Pick and Roll: Basketball and Athletics on United States Navy & Ships

By Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

If we’ve learned anything this past year, it is that our health is precious. Enlisted sailors must routinely pass a Physical Readiness Test (PRT) to prove they are fit for duty, which is just one reason the United States Navy’s tradition of athletic prowess is so long-lived. Of course, staying fit doesn’t need to be boring. Sailors can stay at the top of their form by playing sports on base and at sea, sports such as basketball.

Recruiting Poster: Seagoing Athletes Basketball Team of the USS Birmingham (CL-62). Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Sports at sea started out more like gym class than a stadium event. In the early 1800s, a boatswain might call “All hands reef topsails!” for a reefing, or folding the sail, match. They might even host a rigging race where sailors must work their way through the mast and sailing equipment on a pre-determined course. Athletics for sailors whose vessels were underway started to change around the turn of the nineteenth century when Navy battleships formed a baseball league. With an informal mentality of “I bet our guys can beat your guys!” they played twenty-one games in a little over a month’s time.  

USS Oahu (PR-6) Basketball team 1933 – Champions Yangtze River Patrol. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

In 1900, Navy regulations stated that commanding officers’ duty was to “encourage the men to engage in athletics, fencing, boxing, boating, and other similar sports and exercises.” Emphasizing the importance of athletics, in 1904 the United States Congress awarded a special appropriation of $5,000 to the United States Navy for “athletic exercises and sports.” This appropriation led to the permanent establishment of athletic facilities at onshore installations for the first time. Utilizing the funds, Norfolk Navy Yard quickly constructed  a football field, baseball diamond, grandstand, cinder track, swimming pool, and recreational hall.

The Great Lakes Recruit Magazine Volume 1 Number 2.

It was quickly determined that athletics helped quell the boredom that can come from the tedium of seeing the same faces, eating the same food, and working day in and day out in the same environment. Sports provided a fun and engaging outlet for sailors at sea, helped to keep them alert, and strengthen teamwork. Each captain appointed an athletic officer to be in charge of athletic pursuits. The athletic officer in turn appointed an officer-in-charge for boat racing, football, baseball, track, swimming, basketball, boxing, fencing, and gymnastics. The Naval Department realized that the ships with the most athletic crews not only had great morale and a sense of team spirit, but these athletic crews routinely won other naval competitions in gunnery, engineering, and navigation.

USS Houston (CA-30) Ship’s basketball team, 1940-1941. Men present are (top row from left) 2 McFadden, 3 Grover, 7 Stanczak; bottom row from left 2 Forsman, 5 Day. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

By the 1920s, the Navy Department decided that profits from the canteens could be spent for the purchase of athletic equipment. This decision came in handy when the Navy established the All-Navy competition between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets in 1921. They met at Balboa Stadium in the Panama Canal Zone to determine that year’s All-Navy boxing champion. By the 1960s, the All-Navy competition included seven sports; four of them team sports – basketball, volleyball, boxing, bowling, tennis, golf, and softball.

USS Monterey (CVL-26) A game of basketball underway in the foreword elevator during Mariana’s operations, June-July 1944. The player jumping for ball (left) is Lieutenant Gerald Ford. Courtesy of the National Archives.

The Navy Sports Program started out with an informal mentality, but it grew into a crucial aspect of sailor life, building teamwork, morale, and camaraderie. Civilian athletes also played a role in emphasizing the importance of athletics in the fleet. The Carrier Classic, where colleges played basketball games aboard Navy aircraft carriers, occurred in 2011 and 2012. The first game took place on November 11, 2011 between Michigan State and North Carolina on the USS Car Vinson (CVN-70). North Carolina defeated Michigan State 67-55. Unfortunately, the 2012 game onboard the USS Bataan (LHD-5) had to be cancelled due to condensation on the court.

An MSU player drives to the basket during the NCAA Men’s Basketball game between the University of North Carolina and Michigan State University onboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), docked at North Island Naval Station in San Diego, California, November 11, 2011. Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Today, sports continue to offer a respite to the daily grind of life at sea. When the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) broke the Navy deployment record in June 2020, by remaining at sea for 161 days straight to reduce the crew’s exposure to COVID-19, sailors relaxed by barbequing and hosting slam-dunk contests on the flight deck. A record the USS Stout (DDG-55) broke a few months later by spending 215 days at sea. Team sports not only boost morale, but they build a sense of camaraderie. This camaraderie encourages teamwork and leads to the success of a mission.


Lewis, Jim. Sports in the Navy: 1775 to 1963, Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center, 6 Jan. 2006, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/sports.htm. 

Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press. “Dodging COVID-19, Navy Ships Break Record for Staying at Sea.” Navy Times, Navy Times, 25 June 2020, http://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2020/06/25/dodging-covid-19-navy-ships-break-record-for-staying-at-sea/. 

Mabeus, Courtney. “What It’s Really like Aboard a US Navy Destroyer on a Record-Breaking, 215-Day Deployment at Sea.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 8 Nov. 2020, http://www.businessinsider.com/life-aboard-navy-destroyer-during-record-long-deployment-at-sea-2020-11. 

Olson, Lieutenant Allen G. “Athletics: Its Place in the Course of Training.” The Great Lakes Recruit, Aug. 1915. 

Press, Associated. “North Carolina Overwhelms Michigan State in First-Ever Carrier Classic.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 12 Nov. 2011, http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/recap?gameId=313150127. 

Press, Associated. “Two Games on Ships Canceled.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 10 Nov. 2012, http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/8613048/aircraft-carrier-courts-too-wet-games-canceled. 

One thought on “Pick and Roll: Basketball and Athletics on United States Navy & Ships

  1. I played in a basketball game in 1966? At The Block in Pearl Harbor. The USS Walker, DD517 played the USS Long Long Beach (Walker won).
    We were told this game was for the Pacific Championship Afloat.
    It was broadcast on AFRTS I believe!
    It would be great to get the names of these super guys.


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