ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — Petty officer Alexsis Labrake spends her days on the flight deck of the Carl Vinson, directing planes into position on the bow catapults to be launched into the air, ushering them into parking spots after they come slamming back to earth.
This is her office, 4 1/2 acres of nonskid decking where she works as an aircraft handler, scurrying among moving planes in a yellow vest, in wind, rain and searing sun, as the giant ship rolls beneath her. She's seen some amazing things in the Navy, but seeing a basketball court where planes normally take off and land is as amazing as any of it.
"I've seen it piece by piece come together in the past 10 days," Labrake said. "I can't believe it looks like this. It's amazing."
Today's game between UNC-Chapel Hill and Michigan State on the aircraft carrier in San Diego is the result of three years of planning and untold logistical obstacles to conquer. Seating for 7,000 people has been constructed on the flight deck, along with two large video boards and several hospitality tents at a cost of $2 million, paid by private donors and corporate sponsors. (Watch a time-lapse video of the construction.)
Everything has been hoisted 66 feet up to the flight deck by crane, including food, water, lights, generators, television equipment, pallets of cabling, walk-in refrigerators, forklifts and scores of porta-potties, an operation that continued Thursday as Navy jets screamed overhead.
Security concerns are also paramount, with President Barack Obama scheduled to attend and hundreds of civilians coming aboard one of the Navy's most prized fighting ships.
Some issues are more mundane. When North Carolina coach Roy Williams first visited the ship last winter, he asked what he thought was a simple question: How are you going to get all the people up here?
"Everybody sort of looked around, like, 'Wait a minute, we hadn't thought of that yet,' " Williams said.
Nothing we can't handle
The answer: Six flights of scaffolding between the pier and the flight deck, constructed Wednesday. Sailors used to navigating a warren of stairways and elevators within the ship suddenly found a quicker route to the top.
It took 10 days to set up the stadium and it will take four to tear it down. Construction of a backup stadium on the ship's hangar deck in case of inclement weather was abandoned when the forecast cleared.
Most of the Carl Vinson's crew is on leave, so the preparations haven't interfered with the ship's operations. From the Navy's perspective, the game is excellent training for the Carl Vinson's upcoming deployment.
The ship has seen a wide variety of action. Osama bin Laden was buried at sea from the carrier, which also participated in bringing aid to Haiti after its devastating earthquake and supported military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's actually helping us out because my supply department is learning the details of bringing big loads on and off," said Capt. Bruce Lindsey, the Carl Vinson's commanding officer. "Hosting distinguished visitors - these are things that we do when we go forward and we're ambassadors for America."
The original idea came from Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis, who has pushed for athletic events in unique locations, including a hockey game outdoors in Spartan Stadium and a basketball game against North Carolina in Detroit's Ford Field.
He reached out to North Carolina in 2008, and it took a joint effort of Morale Entertainment, a nonprofit that puts on events to entertain troops overseas, the Navy and the schools involved to pull it off.
"Whenever something went astray, whenever a question came up, what we looked at was thinking about those men and women who go overseas to protect the freedoms we sometimes take for granted every day and hope that we never do again," Hollis said. "And those that they've left behind, parents, wives, their children - that's why we're here, that's why the two schools are here, is for them."
The first of many
Morale Entertainment is talking about men's and women's games on carriers next year, including one scheduled for Nov. 9, 2012 between Connecticut and potentially Arizona. Michigan State has agreed to participate again in 2013, as has the Connecticut women's team, said Morale's Mike Whalen.
"We would like it to be an annual deal," Whalen said. "Veterans Day, for me, has always been kind of an orphan holiday. You never know what to do. Some people get a day off, some watch politicians lay a wreath or whatever. We're looking at this to be a little different, a celebration of service. ... We're looking to change the narrative, I guess, about what Veterans Day means."
Hollis first sketched out the court on a restaurant tablecloth. Now that the stadium is complete, it makes for an impressive sight, sitting in the shadow of the carrier's island with only open water behind it.
Just getting there is an experience. The ship towers over the pier, and when North Carolina's players arrived for their tour Wednesday night, the group was silent, with open mouths and brandished cameras.
"They keep teasing us about who's going to fall off the ship," North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller said.
As night fell Thursday, the bright white lights that spell out "70" on the side of the superstructure - officially, the Carl Vinson is the CVN-70 - could be seen from downtown San Diego, across the bay. The deck was dark, from a distance offering no hint of the unusual construction on board.
DeCock: 919-829-8947 or twitter.com/LukeDeCock