Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 11/12/11
CORONADO, Ca. The setting was equal parts surreal and spectacular: a purple-orange postcard sunset, President Barack Obama sitting at courtside and the USS Carl Vinson's seven-story control tower looming over a makeshift outdoor arena that was packed with sailors and basketball dignitaries. The basketball itself, most definitely, was not. But long after No. 1-ranked North Carolina's 67-55 pedestrian victory over Michigan State is forgotten, the once-in-a-lifetime memories of college basketball's first game aboard an aircraft carrier are certain to linger. It didn't take long to realize that. "It's going to be a hell of a memory maker for all of us," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said before he left the court. For the participants, there were so many of them. Obama visited both teams in their dressing trailers. The game was stopped around sunset so "Taps" could be played when the ship's flag was taken down. And then there was the setting itself, on the flight deck of a ship that is as long as the Empire State Building is tall. "Even though you're out there playing, it took about 10 minutes before it started to feel normal," North Carolina guard Harrison Barnes said. "You're jogging up the floor and go, 'Hey,'" he added, pantomiming a wave toward the president. Each team wore specially made camouflage uniforms, Michigan State in its green and white; North Carolina in two shades of light blue. Instead of the players' names on their backs, the uniforms read "U.S.A." The Tar Heels coaches were also outfitted in desert tan cargo pants and combat boots. When the game was over, North Carolina players at the urging of the Spartans' Draymond Green joined Michigan State players and handed their jerseys to the wounded warriors who sat near courtside. The act of giving back took on another level of poignancy with so many NBA people on hand. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, North Carolina alums Tyler Hansbrough and Vince Carter, Michigan State alum Shannon Brown, Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro and Hall of Famer Jerry West would not likely have been present if the NBA weren't stuck in a lockout. There was little to celebrate about the game itself. Michigan State grabbed a quick early lead, but with shot-swatting forward John Henson blocking nine shots and Barnes scoring 17, the Tar Heels built a 20-point lead midway through the second half. North Carolina was so much in control that Williams, who took medication earlier in the day for his bouts of vertigo, was mostly serene. "I only got ticked off enough one time to make myself dizzy," he said. Not so for the Spartans shooters, which was not surprising given the elements. They missed 20 of 22 three-pointers. The teams combined to make just 24 of 36 free throws. And that was with near optimum weather conditions. The stiff winds that were gusting mid-afternoon gave way to a chilly stillness at tipoff. And the rain that was forecast to hit later Friday evening held off until after the game ended. Still, with temperatures in the high 50s, some players wore long sleeves under their jerseys and others wore knee-high socks. "During timeouts, you could feel your joints locking up a little bit," said Green, who wore long sleeves. Other Spartans might have put in for hazard pay. Austin Thornton had his feet go out from under him while he drove to the basket, and three players lost their footing near midcourt, including Branden Dawson, who wrenched his ankle. The falls prompted Obama to reach down and wipe his finger on the court, checking to see if there was dew. It took 10 days to transform the flight deck of the ship into a 7,000-seat outdoor arena that was complete with high-definition screens at each end of the court, light standards, sponsor tents and an ESPN stage in one corner. Looming over the court was the ship's 70-foot control tower. The basketball game was part "Thank you" to the nation's troops, part photo-op for a military that is under increasing scrutiny from Congress in a fledgling economy and part Obama, who used his appearance to thank and support veterans as well as tout his administration's programs. Obama was less scripted when he met with the players, reinforcing his reputation as the First Basketball Fan. "It was kinda surreal that he knew who we were," Barnes said. "He said, 'Hey, Big Z (to Tyler Zeller), good seeing ya again, since '09. Hey, Johnny (Henson), block some shots tonight. Hey, Harrison, make some threes.'" Barnes shook his head at the memories. "I don't think there's ever going to be a game that I'm going to play that can compare with this," Barnes said. He probably isn't alone.
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