Sports’ last stand crumbled to force of COVID-19 reality



Elsewhere, the signs were all ominous and they all spoke to the same haunting truth. Life, as we knew it, as we’d always known it, as sports fans and as human beings, was careening toward a cliff. The brake lines were cut, the pedal was on the floor and we were all speeding toward a great unknown abyss.

In Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, the Knicks wearily left the floor after outlasting the Hawks in overtime, 136-131, a rare bright spot in an otherwise soul-sucking season, only their 21st victory in 66 games. When they arrived at their locker room, they were greeted by the somber voice of Dr. Lisa Callahan, chief medical officer of MSG Sports, and by a sobering piece of news.

The NBA season, was over, suspended. That announcement had come while the Knicks and the Hawks were slogging through the fourth quarter, when out in Oklahoma City a game between the Jazz and Thunder was canceled after Utah’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. Fans filed out of Chesapeake Energy Arena. Soon after, a Kings-Pelicans game in Sacramento also was canceled.

“I hope this is only for a little while,” Knicks guard Wayne Ellington said. “We don’t know a lot. We just know we want everyone — fans and players both — to be safe.”

In Denver, the Rangers scored a tying goal with 13 seconds left in regulation before losing in overtime to the Avalanche, but stealing a point had the Blueshirts effervescent: They believed they were certain to pass the flailing Islanders soon, and to secure a playoff spot for themselves. They were eager to board a plane to Phoenix for their next game.

But there was no flight to Phoenix. There was no game. Not for months.

“We just have to wait,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “Just like everyone else.”

So it was that one-by-one, sport-by-sport, city-by-city the lights went out of the sporting world, beginning March 11, 2020, like a rolling summer blackout extinguishing power from building after building, block after block. Earlier that day the Ivy League — which had already been the first conference to cancel its postseason basketball tournaments — announced it was also suspending all spring sports.

For about five minutes that seemed like an extreme reaction.

Except the news items kept falling like hailstones out of the sky. In Italy, the soccer club Juventus announced that one of its players, defenseman Daniele Rugani, had tested positive for the coronavirus. In Hackensack John Brennan, a longtime harness racing trainer and executive at Yonkers Raceway, became the first person in New Jersey to die of the virus.

In Tokyo, officials tried to do damage control after a board member of the Olympic organizing committee suggested the Summer 2020 Games be postponed a year; that apology, soon enough, became an apology for the apology. In Jacksonville, Fla., officials at the Tournament Players Championship privately conceded they would almost certainly have to turn away the galleries that weekend.

The notion of empty arenas, stadiums and bleachers was the prevailing thought, in fact, as the last large gathering in New York City was unfolding on March 11. St. John’s and Georgetown, ancient Big East rivals, faced each other at Madison Square Garden and 17,534 people were there. Both teams had suffered through difficult seasons but the Johnnies went on a 23-0 second-half run that took down the Hoyas, 75-62.

The NCAA had already announced the coming championship tournament would be held without fans. One by one, conference tournaments declared the same. But it was too late to do anything about those 17,534 at the Garden, and it was just as well: The roar that accompanied that 23-0 spurt would have to satisfy and sustain those who were there for a while. There still hasn’t been anywhere near that large a gathering in New York. And it has now, officially, been a year.

Even as that game was being played, the Big East announced it was keeping fans away from the rest of the tournament, and even as that news began to percolate there came another devastating blow: The MLB season, less than three weeks away, was dealt a crippling hand when it became clear the Mariners and Giants — inhabiting growing COVID-19 hotspots in Seattle and San Francisco — would have to move home games or else risk cancelling entire blocs of their seasons.

And as midnight arrived, as March 11 dissolved into March 12, that was still the desperate hope: How do we save the games? How do we save the seasons? How do we keep sports from nose-diving off that cliff?

By March 12, the answer became clear: We couldn’t.

By March 12, there were many uncomfortable realities to ponder well beyond the minute-by-minutes cancellations of conference tournaments, the NCAA Tournament, and the suspensions of the NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS, PGA, the buffet table of sporting abbreviations that define and fill our days and nights.

Gobert, for instance, had played 34 minutes on March 7 at the Garden. Had he been contagious then? This was a question especially relevant to the Knicks, still sequestered in Atlanta, and to those who’d covered and worked that game.

This was no longer theoretical. This was among us. Businesses sent workers home. Bars and restaurants closed. Subways emptied. People started asking: How do I get tested? How do I stay safe? How do I keep my family safe? All of these things suddenly seemed a lot more relevant, on March 12, than sports.

So it was that March 11 — one year ago — would be sport’s final death rattle for three solid months. The 17,534 who left the Garden high on the Johnnies, high on sports, would be the last to remember what a thrilling game and a large, engaged, electric crowd sounded like, tasted like, felt like, and began to wonder when we could replicate that singular buzz.

We wonder still.


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