SAN ANTONIO – Army Staff Sgt. Ronald Bartley credits military basketball for making him a soldier for life.
The Army's "Soldier for Life" campaign is designed to ensure that soldiers start strong, serve strong and reintegrate strong so they remain "Army Strong" when they leave service or retire and return to their communities.
Bartley already has run youth basketball camps in Colorado Springs while stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, and said he intends to coach throughout the remainder of his military career and beyond.
As a 38-year-old All-Army starting point guard competing with and against some of America's best military basketball players, Bartley has more than met the Army's vision of a balanced, healthy, self-confident soldier whose resilience and total fitness enable him to excel in an era of high operational tempo and persistent conflict.
Contributing to a Championship
As the oldest player on the team, he helped the All-Army men strike silver at the 2014 Armed Forces Basketball Championships in November at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. He led All-Army with 17 points in a 103-88 victory over eventual gold medalist All-Air Force, on Nov. 11. Two days earlier, Bartley tallied 11 points to help All-Army to an 84-71 victory over bronze medalist All-Navy.
In 2004, Bartley helped All-Army win the Armed Forces Championship at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. He returned for the 2005 tournament at Camp Pendleton, but was deployed to Camp Liberty in Iraq throughout 2006 and 2007. He rejoined the All-Army squad for the 2008 Armed Forces Championships at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where he was named to the All-Armed Forces team.
Bartley returned for the 2009 tourney at Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee, and he helped All-Army secure silver at the 2010 Armed Forces Championship, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. He missed the 2011 tournament while stationed in South Korea, but was back on the court for the black and gold at the 2012 Armed Forces Championships at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, where All-Army failed to reach the title tilt. He announced his retirement as a player that day.
Retirement Announcement That Didn’t Stick
"This is it for me," Bartley said following a 73-67 loss to All-Air Force, which knocked All-Army out of medal contention. "This is my last year. I'm going to try to get into the coaching ranks. I'm going to give my spot to the young guys."
Bartley was 36 then, already an aging player clinging to a young man's game. He sensed that it was time to start giving back. The furthest thing from his mind was another comeback. He did not, however, have it in his heart to walk away. The 2013 Armed Forces Championships were cancelled because of sequestration, but the annual tradition resumed in 2014.
When Bartley, at Fort Gordon, Georgia, learned that longtime basketball friend Army Capt. Carl Little of Fort Benning, Georgia, was named head coach of the All-Army team, he was determined to take one more shot at his elusive second Armed Forces gold medal.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Bartley played for Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. After two years at Allegheny Community College, he transferred to NCAA Division II Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he played two seasons. He left school without his degree to play two years professionally in Lisbon for Portugal Telecom in the Portugal B League.
After getting cut, he joined the Army in 2003. Had he not discovered All-Army and Armed Forces basketball, Bartley said, he would no longer be in the military.
"Oh, no," Bartley said. "I wouldn't have been aiming for 20 [years of service]. I would have done my four, finished getting my degree, and got out. But because of the basketball, it has allowed me to stay in."
Beyond the Armed Forces Championships, Bartley has represented the Army on Conseil International du Sport Militaire, or CISM, squads at the annual Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe tournament, and in other international military tournaments. He helped Team USA win the 2008 CISM Basketball Championship at Lackland.
"The whole experience, I would never change it for the world, anything,” he said. “It's been great."
Basketball Contributed to Army Career Decision
Along the way, Bartley said, he realized how to better move about the Army system and to better live military life.
"You're networking," he explained. "You're meeting people in higher ranks, and they're giving you insight on different things, military experience and things that help, so definitely, basketball has made me decide to go ahead and do my 20 years."
Bartley and Little played together in the Hampton Roads Pro-Am League, and later waged on-court battles in South Korea while Bartley was stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan and Little, then with the Air Force, was at Osan Air Base. When Bartley was playing for Shaw University, Little was playing in the same conference for Virginia State University.
"Once Ron heard I had received the [All-Army] head coaching job, he said he wanted to give it one more run," Little said. "I told him what I expected of him. I told him, 'I don't expect you to carry the load. I'm going to bring weapons around you so you don't have to do as much. Just bring that veteran leadership.' He was the only one on the team that has won a gold medal with the Army."
Little also knew exactly how to employ Bartley.
"He's been a point guard all his life -- I knew what he needed to be done to get the best out of him," said Little, who monitored Bartley's minutes to around 20 per game. "He had a breakout game against the Air Force, when we won by 15 points."
From the Court to the Bench
Now that Bartley's run is truly done, Little plans to add him to his bench as an assistant coach. "He knows what the guys need to be successful," he said.
Bartley, in turn, believes soldiers need these kinds of programs.
"I appreciate All-Army Sports from a soldier aspect," he said. "This right here makes being in the military, being in the Army, that much better because now you don't just say, 'I'm out here fighting wars and protecting my country.'"
Bartley said he believes the morale boost makes Army sports worthwhile. He also points to team-building and esprit de corps at international competitions as positive aspects of the program when people question why the military provides sports and entertainment opportunities for service members and their families.
"I would tell them they need to come and enjoy," Bartley said. "Come see what's really going on, instead of just reading about it or hearing about it. … No budget cuts. We need this. This right here is what takes us as soldiers to another level. The camaraderie with the other forces, you can't beat it.
"Without this, I would not be going for my 20,” he continued. “I would have been out eight years ago. This has been the best."