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Like many of you, I’m getting ready for another thrilling season of NCAA Men’s Division I basketball. And like many of you, I’m getting ready to root for my favorite teams — and to secretively cheer on the underdogs who always make it into the Sweet Sixteen come March.

But I’m approaching this season differently than I have the ones of the past. For although I’ll be decked out in black and gold for my alma mater Missouri Tigers, and sometimes I’ll be decked out in scarlet and gray for The Ohio State University Buckeyes from my home state, I actually have two new favorite teams this year — and for all the right reasons.

Because I was rejected as an undergraduate applicant at the University of North Carolina, I’ve never, ever clapped for the Tar Heels. And because I’m an Ohioan, I’ve never hailed anything coming out of Michigan, neither the Wolverines nor the Spartans.

Yet here I am, only days removed from the start of college basketball, and I’m openly and notoriously cheering for — and outright saluting — the UNC Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans. For the first nationally televised game of the year, these two top-ranked teams are about to square off in the most unusual of settings, before a live audience of this country’s best and bravest. 

Nov. 11 marks the first-ever Veterans Day Carrier Classic (see page 20). More specifically, UNC and MSU will play a basketball game on the USS Carl Vinson, a naval aircraft carrier that will be moored at the Naval Base Coronado in San Diego.

While this seems like a good gimmick play to host an event in a quirky, TV-friendly environment, the Carrier Classic is so much more than that. For starters, the 7,000 spectator seats onboard aren’t open to the public. Instead, they’re reserved for military veterans, active-duty military and family members. Moreover, these two programs perennially vie for the title of national champion (as recently as 2009, UNC defeated MSU to become the No. 1 team in the land). Both schools are leaving a considerable amount of institutional money on the table by playing this game on a boat instead of on one of their home courts. And both coaches are fine with that: UNC’s Roy Williams and MSU’s Tom Izzo know that the lessons their student athletes are learning from participating in this event, as well as the precedent this sets for other universities, far outweigh the lost financial gains of the colleges.

“It is an honor for North Carolina basketball to play in such a unique game that will benefit and salute the United States’ armed forces,” Williams told American Way. “The look on our players’ faces when I told them they would be playing outdoors on the deck of an aircraft carrier was priceless. The experience will create for them a lifetime of memories. Even more important is the chance to combine the start of the college basketball season with saluting and thanking our military personnel for all they do to allow us to safely live and play each day in the United States of America.”

MSU’s Izzo echoes his rival’s sentiment, while adding a very personal message. “The opportunity to give something back to those that serve in the military and their families is a humbling experience,” Izzo told American Way. “Hopefully, the veterans realize how much we appreciate what they sacrifice for us. On the court, the game will feature two of the top programs in America, but it also provides an opportunity for life lessons off the court, including those about the real meaning of sacrifice and dedication. As coaches and athletes, we are familiar with terms like wins and losses, but to our servicemen and women, those phrases have very different meanings. It’s a concept that first hit home during one of my trips to visit our troops in Kuwait and one that I’ve carried with me since then. Beyond that, the game and everything that accompanies it should hopefully provide some great entertainment and a brief escape. I know that I’ll take so much away from this experience that will make me a better person. I’m just hoping that we can give something back to those that protect us.”

This column and the Carrier Classic are dedicated to you, U.S. veterans. And thank you, North Carolina and Michigan State, for such a bold and beautiful move. You’ve made a fan out of me.

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Adam Pitluk