Heels, Spartans ready for Carrier Classic
By Bernie Wilson
CORONADO, Calif. — The aircraft carrier that buried Osama bin Laden at sea is ready for the first college basketball game to be played on an active flat top.
As long as the rain stays away from the Carrier Classic on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Friday afternoon, coaches Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Roy Williams of No. 1 North Carolina are confident their teams will put on a great Veterans Day show for the approximately 7,000 in the crowd, including the nation’s basketball-fan-in-chief, President Barack Obama, plus a national TV audience.
Izzo and Williams said they and their players were blown away when they boarded the nuclear-powered carrier, which stretches 1,092 feet, weighs 95,000 tons and has four steam catapults that can accelerate a jet fighter from 0 to 165 mph in just more than two seconds.
“My first impression when I walked in far superseded whatever I thought it could be, and we’ve been talking about this for seven or eight years,” Izzo said Thursday aboard the carrier, which is berthed at North Island Naval Air Station. “If you could have seen our players’ eyes as we walked in, you just had such an appreciation for what we’re doing. It’s bigger than a game. It’s bigger than North Carolina against Michigan State. It’s kind of a dream come true for us. In a small, small way, I think we feel we’re giving a little bit back and maybe recognizing the people that deserve to be recognized, instead of just the athletes.”
The game, a rematch of the 2009 national championship game won by North Carolina, was conceived to celebrate Veterans Day and salute active-duty military personnel.
“Wow,” Williams said about his reaction to seeing the ship and the basketball court. The island, which serves as the command center for the ship and flight-deck operations, looms just 50 feet from one end of the court. For some high enough in the stands, there’s a view of the San Diego skyline across the bay.
Williams said his players’ eyes and mouths were wide open as they walked around the flight deck after arriving in San Diego on Wednesday.
“This is a celebration,” Williams said. “The basketball game, from the tipoff till the final horn, we’re going to be working our tails off about the game. 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.
“I’m as thrilled as I could possibly be,” Williams said. “They’re not fake — I’ve got cold chills up here talking about it. It’s the neatest thing that I’ve ever been involved with.”
Forecasts earlier in the week suggested that a storm might hit around tipoff. But based on updated forecasts, the game will be played on the flight deck, said Mike Whalen of Morale Entertainment Foundation, which is organizing the game. Had the threat of rain been greater, the game would have been moved below to the hangar deck.
The coaches shrugged off suggestions that playing outdoors, with possible wind gusts, would be a concern.
“I would be willing to bet 90 percent of our players will be thrilled to death to do something that nobody else has ever done,” Izzo said. “That’s the uniqueness of this, too. There are a lot of great players, a lot of great programs, but you talk about a memory-maker, there’s been no player that’s ever done something like this. So if they want to play indoors, I hope they tell me before the game; I’ll make sure I don’t play them. Unless it’s a starter.”
Added Williams: “They can go downstairs and play 3-on-3. Nobody will be watching.”
The court is surrounded by stadium-style seating, which organizers hope will block any wind. No balls will be in danger of bouncing into San Diego Bay.
The coaches think it’ll be neat playing outdoors.
“When Tommy and I played, we used to play outside,” Williams said. “But kids don’t play outside anymore. We better get a lot of shooting in today and tomorrow because we haven’t been outside. He may have outsmarted me, but we haven’t been outside.”
Said Izzo: “My guys haven’t shot real well in the exhibitions. I told them to shoot the exact same way and the wind will blow it in.”
Tar Heels senior center Tyler Zeller said the coaches keep teasing the players about who’s going to fall off the ship. At one point, he worried that the massive carrier will move during the game.
“It is something that none of us have ever experienced,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it but I’m also a little nervous about it. It’ll be fun to be able to give back to them and be able to play a game in front of them.”
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, credited with coming up with the idea for the game, said he was looking for a “dramatic way to reach out” to the military.
By chance, the carrier that became available to host the game was the one that conducted bin Laden’s burial at sea after he was killed by Navy SEALs in a raid ordered by Obama.
Capt. Bruce H. Lindsey, the commanding officer of the flat top, said neither he nor any of his sailors can talk about that mission.
But Lindsey did say his daughter is a senior at Chapel Hill, “so I just have to root for Chapel Hill.”
Magic Johnson and James Worthy will be honorary captains for their alma maters.
When the Carl Vinson is at sea, following sports events — when possible — is important for the crew, Lindsey said.
“They follow sports all the time, so much so that I have to steer the ship so I get the satellite beam hitting us just right,” he said.