Take a good look at the USS Carl Vinson as it sails through the Golden Gate on its way home today — the ship is about to undergo a radical makeover for a historic basketball game.
Of all the Navy vessels in town for Fleet Week, no boat has a more decorated recent history than the 1½-acre aircraft carrier anchored near Pier 32. The ship made history 10 years ago by launching the first wave of air attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and again in May when it transported Osama bin Laden’s body for a burial at sea.
Next month, the Carl Vinson will make a new kind of history when it hosts the first big-time sports game aboard a U.S. naval vessel.
“This was an idea that seemed totally undoable,” said filmmaker Steven Barber, who’s recording a documentary about the game.
The Carrier Classic between North Carolina and Michigan State will kick off the 2011-12 college basketball season as a gift to service members on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. A star-studded team of special guests, including honorary captains Magic Johnson and James Worthy, will be onboard, along with President Barack Obama (schedule permitting), who would be making his first public appearance on the ship since bin Laden’s death.
But before anyone sinks a jump shot, the deck of the 97,000-ton carrier will be converted into a full-on sports arena capable of accommodating more than 7,000 fans.
“It’s a big undertaking,” said Mike Whalen, director of the Morale Entertainment Foundation, which is organizing the game. “It’s going to be a floating city.”
In roughly nine days, more than 300 volunteers will build a 7,000-seat stadium on the flight deck and a backup court on the hangar deck in case it rains. The perimeter of the arena will be wrapped in vinyl roughly 35 feet high to block wind, and the ship will be positioned in a way that ensures no player will have to shoot into the sun, which will be setting shortly after tipoff.
Tickets are mostly reserved for veterans, service members and their families.
“All [Whalen] cares about is giving these guys an experience,” said Barber. “Veterans Day has become just another three-day weekend; he wants to reinvigorate it.”
Crew member AC Michael Campbell, who’s made four tours to the Middle East, said the game does feel like a big thank you.
“The majority of us are huge sports fans, so live events like this are really a treat,” he said. “It helps us think about home and that we’re going back someday.”