Jim Boeheim’s time as a player, assistant coach, and head coach at Syracuse stretches out over six decades. After all those long, snowy winters in upstate New York, it’s hard to blame the Hall of Fame coach for wanting to play a game outdoors -- especially on the flight deck of a retired aircraft carrier docked in San Diego Harbor.
So when the phone rang in the Syracuse athletic department Tuesday and Boeheim heard the weather forecast for Friday night, it was no time to compromise and settle for a vacant arena. The Battle on the Midway, between No. 9 Syracuse and No. 20 San Diego State, was rescheduled to Sunday afternoon.
And the court will still be on the deck of that aircraft carrier.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime (opportunity),” Boeheim said Wednesday. “Our players are all excited about playing there. We want to play on the ship. We didn’t want to go out there and then have to go play indoors some place. The reason we wanted to do this was to play on the ship and to be involved with the military.”
For Boeheim, it’s simple. It’s all about honoring the military. After watching last year’s Carrier Classic between North Carolina and Michigan State, he wasn’t able to get it out of his mind.
“I think the more involved we get with the military, the more appreciation that we show . . . I think it’s important,” Boeheim said. “I don’t think people quite get it in this country. They get upset we’re in a war, but that translates to them being upset with the soldiers.
“It should never be that way. You can be upset with the policy makers, but you can’t be upset with the soldiers, or what they’ve done for us, and what they do for us every day. I don’t think people give near enough credit to these men and women who are doing this every day. That was the whole reason for doing it.”
Boeheim and his Orange players aren’t alone. The biggest games on this first full weekend of the college basketball season are being played with a military theme. With Veteran’s Day on Sunday, a Presidential election just completed, and random acts of patriotism helping the recovery effort from two U.S. coastal storms, the timing really couldn’t be better.
Red, white and blue seems to be in the air.
That inaugural Carrier Classic game, attended by President Barack Obama, spawned four men’s basketball events to honor our troops this weekend. Charleston, S.C., will host the Carrier Classic this time and No. 4 Ohio State will play Marquette on the USS Yorktown. Georgetown and No. 10 Florida will meet on the deck of the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship that is being moved from its home port in Norfolk, Va.
North Carolina faced Michigan State in last year's Carrier Classic.
And Wednesday morning, travel parties from Connecticut and No. 14 Michigan State arrived in Germany, where the Armed Forces Classic will be played at Ramstein Air Base on Friday.
At the USO’s Wounded Warrior Center at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany on Wednesday, UConn players met Huskies fans who hadn’t seen their team for a long time. Staff Sargent Michael Merritt, from Canton, Conn., told Dom Amore of The Hartford Courant, “It’s going to be ‘Midnight Madness’ in an airport hanger, what could better than that? Awesome for morale.”
As Boeheim said, that is what it’s all about. There will be feel-good moments for the coaches, players -– and troops. For three UConn players from Germany -– Niels Giffey, Enosch Wolf and Leon Tolksdorf –- it is a rare opportunity to play college ball before their friends and family on European soil. Huskies guard R.J. Evans calls himself “The Added German.” This is first trip outside the U.S., but his cousin and her husband are coming to the game from Frankfurt. He said he has learned just enough German to say, “What’s up?” during his visit.
“Most people don’t get these opportunities they are giving us,” Evans said before leaving Storrs, Conn. “It’s going to be good for us to go and show the troops there that we’re supporting them and we’re out there playing for them. I think we should all be grateful for this.”
After last year’s game, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said the experience was greater than anything he had been involved with other than the Final Four and winning the national championship. Boeheim became sold on the concept after talking to Williams and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“I think these kind of things just bring you closer to reality and I’m always in for a dose of reality,” Izzo said at a press conference earlier this week. “We’re going to be there with the greatest team in the world and hopefully it will give our players an appreciation.”
These games are multi-million dollar productions that come with logistical headaches, including the weather. The Battle on the Midway ran into promotional and sponsorship issues that threatened cancellation of the event until early October. But both Syracuse and San Diego State stepped up their commitments and FOX Sports, which will televise the game, assumed financial liability for any shortfall in revenue.
By the time the two teams take the court Sunday, the biggest concern for San Diego State coach Steve Fisher might be whether the wind will make it harder to shoot over Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone.
“I don’t know,” said Boeheim, who didn’t mind changing the date of the game since Syracuse doesn’t play again until Nov. 18. “I’ve seen some good shooting outdoors. And it might be a perfectly calm day. You just don’t know.”
As important as a team’s shooting percentage might be in the season opener, it certainly won’t be the most memorable thing any of these coaches and players bring home from these experiences.
“They’re going to see what (the troops) do on a day-to-day basis, how they have to have time management in their lives, and their accountability to each other,” first-year UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If they go out there and don't have that accountability, and somebody is not pulling their weight, there may be some casualties.
“It puts life in perspective. It lets (the players) understand they have these liberties and freedoms because of our wonderful troops. They get that through the hard work of other people, sacrificing their lives for us to live over here in a free country.”