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Cranes, forklifts and prayers: How Gonzaga’s upcoming Armed Forces Classic game against Michigan State came together

Nov. 9, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 17, 2022 at 3:07 p.m.

Getting a big-time college basketball game onto a 97,000-ton Navy vessel comes with all the logistical hurdles and structural challenges one might imagine, and probably a few hundred more one wouldn’t.

That’s even before the participating coaches start making special requests.

During a recent phone call between Mark Few and David Ceisler, ESPN’s vice president of production for college basketball, it was clear Gonzaga’s coach was already getting into the spirit of things.

“Mark and I talked a month or two ago; he was asking, could he land on the carrier on a plane?” Ceisler recalled. “I was like, ‘Coach, there’s going to be a court down and we’re going to have some other bleachers, and I don’t think you’re going to land on the carrier.’ But he was all in. It’s just an all-in type of attitude.”

Few gave a wry account of the conversation during a postgame interview in Spokane earlier this week.

“I was supposed to be able to get onto one of those planes, take off and land on the aircraft carrier,” he said. “My man from ESPN did not deliver on that. So I’m fairly disappointed in that. I was really looking forward to that.”

The consolation prize will be playing a fellow college basketball power, Michigan State, Friday afternoon on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego, and experiencing all the pageantry that will come with one of the most anticipated dates on the early college basketball calendar.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman will be on the call for a 3:30 p.m. tipoff between Few’s second-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) and Tom Izzo’s Spartans (1-0).

“As I’ve said for the four or five military events I’ve been a part of, whether it be going to Kuwait or playing in Germany, the aircraft carrier or all the other ones, it’s necessary … take a moment to appreciate the ship,” Izzo said. “The fact we’re going to be on it for two days and those sailors are on it for six months without coming home.”

As for what all goes into a game of such scale, how ESPN will broadcast it to an international audience and, the question of questions, what do contingency plans look like if weather forecasts change in the 11th hour?

Ceisler, who’s overseen the network’s production of college basketball for the last nine seasons, joined ESPN Senior Events Manager Scott Pomeroy and U.S. Navy Captain Dave Kurtz to help The Spokesman-Review pull back the curtain on what it takes to pull off the first carrier game in a decade.

When it comes to college basketball and naval warships, the history is complicated. The idea was hatched in 2011, when Michigan State and North Carolina agreed to play on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, also based in San Diego. The game, attended by then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, was a booming success, and four more were added to the college basketball slate the following season.

Two of those went off without trouble, while two were either canceled before tipoff or called off at halftime, due to dangerous court conditions. But San Diego-based carrier games remain a perfect 2-for-2, so it didn’t take long to determine a location when the idea hatched of bringing the event back this year.

FOX and ESPN expressed interest in televising the game, but the former pulled out of negotiations early, giving ESPN the broadcast rights.

It’s unclear if other teams were considered or how many, but Ceisler, who’s well-connected in the coaching world, fielded a number of calls from high-major programs making pitches to play in the game.

“I was getting hit by coaches about their interest,” he said. “ ‘I’ll move a game, I’ll change a game.’ It was a really cool thing to see the coaching fraternity all in on doing this.”

The coaches chosen to play on Friday were all in from the jump. Izzo walked off the carrier in 2011 with indelible memories that overshadowed the final score: a 67-55 loss for his Spartans. He shared some of the scenes from that experience with Few, a longtime friend, during a conversation earlier this year.

“(Izzo) told me outside of the Final Four it was the greatest event he went to,” Few said. “Coolest thing he’s ever done outside of being a part of a national championship game or something. So I said, OK, I’m in.”

Making sure the event lives up to the hype has been the top priority for Pomeroy and Ceisler since the matchup was announced in July. It’s not totally in their control, either. Pomeroy, who is spending 25 days in San Diego overseeing the build-out and removal of the temporary arena, gets hourly weather reports from ESPN colleagues, and the Navy’s weather service has provided daily updates.

