The USS Carl Vinson’s mission on Friday night was to host college hoops as a Veterans Day salute to the military, and the nation’s basketball-fan-in-chief dropped by to cheer on No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State.
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were sitting courtside for tipoff of the Carrier Classic on the flight deck of the Carl Vinson, which six months earlier buried Osama bin Laden at sea.
The Obamas walked onto the court as a Navy band played ”Hail to the Chief,” then stood for the national anthem.
Two fighter jets screamed right above the carrier just as the singer of the national anthem reached his final notes.
The president told the crowd that the Carl Vinson "has been a messenger of diplomacy and a protector of our security for a long time.”
The Carl Vinson conducted bin Laden’s burial at sea after he was killed by Navy SEALs in a raid ordered by Obama.
"This ship supports what’s happening in Afghanistan. I think some of you may know, because it’s been reported, the men and women of the Carl Vinson were part of that critical mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” the president said to applause from the crowd of about 7,000, most of them military.
Capt. Bruce H. Lindsey, the commanding officer of the flat top, said neither he nor any of his sailors can talk about that mission.
For this night, though, the focus was on the first college hoops game on an active carrier. The court was set up between the carrier’s island and the forward catapults.
The Tar Heels and Spartans players had U.S.A. on the back of their jerseys rather than their names. At dusk, the game was paused for the lowering of the American flag.
And say this about the men and women of the military: they know their basketball players.
A handful of former North Carolina stars were walking to their seats when a sailor stopped one of them and said, "Tyler Hansbrough?!”
It was indeed. And there was Vince Carter and Bobby Frasor, getting mobbed for autographs by sailors and Marines waiting for the game.
On the other side of the court, a gaggle of sailors and Marines swarmed around former Michigan State and NBA player Steve Smith, snapping photos with their cellphones and instant cameras.
Among them was Camp Pendleton Staff Sgt. Darian Washington from Fredricksburg, Va. Washington, who has served three tours in Iraq, arrived five hours earlier because he was so excited about the event.
”It’s a bittersweet moment for me,” the 32-year-old said after taking a photo of Smith. ”It shows they appreciate us. We haven’t been forgotten. It means a lot.”
The teams plucked top alums to be the honorary captains: Magic Johnson for Michigan State and James Worthy of North Carolina.
A popular spot for taking pictures was along one end line toward the carrier’s island, which loomed just 50 feet behind the other end line.
In the days before the game, there was concern that it might rain Friday evening.
Although the court was surrounded by stadium-style seating, wind was a concern.
Carter said that if he were playing in the game, he’d have a plan for countering the wind.
"This is great,” Carter said. "I think I’d have to be attacking the rim. I might try one jumper and see how it went but otherwise I’d be going right to the rim a lot.”
Carter and Hansbrough were able to attend because of the NBA lockout.
On Thursday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he had "the unique deal of playing the No. 1 team in the country, but I’m at a place with the No. 1 team in the world, our military. I get a double dose.”