First Person: Running Ashore

By Adam Lucas | 0 Comment(s) | Posted

When Marquette faces Ohio State on Friday in the 2012 Carrier Classic, the visuals for the television viewer will be stunning. The game is being played on the deck of the USS Yorktown in Charleston, and there will still be the same gorgeous shots you saw last year when Carolina defeated Michigan State. It will still be intriguing to watch college basketball teams play where fighter jets once took off and landed. The big gray behemoth will still be imposing.

Except one essential thing will be entirely absent: the people. The Yorktown is a museum, not an active ship. At home, it will look very similar to the production of last year's game. There will be military personnel in attendance, and they'll be in uniform, and it will look nice for television.

But the best part of last year's experience in San Diego was the opportunity to meet and talk to the active duty personnel who lived and worked every single day on the USS Carl Vinson. Sure, it looked cool on television. What you didn't see, though, was that Tar Heel and Spartan players got to spend some time walking through the ship, getting a real glimpse of what our military do for us every day. It's one thing to see it in a museum. It's quite another to walk through the mess hall and see actual sailors--some younger than the players participating in the game--sitting down to eat their dinner.

A museum tends to make you ponder what it might be like to spend one day living aboard a ship. A living, working aircraft carrier is different. It makes you wonder what it might be like to spend six months at a time out on the water, crammed into the tiny bunks stacked in narrow rows.

As the Tar Heels walked around the Carl Vinson last November 9 on their behind-the-scenes tour, you could see it sinking in--for the sailors, this wasn't just a one-day show as part of some special basketball game. This was their life, a very real part of choosing to serve in the military. As then-freshman P.J. Hairston pondered the tiny beds, known as "coffin racks," he said simply, "I could never do this."

That's a realization that's more valuable than simply getting to play basketball in a cool environment. Hairston made a connection from the sailors on board to his daily life, and that's an experience this year's Carrier Classic participants won't get to have. Here's the primary difference: on an aircraft carrier museum, you realize they used to launch fighter jets off the ship, and that's pretty cool.

But on an active aircraft carrier, you realize they launch fighter jets off this ship--and it's mostly 20-year-olds (and younger) who make that happen. That's pretty cool...and pretty sobering, especially if you yourself are a 20-year-old college basketball player whose biggest daily responsibility is remembering the Thought for the Day on the practice plan.

It's not surprising that Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis, who originally came up with the idea of the Carrier Classic, is one of the few people who seems to understand the significance of the event. This year, his program didn't look for a different ship. Instead, he took his team to Germany, where they'll play in an airplane hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Frankfurt. 

See the pattern? Hollis realizes that while the surroundings are a nice bonus, the people are the true show. He didn't take his game to the best-looking facility. He took his game to where the people are, and that's what will make it a success.

Last year's game was a success, which prompted imitation--there are three games on a ship this year. Ohio State-Marquette is the latest iteration of the Carrier Classic, and San Diego State is hosting Syracuse on the USS Midway, another museum. The best of the bunch is likely to be Georgetown-Florida in Jacksonville, which is on the active USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship. 

But as usual, the imitators are weak replications of the original. In the rush to duplicate what looked interesting on television, the event's organizers have totally missed the soul of the event. As often happens in 2012, they've created something that will look good on television while ignoring what actually happens at the game site.

When Marquette and Ohio State tip off on Friday night, it'll be a nice television spectacle, and the teams involved will know they've been part of a unique experience. It's too bad they don't know what they're missing.

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