“I’ve got enough other people telling me what they’re seeing on the weather so I don’t really have to do it myself all that often,” Pomeroy said.

Current reports suggest a light cloud cover on Friday afternoon, and temperatures are projected to hover in the mid-60’s. Forecasts can change faster than the bounce of a basketball, but for now there’s no precipitation expected on game day.

“Knock on wood, pray to whatever you want to pray to and everything,” Pomeroy said. “Think good thoughts, whatever terms and slogans you want to use, we would appreciate it.”

A late afternoon tip gives the game a chance to finish by 6 p.m., when San Diego’s marine layer typically settles in. In a perfect world, there would be a playing surface that’s less prone to condensation and moisture, but the floor used Friday won’t be different from the one the Zags use 15-20 times per year in Spokane. Once GU and MSU are done with it, the surface will be repacked and sent up Interstate 5 for the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim.

Pomeroy’s team has created four backup plans in case Mother Nature does choose to interfere.

“We’ve got contingencies to move the game time earlier Friday, we’ve got contingencies to potentially move the game time to Thursday or back to Saturday and even an indoor venue,” he said. “But we want to do everything we can to play the game on the carrier, and that’s the focus.”

They didn’t consider any college venues, and event organizers would only turn to a smaller naval gym about a half-mile from the carrier as a “worst-case scenario.”

Even if precipitation and condensation aren’t factors, wind could still alter how the game plays out. Gusts of 5-10 mph are expected Friday afternoon.

“I know I’d like to have Drew Timme if it’s a windy day,” Ceisler said, “because I think his footwork in the post will hold up.”

The Armed Forces Classic is a celebration of college basketball, on a military holiday, that happens to coincide with an important centennial anniversary. In 1922, the Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. The fleet of aircraft carriers in the U.S. has now reached 11 ships.

“The average age on board the ship is less than 22 years old, so when viewers see the ship and they see the aircraft on board and they see the flyby at the beginning of the game, it leaves people awestruck,” said Kurtz, who oversees qualification levels for the 33,000 sailors who operate the 11 carriers. “To be able to put that into context of the fact that the vast majority of people who are maintaining and operating that equipment are barely out of high school I think should give people a lot of pride about the young people in America.”

Metal bleachers craned onto the carrier hold an estimated 3,300 fans, but Pomeroy’s hoping to find room for 3,500 by game time. Gonzaga and Michigan State received a combined ticket allotment of 1,000, meaning approximately 2,500 seats will be occupied by active duty military members and their guests.

“There’s some unique locations on the carrier that we’re going to be able to put some sailors in, like what’s called the island, vulture’s row, a series of levels where there’s outdoor areas to stand,” Pomeroy said.

For the game to happen this year, event planners needed to locate a carrier that wasn’t scheduled for deployment and wasn’t undergoing significant maintenance. The USS Abraham Lincoln met both criteria. The vessel has been tied to the pier in San Diego since mid-August after deployments to Japan, South Korea, China and other parts of the South China Sea.

“At any time does the ship have to go?” Ceisler said. “So one of the Navy guys laughed. He won’t be delicately unloading our stuff, they may have to push it overboard. So we’ve had a couple good laughs with them. Like, how did we get clearances to get our (ESPN) drone approved in the air space?”

Naval Base San Diego operates as a separate entity from the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the carrier doesn’t report to the base in a chain-of-command relationship, which added another layer of complexity to the planning of Friday’s game and increased the amount of time Kurtz – a self-described “facilitator or point guard” – has spent on the phone in recent weeks and months.

There are safety measures to consider, too. Initially, the plan was to convert “ready rooms” – spaces where air crews prepare for flights – into game-day locker rooms for Gonzaga and Michigan State. But shorter, tighter spaces with low-hanging door frames and pipes may be hazardous for college basketball players who often duck to clear normal doorways.

