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Staging hoops game on a flat top a big task

By Bernie Wilson

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 20 2011 6:40 p.m. MDT

People walk on the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on Monday, June 20, 2011, in San Diego, where an alternate basketball arena will be built in case bad weather interferes with the Carrier Classic basketball game to be played on the flight deck of the carrier. North Carolina and Michigan State are scheduled to play on Nov. 11 on the carrier.

Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

CORONADO, Calif. — Staging the first NCAA college basketball game on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is going to be a task as big as the USS Carl Vinson itself.

Just less than five months before North Carolina and Michigan State are scheduled to play on Veterans Day, officials from the Navy, ESPN and the Morale Entertainment Foundation spent a few hours Monday inspecting the flat top, which last month buried Osama bin Laden at sea.

Based at North Island Naval Air Station, across the bay from downtown San Diego, the Carl Vinson returned Wednesday from a deployment of nearly seven months.

The inspection, which was to continue Tuesday, is a big step toward a final agreement for the game to be played.

Putting on the game on Nov. 11 won't be as simple as plopping a court and seating on the flight deck, which normally is full of jet fighters either about to be catapulted into flight or returning from missions.

Among the numerous issues organizers have to deal with are security, weather, lighting, insurance, legal matters and getting the participants and an estimated 7,000 fans from shore to the ship, which is 1,092 feet long.

"They're exciting challenges," said Michael R. Rowe of Positive Impact, a sports consulting group based in New Jersey. "It has weather issues, everything from rain and wind. It has vertical issues, getting everything up here and mounting an event like everybody's seen 100 times in their life, but not with this backdrop and not with this ship, and not with the tradition of Veterans Day, and this ship in particular.

"Everybody that's been assembled has done this 1,000 times somewhere else before, but it's brand new."

Designers, engineers and lighting experts were among those using laser rangefinders, measuring wheels and light meters to start figuring it all out.

It's not supposed to rain in November, but organizers need a contingency plan. Rowe said two courts will be built for the game, one for the flight deck and one for the hangar deck below in case it does rain. Although the court will be surrounded by temporary stadium seating, there are plans for some kind of wind screen in an attempt to match the controlled environment basketball games are played in.

Lighting designer Jeff Ravitz, who's worked with Bruce Springsteen and other rock acts, will coordinate the lighting for the game and a postgame concert. Although the sunset against the downtown skyline is expected to provide a dramatic backdrop, it'll also be another issue to deal with.

"Jeff Ravitz has done lighting to the satisfaction and standards of Bruce Springsteen for a living, so if Bruce is happy, I'm sure the NCAA and ESPN will be happy," Rowe said.

"There are some things that are similar to working in, say, a baseball stadium," Ravitz said. "You're going to a big open area and setting up a stage from scratch, just like we do in a stadium, and bringing everything in that we need, including power. The secondary complications, though, are that it is on a ship and the access from the dock and the pier adds a whole level of logistics that we're not normally used to doing.

"The logistics and respect of working on a United States vessel, that gets everybody intimidated and excited at the same time," he said.

The court will be located between the island and the forward catapults.

"The ship is psyched for it," said Mike Whalen of the Morale Entertainment Foundation. "Anything they can do to help, they'll do."

The Carl Vinson and its sailors have attracted considerable attention since early May, when the carrier received a Navy SEAL team carrying the body of bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Pentagon officials have said bin Laden's body was placed in a weighted bag on the carrier, an officer made religious remarks and the body was put on a board and tipped into the sea.

"I'm still trying to figure out where that was," Rowe said while looking toward the stern.

The Navy isn't saying.

"Unfortunately, I can't," said Lt. Cmdr. Erik Reynolds, spokesman for the Carl Vinson and Carrier Strike Group One. "I'm not authorized to make any comment."

He did say that since the Carl Vinson is known as "America's Favorite Carrier," it will be a perfect venue.

"It allows us to talk about our sailors and about the aircraft carrier, which is the premier ship of the U.S. Navy," Reynolds said. "Any chance we can get to do that, I think it's a good thing. It's also a lot of fun. There's a lot of NCAA fans in the Navy."

The Carl Vinson launched the first airstrikes in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. During its recent deployment, it launched most of the strikes in support of troops in Afghanistan. Reynolds said the ship also thwarted pirate attacks on its first and last days in the Middle East.

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