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USS Carl Vinson takes new role: basketball arena

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
  • The game will pit the Michigan State Spartans against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels
  • Nothing will be welded or nailed to the USS Carl Vinson, in case it needs to depart on a mission
  • Tickets won't be sold to the public
  • Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson will be honorary captains for the game

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. aircraft carrier that launched the first attacks against al Qaeda and the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States will be the site of another first, as it hosts the opening game of the 2011 NCAA college basketball season.

Friday, Navy Chief of Information Rear Adm. Dennis Moynihan confirmed that after more than a month of discussions with a promoter, an agreement has been reached to hold the game on the USS Carl Vinson.

A company called Morale Entertainment will organize the game and be responsible for all the costs. "There will be no cost to the taxpayer," Moynihan said.

The Carl Vinson has played key roles in the fight against terrorism since the global war on terror began. Aside from launching the first wave of attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, it also carried the body of Osama bin Laden -- the leader of the terror group behind those attacks -- for burial at sea after he was killed in a U.S. military raid in Pakistan earlier this year.

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

The deal 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 carrier at the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego. Former UNC star Michael Jordan and former MSU star Earvin "Magic" Johnson are the honorary captains for the game.

The "Carrier Classic," as the game has been dubbed, will be the first televised college basketball game of the season for ESPN, which has agreed to broadcast the game.

But it will take more than a deal to pull the game off. Unlike indoor arenas, players will be exposed to the elements on the deck of an aircraft carrier. To prevent any weather delays, two courts will be built on the ship: one on the flight deck, and the other in the hangar deck, which will be protected from rain and some wind.

The seating for the flight deck stadium will be wrapped with fabric to help block the wind, and the ship will be moored alongside a pier that would put the sun about midcourt, so no players will have to shoot into the setting sun. A professional lighting crew that does lighting for rock concerts has been contacted about bringing in lights to help keep the court bright enough for the players and the TV cameras.

Another issue is security. The game will attract about 7,000 fans to the nuclear-powered carrier, one of the Navy's most important assets. Getting them onto a secure Navy base and then on board the vessel will take a significant security effort. Part of that has been addressed by the promoters, who won't sell tickets to the public. Instead, some tickets will go to UNC and MSU, a few to sponsors, and some to coaches who take part in a game-week youth 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 be printed with the name of the ticket-holder, which must match that person's identification as they enter the venue.

The Navy also made sure that the promoters and ESPN, which plans to bring a dozen or more cameras to cover the game, know that at any moment President Barack Obama could order the Carl Vinson to leave port for a mission. Basketball courts, bleachers, lights, etc., would have to come off the ship at the same time that more than 5,000 sailors and Marines would come aboard. Whalen said he has assured the Navy his company would be prepared to break down both courts and all the seating very quicky. "We can be off the ship in 24-36 hours," he said.

Moynihan said the deal reached Friday will have "no operation impact to the Carl Vinson."

To make sure of that, nothing will be bolted or welded to the ship. Instead, crews will take advantage of the "tie-downs" already on the carrier's decks that hold warplanes in place to attach equipment. Planes are not typically on board an aircraft carrier when it 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."

If the event goes off as planned, there are already talks in the works to hold more games on the carrier, including a match up between the Notre Dame and Ohio State women's basketball teams.