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War changed Jordan coach's life

Vietnam brought end to promising career as a pro

OGDEN — Hal Hale never intended to be restricted to the sidelines of a big game.

He loves basketball enough to make it his life's work, but he envisioned himself starring in professional basketball games, not shouting instructions to high school players.

He was on his way to living his dream when a letter from the U.S. government changed the course of his life.

The year was 1968. Hale was a 22-year-old Utah State University graduate and a starter for the ABA's Houston Mavericks. He'd just received a $2,000 bonus to add to his $10,000 salary. Life was good.

Then came the letter.

"I was drafted," he said. "Things were so hot and heavy at the time that the Reserves were closed in Texas to out-of-staters. So I came back to Utah and tried to get in the Reserves. I couldn't get in anything, so I ended up being drafted into the Army.

"I didn't want to go, but I felt like it was the right thing to do," Hale said.

He had one more chance to avoid combat in Vietnam. His college coach, Ladell Andersen, thought he could get him a spot on the U.S. Army basketball team that was traveling in Europe, playing foreign teams.

But the Army said Hale was ineligible because he'd played professional ball; so instead of earning thousands of dollars playing basketball, he found himself in the middle of a conflict and a country he understood very little about.

It's a situation that has parallels today.

Hale is now coach of Jordan High School boys basketball team, which earned an improbable berth in Saturday's 5A state championship game by upsetting Bingham Friday night. But the Beetdiggers didn't have enough magic to win the title, losing Saturday to an Alta team that also knows something about about how war changes plans.

The Hawks beat Jordan 65-53 without their coach, Tony Cannon, a reservist who was called up to active duty about two months ago.

Assistant coach Dave Pimm has taken over and has kept Cannon apprised of the championship run. The crowd chanted Cannon's name as Alta closed in on the championship, and the players talked to him on a cell phone after the trophy ceremony.

"It's killing him," Pimm said of Cannon. "He's been in Fort Carson, Colo., for six weeks, and he's very concerned about these boys. I'm trying to do everything the way Tony would, but he was the defensive guy, and I'm more the offensive guy."

The Alta squad likely did not realize as the teams faced each other Saturday that Hale understands both Cannon's pride in serving his country and his longing for home and the hardwood.

Hal Hale admits he rarely talks about his 13 months and 18 days in Vietnam. Once in a while he'll help out a student with a history assignment, but he shies away from anything too vivid when recounting his time as a soldier.

"They ask me which war I fought in," he says, grinning, "and I say the Civil War."

The reality is that the self-effacing health teacher earned a purple heart and a bronze star, awarded for bravery, while saving the lives of other soldiers. He did this while earning $97 per month as a medic for the 101st Airborne Division. Once he went into combat, he got an extra $50.

"There were four of us who had graduated from college, and they put all of us in advanced medical training," he said. "They were going to have me be a teacher for the medic program, but then they sent me (to Vietnam)."

Disappointed but not discouraged, he bolstered himself with patriotic pride.

"I thought, 'OK then, I'll go fight for my country,' " he said. Hale never questioned his purpose until he saw enemy casualties for the first time.

"When I saw so many dead bodies, I wondered a little, 'What are these guys fighting for? I'm fighting for the right cause.' That was the first time I questioned, 'What the heck am I doing over here?' "

Then he met some South Vietnamese people who could speak English.

"They were so appreciative," he said. "Then I started feeling a little better."

Hale said he never stopped to mourn his fallen friends until the war ended because he was too busy trying to keep himself and others alive. Instead of being scared or worrying about whether he'd be able to resume his basketball career, he found himself running through battlefields to heal and comfort other soldiers. He was in an area that was under such heavy fire there was rarely any reprieve from the fighting.

"I felt a little bit like I was invincible," he said. "Jets were coming in and bombing the mountains around us, and I was running around with my aide bag. . . . I was so alert, I hardly ever slept."

He set up a makeshift hospital in the Vietnam wilderness and even extended his tour of duty when he was promised he could go to safer territory and work in hospitals with doctors. He ended up staying on the front lines until two days before getting sent home.

"It turned out they just had problems getting replacements on the front," he said, with a smile and shrug.

War took more than time from Hale: He was never able to return to his planned profession, playing basketball. He took a shrapnel hit in the wrist, and then he was afflicted with a lung disease that, to this day, baffles doctors. He had sores all over his lungs for more than a year and a half, and medication did little to help.

"After a while, my body just fought it off," he said. "I went home and they asked me to take the coaching job here at Jordan. I used the G.I. Bill and got my master's at Utah State instead."

A job at the university fell through, however, and he was asked again if he'd like to coach at Jordan, where he'd attended his first two years of high school.

"I didn't really know if I wanted to coach," he said. "But I didn't really have anything going on."

He accepted, "and now 31 years later, here I am."

Hale was coaching a Jordan team that made the championship game despite injuries to his team, including a sprained ankle to one of his starting guards in Friday's semifinals. He's been to the state tournament in 27 of his 29 years as coach. In 1984, his Jordan team won the title.

"I feel good about our accomplishments this year," Hale said of the second-place finish. "Win or lose, we've been through a lot of hardship and adversity. We've worked hard, and here were are. This is what it's all about."

Because he rarely talks about his service, it stays in the back of his mind. But lately he's thought about it more as the U.S. contemplates war with Iraq and he looks at the teenage boys he teaches.

"I worry about that all the time," he said. "I'm all for fighting if it's a necessity. I hope that's going to be the last resort because I know the devastating effects it has not just on those killed but on the families left behind, and the turmoil it creates in the country."

As for the pro basketball career that didn't happen, Hale has experienced moments of regret and times when he's wondered what might have been. But overall, he feels good about his life's accomplishments.

"It was frustrating," he said, "but at least I had the opportunity to play that one year. I really had a good time, and I was looking forward to coming back and going on. . . . Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I don't know if you can ever reconcile some of those things."


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com