Published November 03, 2012
SAN DIEGO – It was a college basketball game like none before, played under a pinkish-purple twilight sky on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, with President Barack Obama sitting midcourt and thousands of sailors in the stands. Two fighter jets screamed overhead just as the national anthem finished.
A year after North Carolina beat Michigan State in the inaugural Carrier Classic on the USS Carl Vinson, which was used to bury Osama bin Laden at sea, the college hoops season will begin next Friday with three games afloat — one on an active Navy ship and two on decommissioned aircraft carriers — and another in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
"It took eight years to get the first one and one year to get the next three," said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who several years ago came up with the idea of playing a game on a flat top to honor the military.
This year's nautical matchups will be hard-pressed to match the atmosphere at last year's Carrier Classic on San Diego Bay.
They'll try, though.
From east to west, the games are:
— The Armed Forces Classic between Connecticut and No. 14 Michigan State at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Created by ESPN, it will tip off at approximately midnight local time, or 6 p.m. EST.
— The Carrier Classic on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., will feature a women's game between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 19 Ohio State, followed by a men's game between No. 4 Ohio State and Marquette. The Yorktown is now a museum. The games are being promoted by Morale Entertainment Foundation, which put on last year's game on the Carl Vinson.
— The Navy-Marine Corps Classic between Georgetown and No. 10 Florida in Jacksonville on the deck of the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship that's being moved from its homeport of Norfolk, Va., to Naval Station Mayport for the game, along with an escort ship, the USS Mesa Verde.
— The Battle on the Midway in San Diego will feature No. 9 Syracuse against No. 20 San Diego State on the USS Midway, also a museum.
Pulling off a game on an aircraft carrier is a task almost as big as the ships themselves.
They're multimillion-dollar productions with lots of logistical hurdles. Then there's wind and the threat of rain to worry about.
Coaches Steve Fisher of San Diego State and Billy Donovan of Florida have said they'd like to practice outside a time or two before their respective games.
Hollis and Mike Whalen of Morale Entertainment Foundation know what it takes to put on a game on a ship.
Others are finding out how hard it is, for a boatload of reasons.
In San Diego, the Battle on the Midway was to be part of Veterans Day weekend celebration including a fanfest, coaches' clinic and a gala and concert to raise money for a foundation founded by San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito. When sponsorships lagged, the Zito event was postponed and the fanfest canceled. The game itself was in jeopardy until local businessmen and Fox Sports San Diego stepped up to prevent an embarrassing cancellation. San Diego State is taking on a more active role in planning the game. The coaches' clinic survived only because of dogged work by Don Casey, a former college and NBA coach who lives in the San Diego area.
For the Jacksonville game, the Bataan left Norfolk a day late because of Superstorm Sandy. It arrived Friday. The Mesa Verde is due to arrive the middle of next week.
In Charleston, Morale Entertainment will have to build a 16-foot wind-deflection screen around the court because it's breezy at Patriots Point.
At last year's Carrier Classic, there were a few hiccups along the way to tipoff.
"Morale Entertainment had never put on a basketball game. The other side of it, I've never run an event on a warship," Hollis said. "There had to be a lot of collaboration between the two. I would say, 'This is the norm in college basketball.' Then I had to listen to the norm on U.S. government property. There was a lot of give-and-take through the whole thing."
North Carolina coach Roy Williams told his Tar Heels to prepare for little headaches and it would all be worth it in the end.
"I mean, standing on that ship, and the president of the United States is walking out on the ship and they're playing the music," Williams said. "You can see the sun's about to set. I'm sitting there and at that moment I said, 'Roy Williams, you're one of the luckiest guys that's ever walked on the earth.' So all those little things really were really little."
The teams had warmed up, but then had to wait as Obama boarded the ship, met with each team in its locker room and addressed the crowd.
Organizers told the coaches they had just a few minutes until tipoff. Williams and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo held their ground, insisting on — and getting — an additional 15 minutes for their players to warm up again. While the overriding theme was to honor the military, it was, after all, a regular-season game, and a marquee one at that.
At dusk, the game was stopped for the evening lowering of the colors.
"Other than the Final Four, winning the national championships, I enjoyed that experience more than any game I've ever been involved in," Williams said. "There were some logistical things, there were some things that went on that were frustrating. But the game was so huge, and the feeling you got from the military people was so big, that it made all these other things seem so small ... compared to the love that I had for being there in front of our military, talking to our guys and girls, and the feel that I had."
Less than an hour after the final buzzer, as the team buses were making their way off North Island Naval Air Station, it began to pour.
Whalen had paid for a backup court, lights and bleachers to be installed on the hangar deck in case of rain. But because the space would have accommodated only about 2,000 spectators, rather than the 8,111 who watched the game on the flight deck, Whalen spiked the backup plan a few days before the game.
"Did we dodge one? Yeah," said Whalen, who trusted the word of a local weatherman that it wouldn't rain during the game. "But it was a calculated risk. I was the boss, I made the decision. Sometimes you've got to go with your gut."
If rain threatens any of the floating games this year, they'll be played in local arenas.
Whalen wanted to keep the Carrier Classic in San Diego but said he was told by the Navy that an active carrier wasn't available. He said he was rebuffed by officials with the Midway.
"The model that Morale is going after is that we need to have stable places," Whalen said. "If we have to be on a smaller ship, so be it."
The city of Jacksonville is promoting the game on the USS Bataan.
"We're a little disappointed the Navy went with an untested group and cast us to the wayside and that the criteria we had out here, which was no operational impact on the Navy, no cost to taxpayers, minimal inconvenience to the crew of the Carl Vinson, free tickets to the military, all those things have gone out the window with the Jacksonville effort," Whalen said.
Navy spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks said the city of Jacksonville will reimburse the Navy for any expenses the sea service incurs, and thus there will be no cost to taxpayers. Hicks said the cost of moving the ships to and from Florida were "incidental to this event." He said the crews will be doing "valuable training and deployment readiness along the way." The Bataan is scheduled for a deployment in the middle of 2013, he said.
Although government regulations prohibit sale of tickets for an event on a military base, Jacksonville organizers got around that by requiring fans and corporations to purchase sponsorship packages ranging between $1,000 and $50,000. The cheapest package includes two passes for the basketball game and tickets for the Jacksonville Jaguars game against the Indianapolis Colts, including tickets that will be given to military personnel.
Alan Verlander, an official with the city of Jacksonville, said private funding will cover the estimated $1.8 million to $2 million price tag.
Hicks said 1,001 of the 3,500 tickets are to be given to military personnel.
Obama has been invited, Hicks said. The White House didn't return messages seeking comment.
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard in Raleigh, N.C., and AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Jacksonville contributed to this report.
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