ORLANDO – From little league to the professional ranks and all levels in between, sporting events create the perfect setting to bring people together. The high fives, the fist pounds, and all the other salutations shared between us is what makes the scene so uplifting.
In basketball, it’s not just the play on the court that spawns these toasts and gestures, though. As was the case during the Orlando Magic’s game against the Washington Wizards, sometimes it’s what’s being celebrated off the court that elicits those same cheers.
Saturday at Amway Center was Seats for Soldiers Night presented by L3Harris. It was the 18th consecutive season the Magic and L3Harris teamed up to honor military men, women, and their families at this event, which featured several activities, giveaways, and entertainment, including the playing of Magic player messages on the jumbotron thanking military members for their service.
“It means the world. This country wouldn’t run the way it would if those guys didn’t have our backs out there, wherever they are out there in the world,” Magic center Mo Bamba said. “I personally have someone in my family who served, and it’s tough. The sacrifices that you have to make….It may be a small gesture of kindness, but it means the world to us that we can go out there and have that kind of effect.”
The entire Magic team honored fallen soldiers by holding their jerseys with each soldier’s name listed on the back while standing on the court during Taps prior to the National Anthem. Each player had signed the jersey that will be given to the families of the fallen soldiers. A few of the families of the lost military men and women were in attendance to receive their family member’s signed jersey.
The last name on the back of the jersey Cole Anthony was holding was Mann, in honor of Amine Mann, an Army vet who died in 2014 at the age of 33 after a four-year battle with liver cancer. His surviving wife, Georgiana Mann, and their children watched the game from a suite at Amway Center with several other families who lost a loved one.
Although he didn’t die during combat, it is believed that Amine’s illness was caused by the toxic exposures absorbed while deployed in Iraq. Him getting honored by the Magic and L3Harris means so much to his family, which they know he would have been extremely humbled by and appreciative of, especially since he was an athlete himself while growing up in Long Island, New York.
“This is actually the very first time that my family is getting honored in such a way and it will leave an impact on us forever,” Georgiana said. “I am beyond moved by this opportunity to be here tonight and to be able to bring my children and keep his memory alive. Besides the grief and missing them, that’s all we want to do, is keep their honor and keep them in our memories and honor them in such a way.”
Spending time with the families in that same suite was Jose Belen, a U.S. Army combat veteran himself who founded Mission Zero, a Florida-based organization aimed at ending the PTSD and veteran suicide epidemic.
“I just try to normalize and say hey, if you are going through something, if you have PTSD as a veteran or non-veteran, if you are a grieving mother, father, you are not alone,” he said. “The brotherhood-sisterhood is here to serve you. So, I’m a humbled servant that at the end of the day uses the opportunity before me to me like this to shed the light on those that people don’t see that I carry on my back…There are a lot of people screaming for help, and for whatever reason they are not being heard, so I stand and be a voice to the voiceless, give hope to the hopeless.”
More than 2,700 active and retired military personnel and their families were provided game tickets courtesy of the Magic, L3Harris and season ticket holders who donated their seats for the occasion. The Seats for Soldiers celebration included veterans, active military, families from all branches along with ROTC, OCSO, OPD, OFD, Orange County Public Schools, Osceola County Public Schools, Seminole County Government Community Services Department, Blue Star families, Mission Zero and Fraternal Order of Police.
L3Harris and the Magic also provided two hospitality suites to the game for Central Florida military personnel, and L3Harris and Levy Restaurants provided complimentary food and beverage for each suite.
“We are just grateful to them for their sacrifice and the time, and the effort and the energy that they put in to keep us safe,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said. “It’s just a beautiful thing that we can celebrate them.”
It’s partnerships like the one between the Magic and L3Harris that help make events like Seats for Soldiers happen. With over 7,500 employees at L3Harris that are veterans, it’s a staple of their organization to pay tribute to the military.
“It’s a visible display from the community that we are supporting the military,” said Ed Zoiss, president of the Space and Airborne systems segment for L3Harris. “The military needs to see that. They need to know that the country, the community supports them to the deepest core because they need to continue to do the very hard mission that they have, often times away from their families, away from their loved ones as they protect our freedoms and they protect our country. We are very honored to be here tonight with them.”
Seeing the joy on the faces of the military, men, women, and their families is always a special experience for the Magic. It’s an event they look forward to every year and one they are proud to host side by side with L3Harris.
“Talking to the members of the military when we exchanged the challenge coins, they were just so grateful for the opportunity to come to a game and to experience it.” Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “They were having a great time. They had a great appreciation for L3Harris and for the Magic, there with their families. Many of them have never been to a Magic game before, and they were incredibly appreciative for the opportunity to come and attend the game, and also to be honored.”