The asteroid had already hit, but no one had noticed. We were dining, dancing, shopping, gathering by the tens of thousands.
On March 11, 2020, only 29 people in the U.S. had been confirmed to have died due to COVID-19. That morning, the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. That night, six NBA games were scheduled to take place.
It was the final night of major American team sports for nearly five months. It was the night on which normal became no more.
“Every passing day makes pre-pandemic days seem further away. It truly feels like it was a lifetime ago,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in a recent email. “All the anxiety, stress and uncertainty all of us have felt makes pre-pandemic seem like something we see in the movies or old TV.”
The notion of empty arenas segued from strange to imminent that afternoon, when the Warriors announced their March 12 game against the Nets would be played without fans, following San Francisco’s two-week ban of gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The Cavaliers were set to establish the same protocol, following Ohio’s similar injunction.
During a Mavericks team meeting before their March 11 game against the Nuggets, Luka Doncic asked Cuban if the season would be canceled or suspended.
“I told him that I thought it was maybe a five or 10 percent chance,” Cuban said. “[It] didn’t take long for me to be wrong.”
A few hours later, the country was stunned to learn that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested had positive for the novel coronavirus. The NBA season was suspended indefinitely. On March 12, the NCAA Tournaments were canceled, and the NHL, MLB and MLS seasons were suspended. That Friday, March 13, The Masters was postponed, too.
The devastation had entered our field of vision.
“I think [March 11] was the day where we all really faced the reality of what was coming,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said recently.
Gobert, Utah’s All-Star center, assumed he had the common cold or flu. Neither he nor Emmanuel Mudiay participated in the Jazz’s shootaround in Oklahoma City on March 11 and Gobert was listed as questionable for that night’s game with an “illness.” Gobert’s test results didn’t come back for several hours.
At 3:30 p.m., commissioner Adam Silver and the 30 owners held a conference call, ending with a general consensus that games should continue, but without fans. When Cuban arrived that night at Dallas’ American Airlines Center — which handed out bottles of hand sanitizer to fans — he couldn’t believe it was still the hottest ticket in town.
“As I walked through the tunnel from my office to the court right before the game started, I remember thinking that there was a chance the arena would be empty or at least have a lot of no-shows and that would be an indicator,” Cuban said. “The place was packed. Not an empty seat.”
That night, an announced crowd of 20,172 watched the 76ers host the Pistons. More than 15,000 were in Atlanta to see the Hawks host the Knicks. Nearly 20,000 paid to see the Hornets play at Miami.
The Thunder and Jazz listened to the national anthem. Fans stood and clapped, as “Zombie Nation” blasted through the speakers of Chesapeake Energy Arena. The players prepared for tip-off.
Then, Oklahoma City’s director of medical services, Donnie Strack, sprinted to midcourt and informed the three officials of Gobert’s positive test. Coaches Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder were called over.
“I’m like, ‘What’s COVID-19?’ ” Donovan later said. “[Snyder] said, ‘The coronavirus.’ ”
The players were instructed to return to their respective locker rooms. The public address announcer simply declared that the teams were “waiting for league confirmation to start the game.”
The planned halftime entertainment — singer Frankie J, plus Rumble the Bison and a junior hip-hop dance squad — took the floor instead.
“They’re shooting off T-shirt cannons and the mascot’s dancing, so the fans get excited, but then there were these lulls in between where people were like, ‘What is happening?’ ” said Jazz beat writer Sarah Todd, of the Deseret News. “They’re bringing out all these things, like, ‘Here, look at this shiny thing,’ but it eventually got to a point where they’re like, ‘I see what you’re doing. Something is wrong.’ ”
When the diversions departed, the PA announcer’s voice returned.
“Please head towards the exit. The game tonight has been postponed,” Mario Nanni said. “You are all safe. Take your time in leaving the arena tonight and do so in an orderly fashion. Thank you for coming out tonight. We are all safe.”
As Gobert nervously watched the scene on TV from his hotel room a few blocks away, Utah’s team trainer called to alert him of his condition.
