Eskan Village lies 12 miles southeast of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. military compound primarily houses the 64th Air Expeditionary Group and morphs U.S. teenagers into soldiers. Spence McNeil was one of those young men. He joined a tour that arrived in Saudi Arabia one month before Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, although his service was short lived. While McNeil rode in the backseat of an SUV one morning, a collision with another vehicle in the village flipped the truck into the desert air. The wreck left McNeil comatose. His family ultimately flew halfway around the world to pull the plug on their 19-year-old boy’s life support.
It was Bianca Campbell’s 20th birthday when he passed. Just weeks into her tour, a close friend and comrade was gone. “That was the reality at the time,” she says. “It was all fun and games just a little bit ago. We were all in school and training and… things happen fast.” Roughly a week later, after the tears had dried, a letter arrived. By fate, Campbell, a Lakers fan—“Back then, who didn’t love Kobe?”—opened a note from a particular third grader at Bath Elementary school in Akron, Ohio.
Dear U.S. Soldier, My name is Larry Nance. I have 1 sister, 1 brother that annoy me all the time. My dad played in the NBA. Thank you for fighting for us in the war. You must be brave and miss your family. I hope you get home soon and see your family soon. Good luck. Sincerely, Larry Nance.
“That came at an amazing time,” Campbell says. “It was definitely a time where, the uncertainty, we just needed something to connect you to back home and keep you going.” She wrote back. She had to reciprocate. A stranger’s compassion can bring comfort to the lonely nights in a foreign, war–ridden land. Especially when those tumultuous grounds would experience another tragedy soon after. On March 23, Private First Class Jessica Lynch and her convoy were ambushed and captured by Iraqi forces during the Battle of Nasiriyah. Nance’s second letter magically arrived in the immediate aftermath.
Dear U.S. Soldier is the war almost over? Where is Saddam? How are you? I’m fine. Thank you for writing back. Where are you? Are you good at basketball? I like the Lakers too they are wining there series with the Timberwolves. Who is your favorite player? Mine is Shaq. Who do you want to get LeBron James? I want the Cavs to get LeBron, that is because my dad played for the Cavs. His number is retired in the Gund Arena. And Again Thank you!! From, Larry Nance
The honest spelling and grammatical mistakes, the humorous naivety, the ravished passion for hoops all endeared Campbell. “At the time, I didn’t even know who Larry Nance was,” she says. “I was more reactive to him saying ‘the annoying brothers and sisters.’ I was probably the annoying sister, getting on my mother’s nerves, so I definitely understand that.” As the war truly commenced, Campbell was unable to respond once more. Now a student, studying psychology and assisting at the African American PTSD Association in Tacoma, Wash, Campbell, 34, still cherishes Nance’s messages.
She posted Nance’s letters on Facebook in 2014, showcasing the squiggly cursive scribbled onto adorable star-spangled paper. The site’s Memories algorithm recalled her share a year later, and Campbell realized an entire calendar had flipped without her making any true effort to thank the pen pal who helped her survive overseas. Her son’s father informed Campbell that Nance had matured into Los Angeles’ starting power forward late into his 2015-16 rookie season.
“When I found that out, I thought it was amazing,” she says. “He mentioned the Lakers as a favorite team [in his letters].” Campbell set to work, first attempting to contact Nance’s father, unaware, as most are, of the most efficient way to reach an NBA phenom. By the time her Facebook Memories conjured up her original post in 2016, she resorted to a Twitter Hail Mary. Campbell hardly used the site, but collected snapshots of each letter and a photo of Nance donning the Lakers’ trademark gold uniform. She tweeted and tagged the second-year player on July 21, and logged offline. “If he sees it, he sees it,” she thought. “If he doesn’t, you don’t know until you try.”
Nance finished up an offseason workout the following afternoon. While he settled back into his Southern California home, the Twitter app on his phone began chirping louder and louder. Nance immediately recalled the letters, stunned Campbell had even kept them. “I hadn’t thought about it in however many years,” Nance Jr. says. “It was so cool that she got back in contact with me after so long.” He ran to the other room to show his fiancee. He forwarded the message to his parents and enthusiastically replied via Twitter, inviting Campbell to be his guest at a Lakers game this season.
The two long-lost pen pals will meet in person for the first time today. Delta Air Lines is shuttling Campbell, her older brother and son to L.A. as part of an on-going “Salute to Our Troops” partnership with the Lakers. Campbell will receive an all-access tour of the Lakers’ facilities in addition to being honored at center court in front of a packed Staples Center crowd. “It’s going to be incredibly exciting,” Campbell says. “It’s going to be really cool to put a face to the name,” says Nance. Fourteen years and thousands of miles later.