Nov. 9, 2011
EAST LANSING, Mich. -
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
Austin Thornton has every reason to feel somewhat sheepish and even humbled. On Friday, he and his Michigan State teammates, along with the North Carolina basketball squad, will be cheered, if not exalted, for playing a game with a big round ball.
Some of the players might even be asked to sign autographs.
This isn't new to any Division I player, especially those in nationally renowned programs. The difference this time, however, is the adulation will be coming from military personnel for whom life-and-death situations are part of their recent past, an occupational hazard in their daily present, and a distinct possibility in their future.
Thomas Thornton, a freshly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, will be among the 7,000 watching his younger brother and the Spartans square off with the top-ranked Tar Heels in the Quicken Loans Carrier Classic on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego on Veterans Day.
"There's no question that this whole experience will hopefully put things in perspective for our guys," Austin said. "My brother's got some crazy stories from his training and whatnot, and every time I think about, `Oh man, we've got an early morning lift (in the weightroom), or practice went longer than we thought it would, or there's a late-night film session,' I think about guys who are laying down their lives and sacrificing everything so we can be a part of this great game."
The worst thing Austin, 23, has hard to endure as a college basketball players are some sharp verbal barbs from coach Tom Izzo and maybe slamming into a pick set by 270-pound Derrick Nix. The Spartans will be playing in front of sailors who handle deadly explosives, pilots capable of landing jet fighters on what amounts to postage stamp bobbing in heavy seas, and troops who've dodged bullets and bombs, and that only begins to describe the jobs performed by our military. Many will be roughly the same age, many younger, some older.
What's it like to think of the soldier who wears a MSU t-shirt under his gear on the battlefield?
"It's very humbling," Austin said, "and this is going to be a very humbling experience."
Not to mention, unbelievably fortuitous.
Had Austin not redshirted as a freshman in 2007-08, he would have used up his eligibility last season and wouldn't even be playing in this game. Meantime, his brother, who wanted to enlist right out of Cedar Springs High School, heeded his father's wishes to attend college first.
After graduating from Lake Superior State University, where he ran cross country and track, Thomas enrolled in Officer Candidates School and trained at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Thomas signed his commission this summer and was sent to Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, not far from where the Thorntons grew up until the family moved to Michigan when Austin was 11. Close relatives who still live in the area will also attend the game.
"Oh my goodness, it's pretty incredible," said Austin. "With the way it all worked out, it's truly a blessing. There's no question that for me, personally, this is a great honor and a significant experience to be a part of.
"We're all happy he listened to my dad."
It should come as no surprise that Thomas' specialty is logistics.
The Harlem Globetrotters have played their entertaining brand of basketball on active-duty aircraft carriers over the years, but this is believed to be the first game that actually counts in competition.
"It just goes to show you where our program is," Austin said. "Our university has always stuck its neck out there and done what it takes to be the first to do something."
The game is the brainchild of MSU athletic director Mark Hollis who spurred an international trend when he staged a hockey game between the Spartans and Michigan at Spartan Stadium, and helped arrange the basketball game between Michigan State and Kentucky before a world-record crowd at Detroit's Ford Field.
Hollis first floated the idea of playing a game on an aircraft carrier by Izzo several years ago.
"Hollis just kept on it, sometimes behind the scenes," Izzo said. "Sometimes he'd notify me once in awhile that `Hey, I'm still working on it, I'm going to The Pentagon, I'm doing this, I'm doing that.' I think most people would agree it was Mark who did most of the legwork and Mark who kept pursing it. He deserves a lot of credit."
As much as Izzo wants the game to be a memory-maker for the players, he'd like the members of the military in attendance and those watching it on television at bases around the world to be the primary beneficiaries.
"It's been a long time coming," Izzo said. "Hopefully, it's as good an event as it can be because of our military and the reason the game is being played. The game is more for us, but the reason is more for them.
"We've given up nothing compared to those people. I hope nobody looks at this as a gimmick. It's not a gimmick for us. It's a big deal because it's a big game and it's a big deal because of who we're representing."
Izzo's affinity for the military was heightened immeasurably when he traveled to Kuwait in the summers of '05 and '06 with the "Operation Hardwood - Hoops with the Troops" contingent. Izzo and other college coaches guided the 13-member military basketball teams in Camp Arifjan.
While spectator sports are considered insignificant compared to warfare, they play a vital role for military in harm's way.
"That's the one advantage I have over most of the people involved in this thing," Izzo said. "To think we compare our athletics to life and death is ridiculous, but at the same time, what we're trying to do here is very important to us, and what they're doing there is very important.
"My favorite part of the whole trip was having breakfast with some troops that had come back from Baghdad at 6:30 in the morning, and listening to them talk about the NBA Finals. It was great because it was the one time they could relax a little bit. Some went from watching a game to throwing on 100 pounds of gear, jumping into a truck and going 200 miles north back to Baghdad."
If a basketball game on an aircraft carrier is a way to say thank you, then who's to disagree?
"It's ridiculous that we don't appreciate those people (in the military) more than we do, because they really are underappreciated," Izzo said. "If in a small way this little game can bring light to the people who probably deserve something they aren't getting, including from me..., it just kind of gives you perspective.
"Yeah, it's humbling."