MOUNT PLEASANT — Taylor Sneed grew up in North Charleston and had visited the USS Yorktown in Charleston Harbor many times.
But never like this.
The 20-year-old cadet from The Citadel was one of 4,000 people who jammed the flight deck of the historic World War II aircraft carrier on Friday to watch, of all things, an NCAA basketball game.
“The nation loves sports,” he said. “The nation loves the military. So everybody can support this.”
The 2nd annual Carrier Classic was to feature two games – a men’s game between 2012 NCAA tournament Final Four team Ohio State and Sweet 16 team Marquette, and a women’s game between the 2012 NCAA championship runner- up Notre Dame and Ohio State, which finished No. 16 in the AP Top 25.
The women’s game was played during the afternoon but the men’s game was canceled because of condensation on the court.
After the men’s game was canceled, players on both teams hung around to sign autographs for the fans.
Held on Veterans Day weekend, the event is intended to raise money for organizations like the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Medal of Honor Society.
“This is four of the best teams in the country,” said Bill Anderson, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force who serves as an adviser to Morale Entertainment, a nonprofit foundation that organized the game and other events for active duty troops and veterans, mostly overseas. “And it is held entirely to raise money and awareness for our veterans. This is a ‘thank you.’”
About half the crowd was veterans or active duty service members, most from nearby bases such as Joint Base Charleston and the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek.
Goose Creek native Antonio Baylock, a Navy petty officer, not only got to watch the game, he helped set up the lighting and sound systems for the court, which took up most of the central flight deck of the carrier.
“It’s good to take some time off from work and see a great game,” he said. “And it’s really great that they are giving something back to the veterans.”
Asked who he was rooting for – he shrugged and said, “Ohio State.”
“But really I’m an ACC guy,” he said. “Clemson all the way.”
SPECIAL VET HONORED
One of those veterans honored at the game was Danielle Green.
Green was a star player on the Notre Dame team that went to the NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen in 1998 and 2000, and she finished 17th on the school’s all-time scoring list.
After college, she enlisted in the U.S. Army. In May of 2004 she was on lookout duty on a rooftop in Baghdad when she was hit by an rocket-propelled grenade. She lost her left arm from the elbow down.
She termed the addition of a women’s basketball game to the Classic as “historic” and a giant step toward acknowledging the role woman play in the military.
“We’re more than paper-pushers now,” she said. “And for women to be included in this event is legacy-making. These women will never experience anything like this again.”
Basketball games are played indoors, not on the equivalent of the roof of a six-story building. Wind was a factor.
“Obviously there is not frame of reference for this,” Ohio State women’s coach Jim Foster said. “I don’t know anyone who’s played on an aircraft hangar. If the wind is blowing, we’re just going to take it to the hole.”
YORKTOWN, AND S.C., BIG HITS
Last year’s inaugural Classic was held on the active-duty aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in San Diego. It was attended by President Barack Obama.
This year’s classic, sponsored by Walmart, was held in Charleston because an active duty carrier wasn’t available. So organizers chose the Yorktown.
“This carrier has such a rich history,” Anderson said. “It’s active duty mission today is to raise awareness of veterans’ issues. So it’s a perfect fit.”
Wedging a basketball court, bleachers for 4,000 people, television production equipment and even a giant video screen on the Yorktown’s flight deck was difficult, however. The 70-year-old vessel is about half the size of a modern aircraft carrier.
“It was a challenge,” Anderson said. “But it fit.”
The combination of a floating museum and a major college basketball game seemed to be a hit, however. Fans from all over the country wandered the maze of corridors on the carrier and enjoyed the military aircraft and all of the displays in addition to watching the game.
They included Gary and Kay Seno from Milwaukee.
“My husband is a huge military aircraft and history buff,” she said. “And it being in Charleston, we couldn’t pass it up.”
The two flew in for the weekend, especially to sample the city’s renowned restaurants.
“Everyone has been so nice,” Kay Seno said. “We know what Southern hospitality is now.”
Hartmut and Margot Handke of Columbus, Ohio, drove more than nine hours south to watch their beloved Buckeyes play. They planned to stay for only two days, spending about $1,000.
But they didn’t expect the nice weather. And they didn’t fully comprehend how much there was to do and see in Charleston – much less the rest of South Carolina.
“We’re going to come back and spend a lot more time,” Hartmut Handke said.
That’s music to the ears of Mac Burdette, executive director of Patriot’s Point, which operates the Yorktown and two other WWII Navy vessels, the national Medal of Honor Museum and a Vietnam War fire base, among other historic attractions.
The publicity, he said, will probably be worth $1 million or more to the attraction, which is owned by the state but doesn’t receive any funding from the Legislature. And the estimated economic impact of the Classic is $10 million.
“For a single-day event, that’s pretty cool, for Charleston, Mount Pleasant and the whole state,” he said. And he predicted that many of the fans – like the Handkes and Senos – will be back. Midwesterners are the prime market for South Carolina tourism, and the three teams were from Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio.
“The swing states are going to be watching this on television,” he said. “The alumni base, especially with Ohio State, is huge and this is going to be great coverage for us.”
But in the stadium, or rather on deck, the focus was more on basketball and patriotism than tourism dollars.
And for The Citadel cadet Sneed of North Charleston, who has a five-year stint in the Marine Corps ahead of him, the support from the organizers, the teams, the fans and the community was “heartwarming.”
“It lets you know your service is appreciated,” he said.
Ashley Smith, public information director for Patriots Point, issued the following statement regarding the cancellation of the men’s game:
“We’re sorry to share that the 2012 Carrier Classic has been cancelled due to excessive condensation on the court. As always, safety is our highest concern and why the decision was made.
“The silver lining was that our wounded warriors and military organizations were able to join us – and the Charleston community was able to honor their service. This Veterans Day weekend, we hope you’ll do the same and say thank you to a veteran and/or active duty military member who serves.”