Next Veterans Day, we should honor America’s military personnel by not trying to play basketball on aircraft carriers.
We can acknowledge the sacrifices and achievements of veterans next November by recognizing that the deck of a naval craft is a state-of-the-art military staging area and a dangerous workplace for the best-trained fighting force in human history, not a playground for sweaty civilians.
Two “basketball on a boat” games attempted to tip off on Friday evening: Ohio State vs. Marquette on the USS Yorktown, docked in South Carolina; and Florida vs. Georgetown aboard the USS Bataan in Jacksonville. On paper, aircraft carrier games combine the best elements of Army-Navy football and the NHL’s Winter Classic: quality sporting events in a unique venue with a healthy dose of patriotic pageantry. On deck, however, these events challenge the principles of meteorology and thermodynamics -- and they lose badly.
The deck of an aircraft carrier is essentially a thick slab of steel suspended above a huge body of water. When the temperature is 70 degrees, as it is likely to be in mid-afternoon in November in the South, the deck stays dry. When the temperatures plunge into the 40s, as it is likely to do in the early evening in November in the south (particularly on the water), a funny thing called condensation happens. Water vapor in the air cools and beads on the metal surface, helped along by convection cooling, the phenomenon that makes soup cooler by blowing on it and makes temperatures on the open water cooler than those a mile inland.
Have you ever read a highway sign that reads “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface?” Have you ever felt the moisture on your car’s hood and windshield after the temperature plunges? Heck, have you ever gone fishing? Cool temperatures plus wet air plus metal surface equals little drops of water, and possibly even ice.
So if you tuned in to NBC Sports Network on Friday night at tipoff hoping to see DeShaun Thomas and Trent Lockett silhouetted against the evening sky, you instead saw people mopping. The image was mesmerizing for a while. Sailors mopped. The kids who soak up sweat after players land on the court mopped. Anyone with two sturdy knees and a dry hankie hit the deck and mopped. It was like the world’s worst summer stock production of “South Pacific.” But soon, it became clear that they weren’t so much removing the moisture as swirling it around.
Still, it was hard to channel surf away. The other marquee tipoff game was Connecticut vs. Michigan State, from a military base in Germany. The game was well played, and it ended with a UConn upset. But it was hard to watch because both teams wore nearly identical camouflage uniforms. The whole point behind camouflage is its ability to make distinct movements hard to spot, and boy did it work. Back-and-forth action became a blur of black dots. Never before have two high-profile programs tried so hard to not be seen.
Still, blurry-dot basketball beats synchronized scrubbing. NBC Sports Network held out hope by showing the greatest of naval traditions, swabbing the deck, for as long as possible. At the risk of switching to potato peeling, the network switched to a replay of the women’s basketball game played on the Yorktown deck in earlier, sunnier, dryer times.
Prospects for Florida-Georgetown were more promising. The game tipped off as scheduled. Florida played without suspended point guard Scottie Wilbekin, but Kenny Boynton slid over from shooting guard and ran the Gators’ offense smoothly. The Hoyas countered with multi-faceted offensive forward Nate Lubick and one of the nation’s tallest starting lineups. A crowd of 3,500 sailors and VIPs watched Florida take a 27-22 halftime lead beneath clear skies. During a television timeout, a group of sailors re-enlisted, taking their oath under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy. It was a stirring moment, young men and women confirming their commitment to the greater good during a time in the game usually reserved for frat boys attempting halfcourt shots for cash prizes.
But Towel Team Six redeployed at halftime, as condensation once again proved a harsh mistress. Both coaches wanted to keep playing … until they stepped onto the court. “Once I walked from the baseline to halfcourt, I realized this is not a safe surface. The kids’ safety -- both their team and our team -- means too much,” said Georgetown coach John Thompson III.
Poor NBC Sports Network. It finally had a live sporting event on a smooth, icy surface to broadcast, but it wasn’t hockey. The NHL-heavy network has resorted to rerunning 2012 Olympic broadcasts and sending Gary Bettman emails with the subject line “Thinking of You.” Every sporting event they try to broadcast gets cancelled. A volcano will probably erupt at Churchill Downs come May.
Bad luck aside, a canceled Veterans Day tribute is worse than no tribute. The cancellations gave the impression of unpreparedness. The U.S. Navy, in an effort to accommodate the NCAA, television networks and sponsors, looked incapable of coping with dew. It was exactly the wrong message.
It doesn’t take much thought to conceive of a Veterans Day tribute that is both rousing and logistically feasible. Hold a few games indoors at military bases, like the UConn-Michigan State game, but reign in the camouflage. Basketball players are basketball players, not soldiers in a foxhole. Schedule the Army-Navy basketball game for Veterans Day, perhaps with Georgetown or Syracuse on the bill to add national interest. Just stop trying to turn four billion dollars of precision military technology into the world’s dampest field house.
There was a third carrier game scheduled for Friday: Syracuse vs. San Diego State aboard the USS Midway in San Diego. The game was postponed until Sunday afternoon due to bad weather. Playing in the dazzling California midday sun, condensation was not an issue. CJ. Fair scored 17 points and added 10 rebounds, leading the Orange to a 62-49 win. Long, sunny shadows followed each player up and down the court. A stiff breeze blew the courtside banners but did not whip up quite enough to blow jump shots off course.
It was beautiful. It was inspirational. And if it wasn’t the only one of three ships to arrive this year, a basketball Santa Maria arriving in port two days late with no Nina or Pinta in sight, it would have been a tremendous tribute to the veterans.
Instead, it was a belated reminder that we should never try to play basketball on a boat again.