Athletes try to keep focus on the games as war rages

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Montreal hockey fans voiced their displeasure over the war in Iraq by booing the U.S. national anthem, while many athletes and coaches said the military action made their pursuits seem almost trivial by comparison.

Before the New York Islanders played the Canadiens on Thursday night, the crowd was asked to "show your support and respect for two great nations" before the anthems. But a significant portion of the crowd booed throughout "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"I came to the game pretty pumped up, but once I heard that it really got me going," said Islanders forward Mark Parrish, from Bloomington, Minn. "So I guess I can thank them a little bit for getting me more pumped up."

For the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament Thursday, large decals of red, white and blue ribbons were put on the courts. Moments of silence were held at various venues, and spectators tried to get updates on the war during breaks in play.

"A lot of people sometimes compare playing out on the basketball court to a war. Then you suddenly realize it's a bad comparison," Manhattan's Justin Jackette said as his team prepared to face Syracuse on Friday in Boston.

"There are some kids overseas who are younger than us. It's not a game over there. They are risking their lives to protect our freedom."

Pittsburgh forward Donatas Zavackas didn't need a reminder. The 22-year-old senior from Lithuania said he remembers being 11 and watching footage of unarmed countrymen trying to defend a television transmitter from tanks when Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

He said he initially thought the tournament should be canceled because of the war. After hearing that members of the military were filling out brackets and following the tournament from overseas, though, he changed his mind.

"I didn't feel right to be playing and the same time a war is going on," he said. "I didn't think anybody should be having fun while they're fighting."

Many athletes saw the games differently, saying they can inspire the troops in the Middle East. After leading Marquette to a first-round victory, guard Travis Diener said he hoped word of the win gives a boost to his cousin, Army Lt. Derek Diener, who's serving as an officer in a Patriot missile unit in Iraq.

"Hopefully for a moment I can give him that pleasure, saying my cousin did this, they won and they're moving on," said Diener, who scored a career-high 29 points in Marquette's win over Holy Cross in Indianapolis. "So I dedicated this victory to him."

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton expressed hope that games might provide a welcome distraction from the tense developments.

"It's weird, but we're giving fans and people around the world a source of entertainment," Hamilton said before the Pistons' victory over Philadelphia in Detroit. "If we can take people's minds off of the very important things going on for a couple of hours, I think that helps everybody."

As Tiger Woods approached the 18th green in the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Fla., a young girl ran out to the fairway and handed him a small U.S. flag. In previous years, the girl has given Woods flowers. "She's just a little sweetheart," Woods said.

Security was stepped up at venues around the country, and fans were learning to cope with lines and extra screenings.

"I feel safe," said Todd Martin, competing in the Nasdaq-100 tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla. "I feel like our country has done what they have been able to prepare for whatever might come next -- if anything does come next on our soil."

The D.C. Marathon, scheduled for today in Washington, was canceled because of the war and security concerns, and Japan's soccer team called off two exhibition games in the United States.

However, Japan's top female figure skaters, Yoshie Onda and Fumie Suguri, left Friday for the World Figure Skating Championships next week in Washington, D.C.

"There is no way I'm going to let the war stop me from competing," Onda said.

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