Veterans Day game on Newport News carrier could give college basketball a signature opener

The USS Carl Vinson was built in Newport News and commissioned here in 1982. The carrier has served in the Persian Gulf during war, off the Haitian coast following an earthquake and, most recently, transported Osama bin Laden's corpse to sea for disposal.

Now, a truly unique and über cool duty: On Veterans Day, the ship is scheduled to stage a college basketball game between North Carolina and Michigan State.

Alas, our typical early-November weather precludes the Vinson's original home from hosting the first Carrier Classic. Instead, the Tar Heels and Spartans will compete on deck near San Diego, the ship's present port.

Still, talk about must-see TV.

Not to shill for ESPN, which will televise the game live, at 7 p.m., EST, on Nov. 11 (that's 11-11-11). The mothership — Dan Patrick's pet description — needs promoting like Hollywood needs another Kardashian.

But this event demands national coverage and we can only hope ESPN does it right.

The network's creativity is undeniable, and its BracketBusters concept has become a college basketball staple. But the Carrier Classic is not ESPN's baby.

Rather, it was brainstormed by the Morale Entertainment Foundation. According to its website, the foundation's mission is to bring the "best of America overseas to lift the spirits of our brave men and women who are fighting for our freedoms downrange."

North Carolina-Michigan State basketball is such an opportunity, albeit on domestic soil. The Tar Heels defeated the Spartans in the 2009 NCAA championship game, and Carolina figures to start next season atop the national polls.

Unlike that 2009 encounter, which drew a Final Four-record 72,922 to Detroit's Ford Field, the Carrier Classic will be for an intimate crowd of about 7,000. Most seats are reserved for military, but let's hope organizers also make room for a few Newport News shipbuilders who toiled on the Vinson.

Officials from the Navy, ESPN and Morale toured the ship Monday and Tuesday to discuss logistics such as lighting, security and construction of a makeshift court and bleachers, the Associated Press reported. Morale's Michael Whalen said it was pure luck that the carrier known for burying the world's most-wanted terrorist was available.

"It's strictly by schedule," he told the AP. "I know people don't think that. It's true. You can't make this stuff up. It's just the way it worked out."

The Vinson completed a multi-year, $3.12-billion overhaul in Newport News in 2009, and if it remains available, college basketball may have a signature season-opener that becomes an annual spectacle.

"The opportunity to give something back to those that serve in the military and their families is a humbling experience," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. "On the court, the game will feature two of the top programs in America, but it also provides an opportunity for life lessons off the court, including those about the real meaning of sacrifice and dedication. 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."

North Carolina Coach Roy Williams: "The look on our players' faces when I told them they would be playing outdoors on the deck of an aircraft carrier was priceless. The experience will create for them a lifetime of memories. Even more important is the chance to combine the start of the college basketball season with saluting and thanking our military personnel for all they do to allow us to safely live and play each day in the United States of America."

http://bio.tribune.com/davidteel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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