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USS Carl Vinson may host first NCAA game on aircraft carrier

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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The day the USS Carl Vinson came home
  • Navy is in talks for potential "Carrier Classic"
  • ESPN would televise game if it pans out
  • Two courts would have to be built to skirt weather woes
  • Courts, bleachers would have to vanish if carrier ordered on a mission

Washington (CNN) -- Hoops games happen all the time on aircraft carriers, but Tuesday officials from the Navy, the NCAA and Morale Entertainment met to discuss staging a major college basketball game on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

The Carl Vinson has played key roles in the fight against terrorism almost since day one. The ship launched the first wave of air attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, and most recently it was the ship from which Osama bin Laden was buried at sea.

Now the Carl Vinson is on track to make sports history, as the first ever carrier to host an NCAA basketball game.

The final deal hasn't been reached, but the plan, being promoted by Morale Entertainment, calls for the Michigan State Spartans to play the University of North Carolina Tar Heels on Veterans Day, November 11, on the top deck of the Carl Vinson at the U.S. naval base in San Diego at about 4 p.m. PT.

"The discussion with representatives is still ongoing. If we are able to come to a final agreement, we look forward to the opportunity this event presents for our Navy and the veterans," Cmdr. Danny Hernandez, U.S. Navy spokesman, said. "We're still reviewing the proposal."

The "Carrier Classic," as the game has been dubbed, would be the first televised college basketball game of the season for ESPN, which agreed to air the game if the negotiations are finalized and the Navy signs off on the deal.

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But it will take more than a deal to pull the game off. First there's the game itself. Unlike indoor arenas, the deck of an aircraft carrier would mean possible winds, rain or sunshine. To cope with possible weather problems, two courts would be built on the ship: One up on the flight deck, the other below in the hangar deck, which would be protected from rain and some wind. The seating for the flight deck stadium would be wrapped with fabric to help block the wind, which college basketball players typically don't have to cope with.

As for the sunshine, the ship would be moored alongside a pier that would put the sun about midcourt, so no players would have to shoot into the setting sun. Plus a professional lighting crew that does lighting for rock concerts has been contacted about bringing in lights to help keep the court lit enough for the players and the TV cameras.

Another issue is security. An aircraft carrier is the Navy's most important asset. The game would attract about 7,000 fans. Getting them onto a secure Navy base and then on board a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would take a significant security effort.

Part of that has been addressed by the promoters, who don't plan to sell tickets to the public. Instead, some tickets will go to UNC and MSU and a few to sponsors as well as some youth coaches who take part in an onshore clinic. The rest of the tickets will go to service members, veterans and their families.

Plus, Morale Entertainment spokesman Mike Whalen said each ticket will have the name of the ticket holder printed on the front to prevent scalping. If the name on the ticket doesn't match your ID, no game for you.

The Navy also needs the promoters and ESPN, which plans to bring a dozen or more cameras to cover the game, to know that at any moment the president could order the Carl Vinson to leave port for a mission. Which means the basketball courts, and bleachers would have to come off the ship just as 5,000-plus sailors and Marines would have to come aboard. Whalen said he has assured the Navy it would be prepared to break down both courts and all the seating very quickly if need be.

"We can be off the ship 24 to 36 hours," Whalen said.

To make sure of that, nothing will be bolted or welded to the ship. Instead, they will use "tie-downs" that are already on the ship's decks to hold warplanes in place. Planes are not typically on board an aircraft carrier that is in its home port.

The idea for a carrier-based basketball game started at Michigan State. According to Whalen, MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis had the idea and head basketball coach Tim Izzo liked it. In a news release from ESPN, Izzo said, "As coaches and athletes, we are familiar with terms like wins and losses, but to our servicemen and women, those phrases have very different meanings. It's a concept that first hit home during one of my trips to visit our troops in Kuwait, and one that I've carried with me since then."

The Navy spent Monday and Tuesday with officials from the NCAA, Morale Entertainment, ESPN and the San Diego Sports Commission in detailed discussions about the game. They've given the officials tours of the ship, let them see the areas that could be used for the game and the potential problems that could crop up.

As if the idea of the first carrier-borne NCAA game isn't enough to interest you, perhaps this will: Former UNC star Michael Jordan and former MSU star Earvin "Magic" Johnson are the honorary captains for the game.

And if the game goes off as planned and is successful, there are already talks about having more games, including a match-up between the Notre Dame and Ohio State women's basketball teams.