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This NBA ref, who knows the combination to the hurt locker, helps Iraq veterans cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

In the dangerous desert sands of northern Iraq, an NBA referee arrived in July on a mission that had nothing to do with officiating. But it did involve helping soldiers make the right calls for themselves — and keep order in their lives while immersed in the most difficult of circumstances.

 For veteran NBA crew chief Bob Delaney, 10 days of living with U.S. troops on the front lines of battle — offering them comfort and counsel about the hazards of post traumatic stress disorder — was the latest step in a journey that began more than 30 years ago by the shadowy docks of northern Jersey.

That is where Delaney was known as Bobby Covert, a young undercover agent for the New Jersey State Police who lived in the constant presence of the Genovese and Bruno crime families.

The experience was life-changing at a fundamental level. But in its own way, so was the most recent one, supporting soldiers fighting a ruthless enemy on the outside — and teaching them to cope better with the demons that can arise within.

Many of them don't understand or wish to acknowledge that enemy, one veiled in whispers and a stigma of shame. PTSD has risen to crisis levels in the military, with scores of American troops committing suicide each year, and more than a third of returning vets reporting mental health problems from the immense pressures of combat.

Delaney knows a little bit about facing pressure.

And, at his core, he knows the heavy toll it can take.

"To see what those soldiers are sacrificing day in and day out was truly inspiring," said Delaney, 57, back home in Manatee County. "And yet, they may not know what's happening inside from the stress they're constantly experiencing.

"That's where I tried to be of some help."

• • •

He lived in the darkness for nearly three years, the distance between survival and certain death as thin as the wire he wore amid the mob. In the process, he learned that the margin between personal equilibrium and psychological torment could be just as narrow.

When Delaney surfaced from his grueling operation infiltrating the Mafia, there was no support system to help him sort through the conflicting emotions that roiled inside him.

The year was 1977 and his superiors at the New Jersey State Police, for whom he had been the anchor of a landmark mob investigation, didn't recognize that the then 26-year-old trooper needed help. Delaney himself didn't realize it, as he slid into a tailspin of anger, anxiety and depression.

Through a chance meeting with a former psychology professor, and informal therapy sessions that followed, Delaney learned that he was in the throes of PTSD.

Getting help — bringing his feelings out into the open — gradually allowed Delaney to retake control of his world and ultimately put him on new a path. In spite of the potential risks from his undercover life, he found a renewed sense of peace and balance in the spotlight as a basketball ref. He is regarded as one of the league's elite referees and this season will mark his 23rd year in the NBA.

But Delaney — whose story was told in a two-part Times series in 2006 and subsequently in a 2008 book that I co-wrote with him entitled Covert — has never forgotten what it was like to be locked each day in a life-and-death pressure cooker. And he has never forgotten how others reached out to help him understand his inner turmoil.

When he's not running the hardwood, he speaks several times a year before law enforcement officers from the United States, Canada and Europe about the psychological pitfalls of the job. In April, following the shooting deaths of four Oakland police officers on March 21, he was invited by Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan to share his story and insights with the entire police force.

"One of the big benefits of having Bob here was that people on the force were opening up to him in a way they wouldn't open up to other professionals, because they felt the connection to him," Jordan said. "We had Bob out the year before, and he had done a couple of days of team building and leadership exercises. So when the incident happened, he called me the next day and offered to help. It was easy for me to accept that offer.

"Bob reached a lot of young officers who would not normally open up about personal feelings. So I value his input and insights immensely."

• • •

One month ago, Delaney reached out again.

He joined San Francisco-based sports broadcaster Ron Barr and his "Sports Byline on the Front Line in '09" tour, coordinated by AKA Productions of Los Angeles, ready to turn his attention to thousands of soldiers stationed at U.S. bases in Iraq.

His visit came against a backdrop of an alarming trend in deployed personnel. A CNN report indicated that at least 133 active-duty soldiers and activated National Guard and Reserves committed suicide in 2008, compared to at least 118 in 2007.

In addition, a new study analyzing data from the Department of Veterans Affairs finds that some 37 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing mental health problems, a 50 percent increase from the past study concluded in 2005. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, also reported that 22 percent experienced PTSD and 17 percent depression.

In the week before he got there, Delaney experienced an emotional upheaval — a microcosm of his life that included a time-capsule trip to the mob past he thought he had long since left behind.

His surreal voyage began July 2 with a high moment, when Delaney met in Los Angeles with Hollywood director and screenwriter Ron Shelton (who penned and directed Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup), beginning work on a movie version of Covert for Appledown Films/Scott-Burns Productions.

Three days later, he was on a jet from Tampa to Newark courtesy of the federal government, preparing to give testimony in an FBI investigation against Michael "Mikey Cigars" Coppola, a central figure in Delaney's Project Alpha investigation of the Mafia in the mid 1970s. On July 6, he took the witness stand to bolster the case against Coppola, on trial for racketeering and the 1977 murder of a mobster named Johnny "Coca Cola" Lardiere. (Two weeks later, Coppola was convicted of racketeering but not of the murder charge.)

Minutes after testifying, Delaney was escorted by New Jersey state troopers out of the Brooklyn courtroom and the next day was in Glynco, Ga., talking about his undercover experiences with agents at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

Then, on July 10, Delaney boarded a flight to New York for the first leg of his trip to Iraq, taking him deep into the heart of a war zone — and the issue that has become his guiding message in life.

"I told Bob, 'You are a great American' — it's so refreshing, because he relates to the soldiers so well, it's like a championship coach relating to his players," said Brig. Gen. Bob Brown, deputy commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, speaking by phone from his base in Mosul.

"He just gets it. And the soldiers were mesmerized. They listened and they learned a ton."

Delaney delivered his powerful message, Brown said, without being heavy-handed. "He had his whistle on and demonstrated a few calls, and that led into a great conversation about his book and some neat vignettes, and then he got to the most important thing — about getting help," Brown recalled.

"He talked about what he faced — wearing the wires, meeting with the bad guys and later driving down the road and having to throw up. It's the same emotional thing the soldiers go through. This is a tough profession, and you're going to experience fear, and you have to talk about it."

Brown was a basketball star for Army under coach Mike Krzyzewski, winner of three national titles at Duke. And last summer, "Coach K" invited the general to address the U.S. Men's Olympic basketball team before its march to the gold medal in Beijing. Now, Brown has similar plans for Delaney with U.S. troops.

"I want to bring him out to speak with as many soldiers as possible," he said. "I think he'll be very effective for guys who have issues coming home. And this young generation, they think of suicide so quickly. I think Bob would really be able to help them. He related to the soldiers better than any visitor I've seen in my 28 years in the military."

In fact, Brown says he plans to recommend Delaney to other officers at Army bases around the world.

"If he's got the time," Brown added, "we're going to keep him busy."

Dave Scheiber can be reached at

Read Bob Delaney's journal of his personal journey to Iraq.

This NBA ref, who knows the combination to the hurt locker, helps Iraq veterans cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 08/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 9, 2009 8:14pm]
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