Editor's Note: For Dana O'Neil's game preview, click here. Also, check out a historic photo gallery of basketball being played on aircraft carriers for decades, including a WWII-era shot of a future President.
SAN DIEGO -- A number of sailors, some on and some off duty, milled around the court atop the USS Carl Vinson on Thursday, giddy about getting to watch North Carolina-Michigan State in an unprecedented event Friday.
The sailors, like everyone else involved in this game -- from the president to the Secretary of the Navy to the captain of the ship to every member of the military on board -- will still actually get the chance, regardless of the weather. The threat of rain is diminishing for Friday night, which is a huge relief to those who fretted over what was a more foreboding forecast a couple days ago.
The conditions were so perfect Thursday evening that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said during the team’s shootaround, “We’re playing here. It will be this nice. It’s beautiful.’’
The decision to play the game on the deck, as originally planned, was actually made Wednesday morning, according to the game’s initial innovator, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. Hollis said a half-set was put together in the hangar below deck. And it was a disaster.
If the game had been moved below deck, it would have had a totally different feel. Seating was only good for 2,500, rather than 7,000. Hollis said the Navy would have had to set up viewing stations around the ship with televisions. It simply wouldn't have been the same.
“It was like a small junior high gymnasium down there,’’ Hollis said. “No one wanted it to happen.’’
Not the coaches. Not the players. Not the military personnel. No one.
“I had a few of the troops say that if this game isn’t outside, they won’t see it,’’ North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes said.
Hollis said there is a rain contingency plan -- simply a rain delay. A number of servicemen from a nearby base volunteered throughout the week, setting up the court and the stands. They put a tarp, just like on a baseball diamond, over the court each of the past three days. A tarp was on the court Thursday night.
“We’ll stop it if there is any kind of moisture,’’ Hollis said. “The biggest concern is the safety of the student-athletes.’’
Those student-athletes certainly don't seem concerned, though.
“This is so special to be the first outdoor college basketball game and anyone who doesn’t play for Michigan State or North Carolina can’t say they played in it,’’ Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green said. “If we went underneath, we couldn’t have said it either.
"You worry about the rain, but I grew up playing outside on the playground, and if there’s wind just shoot it off the backboard.’’
Hollis said a number of waivers had to be granted by the NCAA.
“There were a lot of operational logistics we were dealing with since we had the government, the Navy, the two institutions and the NCAA,’’ Hollis said. “The approval of the uniforms, the long sleeves, the ability to come out a day earlier than normal. There were a lot of things that [Big East coordinator of officials] Art Hyland and [NCAA coordinator of officials] John Adams had to help us get through for all the waivers. We also had to get the endorsement of [NCAA president] Mark Emmert and [NCAA vice president] Greg Shaheen.’’
The setup on the Vinson's flight deck, where normally 39 jets are stationed, ready to be deployed, is as picture-perfect as any venue in the history of the sport. The court sits on the middle of the deck, with the San Diego skyline across the water. The stands, which seat 7,000, are next to the court, with courtside seating for dignitaries that will include President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
At one point Thursday, sailors took turns sitting in their seats in their blue-tinted fatigues. The image was akin to an Army-Navy game.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he was filled with pride in advance of the game. His first reaction to coming on board the ship Wednesday was: “Wow. Wow. Every player had their phones and cameras out," Williams said. "No one was talking to each other. Their eyes and mouths were wide open. This is going to be a celebration.
"From the tipoff to the final horn, we’ll be working our tails off for the game. But we’ll be thinking about the smiles on the faces of the people who serve our country. We’re thrilled. It sends a cold chill for me just talking about it. It’s the neatest thing I’ve ever been involved in.’’
North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller said the last time he played outside was in middle school. He said he was a bit worried about his hook shot and sizing up the distance with the potential for wind.
The elements were on everyone’s mind, but not in a negative way.
“I like it out here,’’ North Carolina junior forward John Henson said. “I think we should get the Dean Dome to open up. I’d hate to go down low and miss this experience.’’
Barnes called the whole thing “unreal.”
“There’s no other way to say describe it," he said. "It’s so nice with the sky and the cool weather. There will be such a special aura about this game. No matter how far we go in the tournament, we’ll never see something like this. We’re showing appreciation for the troops, see how they live and this game is put in perspective.’’
Michigan State sophomore guard Keith Appling called this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I’m only concerned that a couple of my shots get some wind and they could far right or far left,’’ he said with a laugh. “It might be embarrassing with the president in the stands.’’
Nevertheless, this game will be outside, whether there is wind or mist. That much we know.
“Weather is not going to be a factor,’’ Green said. “It’s going to be great.’’