“Our ships aren’t necessarily designed for 7-footers,” Kurtz said, “and so making sure the players don’t hurt themselves as they move around the ship.”

Instead, trailers have been craned onto the flight deck, giving teams ample room to change and move about before the game. A larger crane took the initial shift on the aircraft carrier, hoisting locker room trailers and other heavy, awkward structures. It’s since been subbed out for a smaller crane that will transport forklifts, lights, tables, the court and other smaller items onto the flight deck.

“It’s literally the workhorse,” Pomeroy said.

Ceisler and his team oversee the production of 6,000 college basketball games on ESPN’s linear and digital networks every year. He doesn’t watch many of those on his own time, but suggested he’d make an exception for Friday’s event.

“I’m just looking at the camera plot right now. There’s 25 cameras in the plot I’m looking at,” Ceisler said. “We do a regular college basketball game with five cameras. We do special games with 11, 12, 13. I’m looking at this plot of 25 cameras. It’s a lot of equipment and a lot of vendors.”

College football fans are accustomed to the cable-suspended FlyCams that run the length of a stadium on a small, invisible wire to give viewers a unique aerial view of the playing field. The outdoor setting on Friday gives ESPN a rare opportunity to bring the FlyCam into a college basketball environment. Call it a FlyCam on steroids.

“The FlyCam run is over 800 feet, is what I heard today from the length of the deck,” Ceisler said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s three football fields long; it’s amazing.”

In addition to a pool of cameras that’s larger than normal, ESPN will use a drone and blimp to create unique shots of a carrier that’s estimated at 1,100 feet long.

ESPN’s LaPhonso Ellis and Seth Greenberg will hold a half-hour SportsCenter segment from the flight deck prior to the game, and the network brought in Chris Spatola, a former Army captain who served two tours in Afghanistan, to take on sideline reporter duties. At one point, ESPN plans to toss the broadcast to a pair of sailors, who’ll take over for Bilas and Shulman to call a portion of the game.

There will be other military-themed twists throughout, including a pregame flyover, a halftime enlistment ceremony and a feature story on Navy Capt.Amy Bauernschmidt, a former collegiate swimmer at the Naval Academy who became the first woman to lead a carrier class ship.

“A normal game I’m in a truck, wish everybody a good game and kind of sit back and let them do their jobs. I don’t want to get in peoples’ way,” Ceisler said. “But this one has a few more parts and pieces throughout that I guess we’ll all kind of be hoping we hit the right marks.”

Pomeroy has overseen carrier games before, but he calls Friday’s event “by far the largest undertaking” he’s been involved in.

Accommodating a large number of non-service members on an active Navy ship means approximately 1,000 background checks for fans, players, team personnel, contracted laborers and credentialed media members. The Navy originally set a two-week timeline for clearing background checks, but the process consumed the better part of two months.

“So again, not without its challenges, and there’s been a few delays that haven’t caused us heartburn,” Pomeroy said. “… Pulling this off, it is no small feat. When you’re here and you see it, I think it’ll add some context … or at least I hope it does.”

It’s the second Armed Forces Classic for the Zags, who played one half of basketball against Pittsburgh in 2015 on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, before moist court conditions forced the game to be canceled.

Beyond what happens between the baselines, Few expects it to be a powerful experience for his team, which arrived in San Diego on Wednesday.

“What a great way in a very, very small way to honor all our service people that are out there. I think it’s going to be extremely powerful,” he said. “I know it’s already powerful for me, and it gave our guys a real hit of, the guys that are really laying it on the line for all of us so we can have all these freedoms that we’re all enjoying and complaining about and all that.

“So, I’m really, really looking forward to that and the effect it’s going to have on the guys.”

San Diego’s spotless record in carrier games should instill more confidence that Friday’s game will go off without any hitches.

“Everything we do is all about being ready for the 11th,” Pomeroy said, “whatever that looks like.”

Until then, he’s still taking those prayers.

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