and give her a customized Lakers jersey with her name on it as part of the NBA’s annual Hoops for Troops promotion.
To hear Campbell tell it, the letters from the 10-year-old Nance couldn’t have come at a more critical time during her deployment. From Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:
Eskan Village lies 12 miles southeast of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. military compound primarily houses the 64th Air Expeditionary Group and morphs U.S. teenagers into soldiers. Spence McNeil was one of those young men. He joined a tour that arrived in Saudi Arabia one month before Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, although his service was short lived. While McNeil rode in the backseat of an SUV one morning, a collision with another vehicle in the village flipped the truck into the desert air. The wreck left McNeil comatose. His family ultimately flew halfway around the world to pull the plug on their 19-year-old boy’s life support.
It was Bianca Campbell’s 20th birthday when he passed. Just weeks into her tour, a close friend and comrade was gone. “That was the reality at the time,” she says. “It was all fun and games just a little bit ago. We were all in school and training and… things happen fast.” Roughly a week later, after the tears had dried, a letter arrived. By fate, Campbell, a Lakers fan—“Back then, who didn’t love Kobe?”—opened a note from a particular third grader at Bath Elementary school in Akron, Ohio. […]
“That came at an amazing time,” Campbell says. “It was definitely a time where, the uncertainty, we just needed something to connect you to back home and keep you going.”
And now, 14 years later, they were able to put faces to the names and the words they shared a lifetime ago.
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