Carrier Classic 2011 – A few of North Carolina’s basketball players were walking back from the dining hall last spring when they noticed some students playing pickup ball outside and decided, what the heck, to join them.
It morphed into regular games, and soon the outdoor courts at dormitories across the Chapel Hill campus — Hinton James, Cobb, Morrison, Granville — were lined with students wanting a shot at their heroes, a bunch of 5-foot-10 guys with backwards caps against Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, guys who eat at McDonald’s vs. McDonald’s all-Americans.
So when the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels stepped on the 4.5-acre flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson for a shootaround ahead of today’s Carrier Classic against Michigan State, with nothing above the baskets except open sky, with a gentle afternoon breeze making the nylon nets dance, they weren’t altogether out of sorts.
There’s only one problem, though. “I think Michigan State,” Marshall said, “is a little bit better than the guys we play outside on our campus.”
And there probably wasn’t a giant sign above one corner of the court that says: “Beware of jet blast, propellers and rotors.”
As much as the players and coaches tried to rationalize that a hoop is a hoop, that a ball is a ball, that the wind blows the same for both teams, they ultimately succumbed to the novelty — and nuance — of playing a basketball game on an aircraft carrier docked in San Diego Bay on Veteran’s Day with the Commander in Chief sitting courtside. You’d see a player shooting and then all of a sudden stop, sweeping his eyes across the deck, trying to process the bizarre scene before him.
“People ask me what are the best things you’ve done in your life,” Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green said. “How often do you get to play on an aircraft carrier? This is No. 1.”
Better than back-to-back trips to the Final Four?
Green nodded. “You’re doing something for someone else, supporting our troops.”
The initial plan for the Carrier Classic, an idea hatched nearly a decade ago by Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, was to build two courts, a 7,000-seat main stadium on deck and a more intimate one in the hangar bay in case of inclement weather. The forecast is for a 50-percent chance of rain beginning later Friday night, and tipoff is at 4:15 p.m.