The flight deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson is 1,094 feet long and its official use is for fighter jets to load up and take off, leaving the ship at 150 mph as they travel from one end to the other.
On Friday, though, it will have a much different use, serving as a staging prop for a college basketball game. This wild idea has been 10 years in the making, the concept of Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, whose team will play top-ranked North Carolina.
Hollis came up with the idea after he was part of a group of coaches and athletic officials who visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Some people call me a mad scientist,” Hollis said Thursday from the top deck of the carrier. Tom Izzo, his basketball coach, rolled his eyes and nodded in agreement.
The transformation of the aircraft carrier started Wednesday when the same basketball court that was used for the 2011 NCAA national championship game was lifted by crane more than 14 stories and laid piece by piece, as if it was a jigsaw puzzle, until all 258 squares snapped together.
About 7,000 seats were brought in to form an arena and the two basketball stanchions were put in place.
Secret Service agents will arrive early Friday morning to sweep the ship because President Obama is expected to attend the 4 p.m. game. Magic Johnson and James Worthy will be the honorary captains for their alma maters, Michigan State and North Carolina.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said Friday’s game is meant to honor service members and veterans, to show the nation on Veterans Day “how important sports is to the sailors and Marines out there as a way to connect to family and friends.”
There is also the public relations value, Mabus said, of appealing to young men and women who might consider joining a branch of the armed services.
The Vinson was commissioned in 1982 and in 1986 became the first aircraft carrier to operate in the Bering Sea. On Oct. 7, 2001, it became the first aircraft carrier deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom. It has conducted 4,200 combat missions as part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2010, when the ship was en route home to San Diego, it was diverted to Haiti to assist in hurricane relief efforts. Earlier this year it was the ship to hold Osama bin Laden’s body after he was killed.
Isaac Paddock, a petty officer from Dayton, Ohio, served that day, and other than saying it was “unforgettable,” spoke no more about the day Bin Laden’s body was brought aboard.
But he had no problem talking about the basketball game. Paddock is a North Carolina fan and, even though he’ll be working during the game, he expects to catch a peek.
“You know, it makes me proud to have something like this,” Paddock said. “When you’re gone from your friends and family for months at a time, sports is kind of what joins shipmates and makes us a family, asking who you root for, looking for scores, watching games and stuff.”
Morale Entertainment, a company that arranges for groups around the world to meet troops, and ESPN are splitting the costs of staging the game, believed to be in the mid-seven figures.
No tickets were sold. Each school received about 400 tickets, Quicken Loans, the title sponsor and State Farm, the secondary sponsor, received some and the rest went to men and women in the military.
Each team will wear specially designed uniforms resembling camouflage gear for the game, and an 86-pound trophy, a replica of the Carl Vinson, has been made.
There’s never been a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier flight deck, and the thought of it gave both Williams and Izzo goose bumps.
“It’s far superseded whatever I thought it could be,” Izzo said Thursday. “If you could have seen our players’ eyes as we walked [onto the ship Wednesday], it was kind of a dream come true. In a small, small way, we feel we are giving a little bit back.”
The subject of weather has been a concern from the moment the game was conceived.
There were plans to place a second basketball court inside the ship in the hangar deck. If there was rain, the game would move inside.
On Wednesday a command decision was made by officials from Morale, ESPN and the Navy that the weather forecast was cooperating.
No second court was laid down. A storm that seemed set to hit San Diego on Friday had changed course. Friday is expected to be sunny. If it’s not, no game.
There will be wind, though, and for that, Izzo and Williams said, there is no secret shot correction in their play books.
“Maybe our guys who shoot crooked will have an advantage,” Williams said.
“I hope it’s a great game,” Mabus said, “but more than that I hope this will bring some attention to our sailors and Marines, to all of our armed forces on Veterans Day. This is to thank them.”