Jody Card arrived in Iraq in 2010 with an M4 assault rifle under one arm and a basketball under the other. His goal was simple: Use the first to survive so he could come home and use the second.
"I stood out like a sore thumb," Card said of the military transports he flew in from Colorado to Germany, Germany to Kuwait, and Kuwait to Iraq, all with fellow United States Army soldiers staring at him and his bouncing baggage. "It reminded me of where I still wanted to go and where I wanted to take it to."
Where he is now is nearly two years removed from the desert and a member of the men's basketball team at Hofstra. He's a 28-year-old sophomore walk-on, the last man added to the roster in the wake of injuries and scandals that cost the Pride nearly half of its scholarship players. He has played less than a minute all season but has become one of the team's undisputed leaders during a trying campaign. He's a role model for younger players who are attempting to rebrand the program under a third-year coach.
"When you're in a situation like we're in and going through a season like we're in, you want to surround yourself with good people, and Jody is a wonderful example of that," Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said. "He's somebody who has an incredible amount of character and lived a couple of different lives and been through a lot of really incredible experiences. We like to have that rub off on our young guys."
It took him around the world. It took him away from the sport. But he found his way back to all of it.
Which is why, when he ruminates about being drafted by an NBA team -- "I'll be 31 then; maybe I'll go in the second round," he concedes without a whiff of delusion -- it's almost believable. There is no disconnect in his mind between his dream of playing pro ball and his current reality of not being able to get on the court for a struggling mid-major team that has won only seven games this season.
But there is a missing ingredient in his narrative.
"Anything can happen after this, but in order for this story to get off the ground, it needs minutes," he said. "I gotta get on the court."
Card first made a name for himself in the sport as Brien Albert Card. That's who he was when he played for the New York Gauchos, a highly respected AAU team in the city, and then moved to South Carolina before his freshman season. He led his high school team to the state championship game as a junior (losing to a team led by Knicks point guard Raymond Felton in the final, with Card guarding him).
That was his name when he enrolled in but left two junior colleges in Massachusetts in the fall of 2003, dropping out of both school and basketball.
After working several jobs -- including as a security guard at Grand Central Station and a concession cook at Madison Square Garden -- and fathering a pair of daughters in his early 20s, he realized that his life was going nowhere. He said he needed a change.
In October 2007 -- at the height of the war in Iraq -- he enlisted in the Army, knowing they would help pay for college when he returned. If he returned. It was worth it for a chance at a fresh start.
But it wasn't enough to simply leave his life behind. He wanted to change his name, too. He legally changed it to Jody because he thought it sounded marketable in whatever he pursued after the Army.
And as if to prove that he meant this change with everything he had, to show the world that he would be true to himself -- his new self, the one he was creating -- he gave himself a new middle name, too.
He became Jody Sincere Card.
Hooping it up in Iraq
Card had given up on basketball by the time he was shipped overseas by the Army. But while stationed in South Korea, he was reintroduced to the sport and played for his base's team.
"After that I was like, 'Wow, I still can play,' " Card said. "I was like: 'If you get out of this alive, with all of your limbs and fully functional, you can go to any school you want to go to.' I took that as a personal challenge."
It was easy to stay alive in South Korea. It was more difficult when he was deployed to Iraq. Amarah, where he was stationed, is in southeast Iraq, about 30 miles from the border with Iran. It is where many Shia extremists and weapons were smuggled into Iraq. It was the job of Card and his fellow soldiers there to intercept that flow, he said.
"We took a lot of contact, as we would say, back and forth," Card said. "I lost a couple of people when I was over there . . . That was a real situation."
There was also some down time in the desert. Card said he used an automobile jack and some scrap lumber to build himself a basketball hoop inside one of the bays. On a concrete floor dusted with sand that blew in through the wide openings at either end of the temporary building, he would work on his game, dribbling and shooting the basketball he had brought with him.
"People were looking at me like I was crazy," Card said. "People were like, 'How are you going to war and you got a basketball?' "
Card left Iraq in April 2011 and was discharged from the Army that August. He flew home to his future with the same basketball tucked under his arm. It remains on his bed at his home in Hollis, Queens.
"I kept it on my bed when I was out there, too," he said of his time in Iraq. "You know how you carry a Teddy bear and you put it on your bed? That basketball was my Teddy bear."
"He's the voice of the team"
When he returned to New York, he enrolled at St. John's and tried out for the team there as a walk-on. There is no age limit for Division I men's basketball players, but, Card said, a glitch on his high school transcript made him ineligible last season.
With money from the Army, Card remained at St. John's for the school year and then, with the transcript issue resolved, he enrolled at Hofstra with his NCAA eligibility restored.
Hofstra began this season with 13 scholarship players. But in late November, four players -- sophomore Shaquille Stokes and freshmen Jimmy Hall Jr., Kentrell Washington and Dallas Anglin -- were arrested and charged with burglary after police said they admitted to stealing more than $10,000 worth of laptop computers, iPads and other items from fellow students. They remain suspended from all university-related activities, including the basketball team, and are awaiting trial in Nassau County.
That incident, plus the ineligibility of junior Daquan Brown until halfway through the season and an injury to junior Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, left Hofstra in trouble. It needed help. It needed players to fill out the roster. It needed Card.
Card, at 6-1 and 180 pounds, wore a college basketball uniform for the first time at the Dec. 15 home game against Wright State. By the next game, Card already was a leader. Senior guard Stevie Mejia, one of Hofstra's captains, urged the 28-year-old to give the team a pregame pep talk. He's done it before every game since.
"He's the voice of the team," said Mejia, Hofstra's leading scorer this season. "Any time something is going down, you hear his voice. He's an older guy, so we all kind of look up to him. I talked to him and I told him to be the voice of this team. We need you. We need your knowledge and how hard he works."
With 32 seconds left in a loss at William & Mary on Jan. 12, Card finally got a chance to take the court with Hofstra trailing 68-55. It was his first and only playing time. He never touched the ball.
"It happened so fast that I didn't even realize it," Card said. "I went over this scenario so many times, and if I could play it back, I would have just guarded the ball so I could have created a steal or something . . . If I had been on the ball, I would at least have felt like I played in that game."
Hofstra's regular season is over, ending Saturday with a loss at Towson. The Pride begins play in the CAA Tournament in Richmond on Saturday. Unless it can win three games there, this difficult season will end. And with it, most likely, Card's brief career will, too.
Next year the Pride will have a new group of scholarship players and won't need a walk-on to fill out the roster. Cassara is blunt about Card's prospects.
"I don't think his future is in college basketball," Cassara said. "But sometimes college basketball and college athletics can help lead to a future . . . I know that the relationship and the friendship and the unbelievable amount of gratitude I have for him will last a lifetime."
Card said he would love to finish his college career at Hofstra, where he is majoring in film studies and production, so he might stay even if he can't play basketball anymore. But he is beginning to recognize that as much as he wants to play for Hofstra, Hofstra needs to want him too.
Card's story, if it continues as a basketball player, almost certainly will have to move to its next stop. Another of Card's lives lived. Hofstra coaches have told him they'll put in a good word with other programs, perhaps ones at lower levels, where he could play more often. That, though, would interfere with his plans for his career, for his life. For the 2015 NBA draft.
"I don't want to be known as the guy who left the Army just to make a Division I team," Card said. "That's not my overall goal. My overall goal is to get a chance, get an opportunity to actually prove myself as a basketball player instead of just as an Army veteran.
"From there, everything else will take care of itself."