Floating venue presents some challenges
The experiment to play a basketball game outdoors atop an aircraft carrier is fraught with challenges, as North Carolina and Michigan State found out Thursday as they prepared for the Carrier Classic on Veterans Day.
North Carolina star Harrison Barnes felt dizzy as the USS Carl Vinson, docked across from downtown in San Diego Bay, swayed under his feet. Michigan State guard Keith Appling felt the almost imperceptible breeze play games with his jump shot.
And despite a forecast that calls for a 20 percent chance of rain at tipoff, there are no plans to move the game — which will be broadcast nationally and played before an audience of President Barack Obama and nearly 7,000 soldiers — below deck under cover of the aircraft hangar.
If this is the Navy, well then damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
"The decision has been made," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said enthusiastically. "We're playing outdoors. You talk about a memory maker, there's been no player that's ever done something like this."
If anyone wants to play indoors, North Carolina coach Roy Williams interjected, "They can go downstairs and play 3-on-3. Nobody will be watching."
There will be plenty of eyeballs on the deck that has been transformed from a place that can launch and land fighter jets to an outdoor arena replete with hardwood floor, bleachers, booms carrying cameras, temporary light stands and high-definition video boards at each end. Looming above it was the seven-story command center, with radar and satellite sensors, known as "The Island."
"If I miss, it might go overboard," quipped North Carolina freshman guard P.J. Hairston as he shot jumpers.
Though this is a rematch of the 2009 national championship game, and the Tar Heels enter the season ranked No. 1, there was a widespread notion that this was not really about the game.
It's about giving back to the American military.
"From the tip off until the final horn, we're going to be working our tails off about the game," Williams said. "But every single second prior to it and as soon as the game's final horn is over with, we're thinking about hopefully putting a smile on some people's faces who represent our country and serve our country."
The game was the brainchild of Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who has also spearheaded the Spartans playing rival Michigan outdoors in ice hockey at a football stadium. But it's not exactly convenient for either team. North Carolina will fly home to play at UNC Asheville on Sunday night, while Michigan State travels to New York to play Duke on Tuesday.
Players from both teams were intrigued by their field trip/shootaround on Thursday. The ships are not made for 6-foot-7 sailors, with low ceilings, lower doorways and short bunks.
"I hit my head trying to get in [a bed], I hit my head while I was in [bed] and I hit my head trying to get out," said Michigan State forward Draymond Green.
Some players were told details of the ship's recent claim to notoriety — it was used to dump Osama Bin Laden's body into the sea after he was killed.
To Rear Admiral Dennis Moynihan, the Navy's chief spokesman, the Carrier Classic is an opportunity to show off one of the jewels of its fleet at a time when the military is facing severe pressure to cut budgets.
Many sailors, though, were blasé about the event. A survey of six revealed none who considered himself a basketball fan. Two who were asked what sports they would have liked to see replied: volleyball or mixed martial arts. To them, the game was simply an assignment.
It was all hands on deck Thursday as sailors and contractors busied themselves applying finishing touches to the ship. Refrigeration units were being raised to the flight deck by crane, portable toilets were being lined up near the court, and painters were applying finishing touches of gun-metal gray.
"We're cleaning up a little more," said John Meeth, who was waxing the flight deck. "We spend an hour cleaning every day, but today it was four hours."
There was a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, not just for the players who practiced their jump shots, but for the other actors in this production. There was a mock introduction of Obama, a presentation of the colors and singer and Navy veteran B. Taylor rehearsing the national anthem.
At one point during North Carolina's shootaround, an announcement was made to stand for the closing of the colors. Then it was repeated. As dozens of soldiers stood, the Tar Heels stopped dribbling and stood at attention.
Then came another announcement.
"This is a rehearsal," the voice said. "Play on the court can resume."
And so, amid sheepish grins, the balls began to bounce again.
Capt. Bruce Lindsey, the ship's commanding officer, took great pains to emphasize that no taxpayer money was going into the event and that the event was not compromising the ship from any of its duties since it was scheduled to be in port until deployment later this month.
Mike Whalen, the chairman of Morale Entertainment Foundation, which is putting on the event, said it will cost $2 million and he hopes to break even through sponsorship costs and TV rights.
"The question is are we going to sustain it?" said Whalen, a cigar-chomping ex-Marine whose company puts on entertainment tours for troops. "I know it sounds corny, but I believe in this. Hopefully, we'll cover our expenses."
The Carrier Classic could become a regular event. Connecticut has committed to play next year, probably against Arizona, Whalen said. It would be part of a doubleheader with the Ohio State and Notre Dame women. Michigan State is interested in playing in 2013, and Whalen said he has the Connecticut and Stanford women lined up as the other half of that doubleheader.
But no decisions have been made just yet. First things first: Michigan State and North Carolina will play this game and see which way the wind blows.