The idea came from Mark Hollis, the athletics director at Michigan State University: Wouldn’t it be great to entertain the troops by playing a real NCAA game … on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
“It was sort of a wild idea and a dream at that point,” recalls Thomas Lee, a co-founder of the Morale Entertainment Foundation, which works closely with Armed Forces Entertainment to bring “the best of America” to military personnel in the field.
But, thanks to Lee and his people, Hollis’ dream will soon be a reality. The inaugural Carrier Classic will be presented on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, as MSU’s Spartans and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels clash on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, the ship that buried Osama bin Laden at sea. About 7,000 people — including active-duty military, veterans, military dependents and supporters of the universities — will watch the game in person aboard the ship in San Diego, while millions more will take in the action via ESPN. Honorary captains for the teams will be alums Magic Johnson for Michigan State and James Worthy for UNC. Lee, based in Orange County, Calif., and friend Mike Whalen, a veteran concert promoter, started their foundation in 2008 to “provide not just great entertainment, but events that are incredibly inspiring” for American forces deployed abroad, Lee says. They have organized two Legends of Aerospace tours featuring Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan (the first and last men to walk on the moon, respectively), Apollo 13 spacecraft commander Jim Lovell, and Steve Ritchie, the only Air Force ace of the Vietnam War.
To the troops they meet, “these guys are bigger than rock stars,” Lee explains.
While Lee loves his day job — he’s director of business development for Monogram Systems, an aerospace company — he’s happy to spend all his spare time working on behalf of the nation’s warriors.
“The teamwork, the passion, the courage of these young people is just mind-boggling,” Lee says. “It’s extraordinarily rewarding to see the results of our work and see how their spirits are lifted.”
Lee and his team believe they have thought of everything for the Carrier Classic, but what if the USS Carl Vinson should suddenly be called away on, uh, business?
“That’s the biggest challenge of all,” Lee says with a laugh. “We’re certainly hoping and praying that doesn’t happen. We’d have to tear down awfully fast to let them get on with their mission.”