Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/11/11

The road to the Final Four began on the water this year. And, as expected, the blue & white camouflage jerseys were dominate over the green & white camouflage jerseys – especially for a stretch – on the scoreboard. As the sun set and the clouds began to color over with reds and yellows, the Tarheels pulled away from the Spartans and North Carolina continued its recent dominance over Michigan State, winning 67 – 55.  Coach Tom Izzo’s squad never gave up, pulling to within 10 points with 6 minutes to go in the game, but the Tarheels were just too much for them.

But it was the backs of the jerseys, the location of the game, and the spectators in the crowd that told the world what this game really was about. Instead of the players’ names, the letters “U.S.A.” were spelled out on the backs of the Michigan State Spartans and the North Carolina Tarheels jerseys, showing military members around the world that both teams are ultimately on the same side when it comes to honoring the soldiers and the sailors, both those that were present here on the Coronado Naval Base in southern California and those that are stationed in countries near and far.

Below the north basket sat a man with no legs. Next to him was a man who couldn’t use his. Both were wounded warriors. And both were being honored here, on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in beautiful San Diego, on Veteran’s Day. The game ball was delivered by the Secretary of the Navy, who handed it to a soldier who only had one good arm remaining, who handed it to the referees. Everywhere you went on this 41.5 acre flight deck, you were reminded of the intense love and patriotism that these men and women have for their country.

Air Force One flew into the San Diego skies a little before 4pm local time, and President Obama and his wife joined dozens of armed forces members at midcourt to watch the game. After talking with both teams before the game and addressing the crowd at midcourt after the National Anthem, the Commander in Chief joined in as the 8,111th person in attendance at this history-making event.

Tradition didn’t stop because of a basketball game. With a few minutes left in the first half, the game was stopped and the gigantic flag on the back of the USS Carl Vinson was lowered – as is the tradition at sunset every night – with everyone in attendance standing at attention and the MSU players holding their hands over their hearts. And then they were back at it, Izzo yelling at his players like they were in the Breslin Center. Imagine what it was like for the Michigan State freshmen, who played their first collegiate basketball game outside and against the #1 team in the country.

As the clock counted down to 0:00 and the chants of “Tar—Heels” and “Go Green – Go White” melded into chants of “U—S—A”, and as the players gave away their specially-made camouflage jerseys to those who defended their ability to do so, the Quicken Loans Carrier Classic was deemed a success.

It was a surreal experience and the parade of dignitaries coming on and off the court – from the Secretary of the Navy to the Commanding Officer of the warship we were sitting on – was impressive. Their uniforms were crisp and sharp. Their medals and bars were gleaming. But they would tell you – and we all know it to be true – that they would gladly give all those up if they could bring their friends back alive from the battlefield, or give the wounded warriors their limbs back. In a world where the word “hero” is used WAY too often, on one flight deck of one aircraft carrier docked in the San Diego Bay, the injured and the wounded were honored for what they are – true heroes. Happy Veterans Day.

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