Maritime Madness: When College Basketball was played on an aircraft carrier

As March Madness begins, legendary college basketball coach Jim Boeheim reflects on the game he coached on a warship.

"One of the most beautiful days. Sunshine. No clouds."

That’s how coach Jim Boeheim described the weather when his Syracuse Orange took on San Diego State on November 11, 2012. Typically, the weather doesn’t impact basketball, but this game was unique. It was played outdoors on the deck of an aircraft carrier ported in San Diego, California.

"You couldn’t ask for a nicer day, except the wind was blowing," Boeheim said. "It made it almost impossible to shoot."

The game was the third regular-season college basketball game to be played on the deck of a warship. It was also the last.

In May 2011, ESPN announced that they would be partnering with the Morale Entertainment Foundation to televise the inaugural Carrier Classic on 11-11-11. Two premier college basketball teams would play a regular-season game on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego. The partnering organizations designed the event to honor the men and women serving the United States in the armed forces.

North Carolina and Michigan State could not have asked for better weather conditions for an outdoor basketball game. Temperatures were in the mid-60s, and the wind stayed calm for most of the game. The Tar Heels of UNC defeated the Spartans of MSU 67-55 with President Barack Obama in attendance.

With that game, it appeared that a new Veterans Day tradition had been created. In 2012, the Carrier Classic expanded to both a men’s and a women’s game on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Carrier Classic also had some competition. The USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Florida, would host The Navy-Marine Corps Classic. In San Diego, the USS Midway would host The Battle on the Midway. All four games would take place on Nov. 9, 2012.

The festivities got off to an ominous start. The threat of rain in San Diego postponed the Battle on the Midway to Nov. 11.

With one game already in jeopardy, the women’s game onboard the USS Yorktown in Charleston got started. At tip-off, temperatures were in the 50s, but as the sun went down, so did the temperature.

Notre Dame defeated Ohio State 57-51 in front of a crowd of 8,111. Both teams struggled to shoot and missed 71 of their combined 109 shots.

Following the Fighting Irish victory, the men’s teams of Ohio State and Marquette came out to complete the double-header. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas.

After sunset, the sharp temperature drop caused condensation to form on the hardwood. Squeegees and towels occupied the court instead of players. The moisture prevailed, and the game was canceled before a team took a shot.

Two hundred miles south in Jacksonville, the Florida Gators and Georgetown Hoyas were preparing to take the court for the second half of their game on the USS Bataan, with Florida leading 27-23.

Similarly, condensation collected on the court’s surface, making it unsafe to complete the game. The coaches and officials agreed to cancel the game. All accumulated stats from the first half were erased from the record books.

Suddenly, the future of basketball topside on an aircraft carrier seemed precarious. With two games canceled, there was growing doubt that the postponed Battle on the Midway would occur.

However, at 1 p.m. on Nov. 11, the Syracuse Orange and San Diego State Aztecs took the court. The middle of the afternoon tip-off time ensured they would not have to deal with rapidly declining temperatures after sunset.

"The court was fine, no problem there," said Boeheim. "It was a beautiful setting. If the wind hadn’t blown, it would have been great."

Despite Boeheim’s disdain for the windy conditions during the outdoor game, they seemed to favor his team. The Orange’s fabled 2-3 zone defense forced San Diego State to contend with the wind by taking difficult shots away from the basket.

"It hurt them more than us because we play zone, but we couldn’t make a shot either."

The Orange would find a way to make enough shots to win, though, beating the Aztecs 62-49.

Of the four aircraft carrier games scheduled in 2012, only two were completed. The safety issues caused by moisture collecting to the court and the difficulty of shooting a basketball in windy outdoor conditions were enough to keep another basketball game "at sea" from being scheduled.

Reflecting on the game nearly a decade later, Boeheim said, "I’m glad we did it; it was a great experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it so much if we lost."