His teammates waited to receive the same news.
“Real raw reaction is, ‘Oh, s—. We’re f—ed. We all have it. There’s no way we don’t all have it,’ ” the Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson said on ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. “I was like, ‘My life could be in danger, for real.’ ”
Silver was in transit in New York, when he learned of Gobert’s diagnosis and decided the season must stop for at least 30 days. Silver said cancellation of the season was “possible.”
One hour after the NBA’s announcement, however, the Knicks were closing out a double-overtime win over the Hawks. The shock and disappointment from across the country wasn’t evident in Atlanta, where, with the game still being played, fans chanted for Vince Carter to reenter the game, realizing the eight-time All-Star might never suit up again. Carter removed his warm-up shirt and began laughing, as the crowd roared. In the closing seconds, he drilled the final 3-pointer of his 22-year career.
“It’s a weird way to say I’m calling it a career,” Carter said afterward. “As we were being briefed on everything, I was just sitting there, like, ‘Jesus, alright, this is it. Just like that.’ ”
The Knicks were instructed, after that game in Atlanta, to self-isolate for two weeks, as one of five teams that had been in contact with the Jazz in the previous 10 days. The Mavericks and Nuggets continued trading baskets in the final NBA action until the bubble was opened at Disney World in late July.
Cuban could have been anyone, creating the night’s most enduring image when the Dallas billionaire’s jaw dropped in disbelief and he fell violently back in his chair, upon reading the news off the phone of Mavericks vice president of basketball communications, Scott Tomlin. Cuban informed his team, then the referees, then walked over to his wife, asking whether their children would attend school the next day.
“What would I have to do to protect people? What would I have to do to know what to do? That was my next biggest concern,” Cuban recalled thinking. “How was I going to get up to speed about something that seemed so different than anything I had to deal with before?”
The Pelicans were in Sacramento, and had been scheduled to tip-off in less than an hour, when the information arrived. They couldn’t believe the season had been stopped. They couldn’t believe they were still supposed to play.
“We were all shook, man. It was a weird feeling,” JJ Redick said on his podcast. “Had the NBA made us play, we would have hooped, but I know a lot of guys expressed concern that they didn’t feel like it was safe to go out and play. Not just for us, but for anyone that was in that arena that night.”
The crowd was unconcerned. Beers were being chugged. Jokes were being told. Anticipation mounted, with New Orleans’ rookie phenom, Zion Williamson, in town.
Only after the discovery that referee Courtney Kirkland, scheduled to work that game, had officiated a Jazz game earlier in the week was the game postponed. That triggered boos throughout the arena and tears from a devastated young girl.
In Oklahoma City, Chris Paul recorded an assist, arranging a delivery of wine and beer to the stranded Jazz, who were held for nearly five hours and offered overnight cots, as state health officials gathered then-scarce COVID-19 tests for the 58 members of Utah’s traveling party.
“When we got tested, I don’t think anybody knew what that was gonna be like,” Snyder said last week. “I can tell you the test was a little different then. It felt like it went up into your brain and it was hard to keep from having a physical reaction.”
Gobert remained at the 21c Museum Hotel, but the Jazz had checked out. Their rooms had been filled. Several hotels turned the team away, until early-morning accommodations were secured near the airport. Quarantine awaited after a charter flight home.
“I was completely afraid,” Todd, the beat writer, said. “My mother was coming to visit me in Utah two days later and I had to call her and tell her, ‘I don’t want to kill you. You have to cancel this trip.’ ”
More than three weeks before the CDC recommended wearing facemasks, Gobert was vilified and received death threats for failing to take an unprecedented threat in our lifetime seriously. That problem remains, 365 days and at least 118 million infections later.
Gobert apologized. The country was thankful.
It finally noticed what fell from the sky.
“A lot of people are alive today because of that night and the NBA postponement,” Cuban said. “I think that made it real, and more importantly, gave a reference for all other businesses, sports or otherwise, to take the measures needed to protect people.”