ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON, U.S. NAVAL AIR STATION, Coronado, Calif. -- Isaac Paddock, a 32-year-old petty officer in the U.S. Navy, stood on the deck of this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Thursday afternoon and chatted congenially with reporters. Paddock cut an impressive figure in his blue fatigues. Though he was surrounded by sports writers, Paddock faced a distinctly non-sporting line of questioning as the scribes probed his memories of that fateful day last May when Osama Bin Laden's body was brought to this very ship by the Navy's special forces and dumped into the Arabian Sea.
Paddock was prohibited by military regulations from giving too many details about the event, but he did confirm he was on board that day. He said the crew did not know in advance that Bin Laden was coming, but became aware shortly after his body arrived by plane. "We learned about it as it was happening. There were certain areas on the ship we were told we couldn't go," Paddock said. "To have that happen on our ship was incredible. The whole ship had something to do with it. The ship isn't run by one person. The whole crew was really proud of our contribution to the United States of America."
A few hundred feet from where Paddock offered this paean to teamwork, dozens of workers were putting the finishing touches on a makeshift outdoor basketball arena. Men driving forklifts moved boxes of concessions. Others rolled in basket stanchions. Still others hammered away at the platform from which ESPN's studio crew will conduct its broadcast. It was all in preparation for Friday night's inaugural Carrier Classic between No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State.
Even a doltish sports writer wouldn't deign to compare a silly basketball game with the killing of the world's most wanted terrorist, but Paddock had no trouble marrying the two. He pronounced the game a "historic" occasion that also made his ship proud. Like the rest of America, the Vinson is filled with crazed sports fans. On those lonely days at sea, the game gives Paddock and his mates a meaningful taste of home. If a really big game is taking place, the captain will steer the ship to get the best possible satellite signal. "Sports is our way to connect to the world," he said. "We get every game, every pay-per-view event for free. If we can't watch it ourselves, we're on the radio asking, who's winning the game?"
A game between two prominent basketball programs would be compelling no matter where it was staged. But this game, and this stage, matters so much more. That's because the Carrier Classic is being held to commemorate Veterans Day (on 11/11/11 no less). The venue is as intimate as it is spectacular. The grandstands will hold a mere 7,000 spectators. There are hundreds of high school gyms in this country that can hold more than that. The deck also offers stunning visuals, with the captain's tower hovering overhead and the San Diego skyline visible behind the scorer's table.
About half the tickets were given to crew members of the Vinson, two-thirds of whom are no older than the college kids who will be playing. Several dozen injured veterans -- the venerable Wounded Warriors -- will be in attendance. So will President Obama, acting as Commander-in-Chief first, but as an avid basketball fan a close second.
Moreover, the Carrier Classic is happening at the end of one of the saddest weeks American sports has experienced in some time, maybe ever. Thousands of miles from where the tragic events have unfolded at Penn State, and from where a pathetic dispute between millionaires and billionaires threatens the NBA season, petty officer Paddock and his flyboy mates are once again swooping to the rescue. "I'm not intelligent enough to tell you how excited I am and the pride I feel to be playing in this game," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "It's a celebration that this is the United States of America, and we can do some darned good things."
The idea for the Carrier Classic germinated from the fertile mind of Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. When he was assistant commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, Hollis arranged for his league's football teams to visit Naval aircraft carriers while they were in San Diego to play in the Holiday Bowl. He never forgot the way those athletes interacted with crew members who were about the same age.
Since taking over as athletic director at Michigan State, Hollis has developed a reputation as a mad scientist for coming up with ideas like the 2003 "Basket Bowl," the game between the Spartans and Kentucky in Detroit's Ford Field that produced the biggest crowd (more than 78,000) ever to watch a basketball game. The beginning of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted Hollis to explore the possibility of combining that kind of spectacle with his desire to honor America's servicemen and women. After Spartans coach Tom Izzo returned from a Nike-sponsored trip to visit American troops in Kuwait, Hollis mentioned his wacky aircraft carrier idea to his coach. Izzo immediately agreed. He then called Williams, who likewise said he would play. "We didn't even know the details," Izzo said. "Where were we playing? Iraq? Lake Michigan? Nobody knew and nobody cared."
Three years ago, while accompanying the Spartans on a trip to Washington, D.C., Hollis took his idea to the Pentagon. The Navy liked it and planned to set up a doubleheader in which North Carolina and Michigan State would each face off against a service academy. The games were going to take place at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla., but that plan had to be scratched because that station no longer supports aircraft carriers.
Last year, Hollis hooked up with Mike Whalen, the founder of Morale Entertainment, a foundation that has brought dozens of athletes and coaches into war zones to visit American troops. Whalen agreed to come up with the funding, and shortly thereafter they locked in San Diego as a site. Two months ago, Whalen learned the game would be played aboard the same ship that dumped Bin Laden's body into the ocean. After informing Hollis, Whalen added, "By the way, the President's coming."
The colorful setting will also incorporate a factor that rarely plays in to a basketball game: wind. The deck is wide open, and if the wind is blowing like it was Thursday afternoon the players will feel it. "I played in the playgrounds until sixth or seventh grade, but rarely since I got involved with AAU basketball," said North Carolina sophomore forward Harrison Barnes, a preseason first team All-American. "The biggest thing is that you can't try to adjust for [the wind]. If you do you'll get thrown off and then you're thinking way too much."
Hollis' hope is the Carrier Classic will soon become an annual NCAA-sponsored event that marks the official opening game of basketball season. That's why he made sure that Mark Emmert, the organization's president, and Greg Shaheen, who runs the NCAA basketball tournament, will be on hand. Two members of the men's basketball committee are also coming. Though the site of next year's game is still being determined, the game has a date (Nov. 7) as well as one prominent team (UConn) and a second (Arizona) on the verge of signing up. Whalen has also arranged for a women's game to take place next year between Notre Dame and Ohio State, and he has a promise from the UConn women to play down the road. The Michigan State men have already agreed to play in 2013.
At one point Thursday afternoon, several dozen servicemen gathered in a corner of a grandstand and did the wave. They were just a bunch of young kids having fun, but their cheers rang out like church bells, a clarion call that summoned something both big and small: the beginning of another college basketball season. Those cheers also signified college basketball's chance say thanks. Thanks for your service. Thanks for your sacrifice. And thanks for giving us, during this saddest of weeks, a reminder of why sports can matter so little and still mean so much.