Basketball on Aircraft Carrier Offers Different Kind of Flight

June 23, 2011 6 min read

By Nick Canepa

Gigantic basketball players weren't comfortably made for Navy ships. They weren't even made for a comfortable fit on gigantic Navy aircraft carriers. They fly coach, it's on Air Sardine.

The height limit may be 6-8, but even the aerially impaired know navigating through the maze of passageways and bulkhead knee-knocker openings even on a carrier can be safe only if you pay constant attention — which not all basketball players do — or wear body armor.

Now, if you want to play on the flight deck, or below on the hangar deck, no problem. Shaquille O'Neal can perform with Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki on his shoulders. A whole lot of basketball games can be played on a moving city that's 1,092 feet long, displaces 101,300 tons and can house 5,500 personnel.

And that's just what's scheduled to happen Nov. 11 on the San Diego-based carrier Carl Vinson, a ship now renowned as the last dropping off point for Osama bin Laden. North Carolina will meet Michigan State in the first Carrier Classic, and the Veterans Day college game will be carried by ESPN.

If you're wondering why San Diego State or USD wasn't invited, well, they didn't think it up. The carrier game is the brainchild of Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who got together with Mike Whalen of Morale Entertainment Foundation, which provides entertainment for troops here and abroad. The San Diego Sports Commission also is involved.

This one, admittedly, could be a bit tricky.

"We've got approval from the highest level (meaning President Barack Obama)," Whalen was telling his people and ESPNers Monday morning in a meeting room at the Hotel del Coronado. "I don't want to screw it up."

So, after his debriefing, Whalen escorted his group and three local media members to the Carl Vinson for their first operational and planning session on the flight deck, where the game is scheduled to be played shortly after 4 p.m.

It could go off without a glitch. "For us, it's fairly easy," ESPN coordinating producer Dave Miller was saying.

It is not a logistic nightmare, and those involved have complete cooperation from the Navy. A temporary stadium seating 7,000 (my understanding is the crowd will be invitation-only) will be constructed around the basketball floor put down on the flight deck. Plenty of room.

Not many major basketball games are played outdoors, but TV shots from the Vinson across the harbor should be spectacular. "We have done events outside before," Miller offered with a shrug.

But this isn't football. November typically is San Diego's sunniest month, but if the Santa Anas blow, it also could be the windiest. They're talking about "zero chance" for rain. No such thing five months in advance. Basketball cannot be played on the wood in the rain.

There is a contingency plan. Another hardwood floor will be placed on the covered hangar deck just in case, although the event hardly would have the same effect played down below. But the wind and sun is more of a concern.

"Sunset, where the sun's going down," Miller said. "And the wind. Hopefully rain will be less of an issue. Cut down on the wind and we'll be fine. There is some talk about building wind screens up here, but wind could affect the shooting. Midway through the season we could see two sets of statistics for these teams — their overall shooting percentage and their shooting percentage after Game 1."

If the weather is foul, we're talking nightmare. They're not getting that stadium rebuilt downstairs in a few hours. A whole lot of people are going to be standing around.

And, of course, the Vinson isn't the Midway. It's not decommissioned and doesn't answer at the beck and call of ESPN, Morale Entertainment, Michigan State or North Carolina. It probably will be in port on Nov. 11, but there are no guarantees. There is a war or two going on.

"Exactly," the ship's captain, Bruce Lindsey, was saying. "We're an available carrier that can be called on by the president and others. We may be scheduled to do this event, but we are an available carrier."

In other words, there won't be a call from the Pentagon saying, "Go ahead, do the game and then leave. Get the important stuff out of the way."

But, as the Vinson's executive officer, Cmdr. Putnam Browne, puts it: "You should plan on us being here."

There is great novelty to this because such a thing never has happened. "The Navy wants it, we want it, and the administration wants it," Whalen says. "There must be 20 lawyers for the Navy involved. But we've had a lot of help, and the major agreement has been signed. It's almost like, if you bought a house and there's a crack in the driveway, who's paying for it? We're down to that."

There's no downside here. Great for the city, great for the Navy, great for college basketball.

"It's a way to showcase the Naval Air Centennial," Lindsey said of a force that all but began here. "It's great for us and San Diego, a great Navy town."

Unless it rains.

"Rain?" Browne said. "I can't tell you about the rain. All I do is run an airport."

And his planes land and take off more easily on a wet deck than basketball players on wet wood.

Nick Canepa writes about sports for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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