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Basketball Game Lands On San Diego Aircraft Carrier

Aired 11/9/11 on KPBS News.

President Barack Obama visits San Diego on Friday. He's in town for the first ever college basketball game to be played on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. Entertainment events on aircraft carriers are rare of late, but they used to happen in San Diego a lot more often.

— The deck of the Carl Vinson looks completely different this week. Sailor Richard Steel works here when the ship is on deployment. An aircraft handler, Steel makes sure planes are where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there.

Sailor Richard Steel surveys the deck of the USS Carl Vinson
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Above: Sailor Richard Steel surveys the deck of the USS Carl Vinson

"Normally, we're used to seeing about 60 to 70 aircraft on the deck, but now we have bleachers and a bunch of other materials getting ready to set up for this basketball game," said Steel.

The Vinson is the backdrop for a veteran's day basketball game that will reach a national television audience. And for Steel, the North Carolina and Michigan State game is a huge thank you for his military service.

"We do it because we want to do it," said Steel. "And for them to turn around and say, hey, we're gonna' reward you guys with this, its by far probably the best feeling in the world. It makes what we do when we're out on deployments it makes us feel that much better."

Game Day will be hectic aboard the Vinson. Lt. Commander Erik Reynolds stood on a ramp, a brow as he called it, and pointed to a huge open door in the carrier's side.

Hanger Door three on the USS Carl Vinson
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Above: Hanger Door three on the USS Carl Vinson

"We're expecting about seven thousand people to come to the game. What we're looking at there, that is elevator number three it's an aircraft elevator," said Reynolds.

The crowd will nearly double the carrier's crew while deployed, making the event a logistical challenge. Security is also an issue because the Commander in Chief will be on board. The presidential garnish gives the event some extra panache, but the actual game will still be the focus.

"Sporting events really align with the whole Defense department's focus on fitness, on competition, on that kind of thing. And is a very attractive and resonant theme for these activities," said Bruce Linder, a retire Navy officer and author of The Navy in San Diego.

The basketball game is a first, according to Linder, but entertainers have frequently found their way to San Diego to perform.

"Actually these kinds of events reach all the way back to World War Two. When really they started in earnest," said Linder.

Henry Fonda, the Andrews Sisters and the Marx Brothers were just some of the acts that performed.

"And because Los Angeles was so close to San Diego this was a very popular place for entertainers to come down to," Linder said.

Special Feature Elvis Presley Peforms In San Diego

Elvis Presley performs on the Milton Berle Show on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock at the Naval Air Station in San Diego in 1956.

And in 1956, the Navy landed one of the most popular shows on television:

"Direct from America's most powerful aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock, at the Naval Air Station in San Diego California it's The Milton Berle Show."

As with all his shows, Uncle Miltie, handled the introductions and he promise the sailors on the Hancock a treat

"Our new RCA recording artist, here he is, Elvis Presley. (Crowd cheers and Elvis starts to sing heartbreak hotel.)"

But the entertainment pipeline between San Diego and Los Angeles hasn't been as vibrant lately. That's not because the events were unpopular, but they were overtaken by technology.

"This may not be as common as it once was because with the power of I-T and the power to broadcast things around the world quite quickly you don't really need the live entertainment that you once did," said Linder

But the Carrier Classic event might have a longer shelf life, according to Linder, because the event is a perfect way for the military to highlight Veteran's Day. There are already plans brewing for another game next year.

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