SAN DIEGO — They’re going to try to play college basketball on an aircraft carrier again, and nautical veteran Tom Izzo and Michigan State will get a return trip to San Diego Bay to face Gonzaga on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on Veteran’s Day.
The game will be shown in prime time on Nov. 11 as part of ESPN’s Armed Forces Classic from the flat top moored at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, across the bay from downtown San Diego. The Abraham Lincoln is on deployment and is due back in port later this summer.
Izzo’s Spartans lost to No. 1 North Carolina 67-55 on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Nov. 11, 2011, in the first college basketball game on an active carrier. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama watched from courtside. The Carl Vinson conducted Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea after he was killed by Navy SEALs in a raid ordered by Obama six months earlier.
This will be the first aircraft carrier game since 2012, when only two of four games scheduled that fall were played, including one in San Diego that had to be pushed back two days because of rain rather than moving it indoors.
While the 2011 Carrier Classic was played in a spectacular setting, it ended less than an hour before rain drenched the court, just one of the hazards organizers face in staging carrier hoops games. Organizers said there would be a backup court on the hangar deck as a contingency, but that court was never set up.
Izzo welcomed the chance to play in another carrier game.
“The experience we had in 2011 when we played North Carolina on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson was one of the most humbling experiences of my career,” Izzo said in a statement. “Obviously, we wanted to win and any game against a program like that is very special, but to me, the game was about so much more than just a win or a loss.
“This opportunity to play on an aircraft carrier in front of men and women who serve in the military and are willing to put their lives on the line is an experience that is going to mean something to the young men who will play in the game for a long, long time,” Izzo added. “I said it last time and I’ll say it again, we’re going to play one of the best teams in the country and we’re going to be hosted by the No. 1 team in the world.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few echoed Izzo’s thoughts.
“This is a special opportunity for our program to support those who fight for our country in our own small way. We’re excited to face an incredible program in Michigan State and a great colleague in Coach Izzo. I’m sure this will be a great memory for all of us,” the Zags coach said in a statement.
The aircraft carrier craze went away after 2012, when Mother Nature played some serious lockdown defense, at least on the East Coast.
In a scheduled Carrier Classic doubleheader aboard the decommissioned USS Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina, on Nov. 9, 2012, Notre Dame beat Ohio State in a women’s game that started in the afternoon. But a men’s game between Ohio State and Marquette scheduled for the evening never started because of condensation on the court.
That same night, a game against Georgetown and Florida aboard the active-duty USS Bataan in Gainesville, Florida, was called off after the first half because of condensation.
In San Diego, a game between Syracuse and San Diego State scheduled for the evening of Nov. 9 aboard the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum on the San Diego side of the bay was pushed back two days because of rain. When it was played in brilliant sunshine on the afternoon of Nov. 11, a brisk wind blowing across the bay contributed to the host Aztecs making just 1 of 18 3-point shots in a 62-49 loss to the taller Orange and its zone defense.
Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events, said all parties will consider contingencies in case of bad weather or world events that would make the aircraft carrier unavailable.
He said returning to an aircraft carrier game was “just an option that presented itself. There was no grand plan with it. It was something that was made available in terms of a discussion and we explored it and found it to be viable. More importantly, we found teams who wanted to engage in that experience and were very understanding of the logistical challenges that could be presented.
“There has always been an intrigue from coaches and participating institutions to provide a thank you back to the men and women of the military,” Overby said. “The number of teams that have lined up to play in these events, whether they be overseas or even domestically, that’s been, in our minds, very well-received by the intercollegiate basketball community. So, we’re excited about that.”