Armed Forces Classic

The New York Times described the inaugural Carrier Classic as “‘Top Gun’ mixed with March Madness” – fitting words for a college basketball game played on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. 

Instead of hosting fighter jets on Veterans Day 2011, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson instead hosted Michigan State and North Carolina for a roundball event unlike any other. 

The novel event was the brainchild of Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who hatched the idea nearly a decade prior after visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside other college athletic directors and coaches. 

Hollis envisioned a basketball game on an aircraft carrier as a way to honor the troops, connect athletes to military personnel, and bring dynamic energy to the typically mundane start of the college basketball season. 

Hollis, of course, was no stranger to concocting Frankenstein events. In 2001, for instance, he led the push for a Michigan State-Michigan ice hockey game at Spartan Stadium. Nearly 75,000 fans packed MSU’s football stadium for the so-called “Cold War,” an event that triggered the NHL’s now-annual Winter Classic series. Hollis, a former student manager for the MSU basketball team and one-time roommate of MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, approached the Navy in 2003 with his proposal for an aircraft carrier game and the two sides began sketching plans, even as Navy officials remained skeptical. 

For years, Hollis nudged the idea through military bureaucracy, including a meeting at the Pentagon. When Morale Entertainment, a nonprofit with a history of bringing live events to U.S. troops, became involved in 2010, momentum for the aircraft carrier game accelerated. 

In quick time, Michigan State identified North Carolina as its opponent, ESPN became the broadcast partner, and Quicken Loans and State Farm inked sponsorship agreements. Meanwhile, the San Diego-based Vinson was announced as the host, a selection owed to San Diego’s pleasant climate and a pinch of symbolism. Commissioned in 1982, the 95,000-ton aircraft carrier was the first deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and notably carried the body of Osama Bin Laden out to burial at sea. 

Everything for the one-of-a-kind event was carefully planned and executed. 

The court – 258 individual pieces of hardwood – was airlifted onto the flight deck. Piece by piece, workers assembled the playing surface like a jigsaw puzzle. It was the same court used at the 2011 Final Four in Houston just seven months prior. 

Crews installed temporary lighting, high-definition video boards, and some 7,000 seats for spectators. Each school received about 400 tickets while key sponsors received a few as well. Most tickets, however, went to military personnel. And each ticket carried the picture of its holder. 

The 4:00 p.m. local start time in San Diego was, of course, an opportunity to capture East Coast eyeballs, but also a strategic plan to minimize the impact of humidity on the outdoor court. 

Michigan State and North Carolina named Magic Johnson and James Worthy as honorary captains. 

Nike designed camouflage uniforms for both the Spartans and Heels with USA printed on the back in lieu of last names. An 86-pound replica of the Carl Vinson served as a trophy for the victor. And the game’s referees were handpicked pros claiming experience in both the NCAA Tournament and the military. 

In the days before the game, Michigan State players toured the Vinson and mingled with sailors, similarly aged men and women who fight in real wars, ones without referees. In their battles, the shots fired take lives and even victories produce loss. Spartan players described those visits as energizing – and sobering. 

The morning of the Veterans Day game, Secret Service agents completed a security sweep of the ship given the impending presence of both President Obama and the First Lady. 

As B. Taylor completed the national anthem, two fighter jets soared overhead. President Obama addressed the crowd and expressed appreciation for the U.S. service men and women. He also noted the Vinson’s role in carrying bin Laden’s body out to sea. He called that effort “justice” and the crowd roared. 

Under southern California sunlight, the Spartans and Heels stepped onto the court for tip off. At the first media timeout, the game paused as sailors retired the Vinson’s colors for the evening as a band played “To the Colors.” By the second half, a full moon sat in the distance and a cool breeze swept across the court. 

Led by Harrison Barnes and John Henson, top-ranked North Carolina cruised to a rather comfortable 67-55 victory. 

The game, though, was secondary. It always was. Everybody knew it. 

After the final buzzer, Michigan State’s Draymond Green assembled his teammates and North Carolina players on the court. There, the players took off their jerseys and began handing them out to members of the military in attendance. The crowd chanted “U-S-A.” Not soon after, rain drops started to fall. 

Hollis, who had dreamed up the wacky idea nearly a decade prior, marveled at the end: “For a moment in time, you’re creating a memory,” he said. 

And for so many, the memories remain.