For me, the game that “never was” offered a night that “will always be,” even if it “officially” ended a bit too soon.
After an intermission in which fans nervously watched coaches huddle with officials and scores of volunteers crawl the court desperately pushing towels, the announcement was finally made.
It was over.
Minutes earlier, the fortunate few in attendance gazed skyward as fireworks boomed off the deck of the USS Bataan.
Now, we shuffled down makeshift bleachers as Florida coach Billy Donovan delivered a halting speech that offered both sincere appreciation and regret.
No one wanted the game to end. But as the visible condensation outpaced efforts to wipe it away, well, it was time to throw in the drenched towel.
Fans, players, coaches, officials and the gracious military hosts mingled on the slippery court, sharing both a sense of disappointment and understanding.
The not-so-final score: Florida: 27, Georgetown 23
But on an evening that was about much more than the game, there seemed to be a sense among those present that the wonderful event was not undermined, but simply shortened. And though record books will forget the “cancelled” contest, few in attendance ever will.
I certainly won’t.
As I rode the shuttle bus back to my car, I gathered my thoughts for this column — my usual “Good, Bad and Ugly” piece. But I quickly realized there would be nothing to write of the latter, and I opted instead to relay my unique experience.
It was an awe-inspiring evening that began as I passed armed guards at the heavily secured gates of Naval Station Mayport.
“Welcome and thank you for visiting us,” said a machine-gun toting Marine.
“Thank-you for your service,” I replied.
It would be a refrain I’d repeat countless times that night, taking full advantage of the opportunity to express personal gratitude to those in uniform.
It was my first visit to a military base, and I was struck by its simplicity. A lone McDonald’s seemed entirely misplaced amid the backdrop of bland buildings, helicopter pads and hulking war ships. Its oddness was only outdone by beaming stadium lights that illuminated the aft deck of the USS Bataan. Glowing below, rising stadium seats served as bookends to a crammed court.
“Have a great night. Thank you for being here,” a Marine welcomed as I stared up at what I had been told is an “amphibious assault” ship.
“Thank YOU,” I stressed.
In the background, award-winning musical group “Little Bigtown” played for lively audience, one mixed with fans, Marines … and fans of Marines.
Civilians posed for pictures with the evening’s real heroes, and those heroes appreciatively obliged.
A group of uniformed shipmen greeted fans as we boarded the vessel.
“Thank you. Thank you for your service”.
An enormous American flag hung ceiling-to-floor in an open room that typically houses, transports and deploys small military aircraft.
Painted adjacent to what appeared to be a huge outdoor elevator, was a sobering caution.
“WARNING: DOORS TO AIRCRAFT ELEVATORS MUST BE OPEN BEFORE STARTING AIRCRAFT ENGINES.”
I could to not help but to imagine how frightening it may feel to board this ship for any reason other than what I was there for that evening — a basketball game.
As I alternated between frantically snapping photos and staring in wonderment, I frequently forgot about the evening’s event.
A basketball game.
On the deck a military band entertained fans doing the same as I — taking pictures and taking in the moment.
I bought a USS Bataan hat, event T-shirt and walked toward my seat. My route, however, was interrupted as both teams emerged from their “locker rooms” and jogged through cheering fans to the awaiting court. Players and coaches often slowed their pace to shake hands with enthusiastic military personnel or high-five friendly fans.
“Good luck, Will,” I said extending my hand to Gators’ junior forward Will Yeguete.
“Thanks a lot,” he replied slapping my palm.
At my seat, the surreal setting of the event sunk in. The court nearly filled the ship’s entire beam, with the sidelines flanked by “sea and sky.” In the far distance and small boat paced the waters, presumably offering security. Fans milled courtside, provided access and perspective rarely witnessed in big time sporting events. I did the same, watching warm-ups within bounce-pass distance of the basket. Each shot attempt seemed forever in flight with an endless starry backdrop.
A most moving rendition of the anthem raised everyone from the chilly seats, with civilians and soldiers saluting side-by-side. This was quickly followed by the tip off, when both became basketball fans and the event suddenly transformed into a game.
But the game was not to last.
Midway through the half, an excited Mike Rosario raced to congratulate teammates on a solid defensive play. He slipped, slid and nearly toppled them like bowling pins.
Volunteers raced to the scene, furiously wiping the glistening court.
But it was a winless effort in a game that would prove officially winless for both squads. At half, the condensation took control of a court the Gators seemed poised to succeed on, and the game was reluctantly “called.”
The NCAA would later declare the game “cancelled,” meaning — in some ways — it never happened. And considering the “ending” in Jacksonville and the failed start for a game aboard the USS Yorktown, such events may not happen again.
All good things must come to end, as did the “Navy-Marine Corps Classic” — just a bit too soon.
In a hastily arranged “post-game press conference,” Donovan stood on the ships deck and addressed a handful of media representatives. He spoke of his appreciation and value of the experience, as well as lessons relating to true sacrifice. Surely, somewhere Georgetown coach John Thompson III was sharing similar thoughts.
As I walked off the USS Bataan, fans offered conjecture as to whether or not the game would be counted.
“So, did we win?” one fan asked.
“Yes,” another replied.
I presume, the answer was offered by a Gators fan, but it didn’t matter. One of the Hoyas faithful could have said just the same.