Before my trip to Salt Lake City, I signed up for Delta SkyMiles I would never use.
In another lifetime, it seems, I was an associate video producer at a different sports media company. I traveled a lot for the job. I didn’t know it then, but Utah would be my last trip.
I arrived on March 10 to shoot a piece with a Jazz player (not named Gobert or Mitchell, who both tested positive for the virus). I left on March 12, a day ahead of schedule, without any footage.
I didn’t contract COVID. I wasn’t even at the game, which was in Oklahoma City. There were people at OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena who were obviously more at risk than I was. But I wondered if COVID had found its way onto the Jazz, then maybe it’s in Salt Lake City and maybe I could be exposed? Maybe it was at the airport I flew into? Or on the doorknob I just touched? It’s an irrational, catastrophizing way to think now. But that’s where my mind wandered after Gobert’s positive test.
Sometime in the late morning of March 11 while scouting the film location, I got a notification that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Later, the Warriors became the first NBA team to ban fans and the NCAA announced March Madness would limit spectators.
But nobody knew what they were supposed to do with this novel virus. “Normal” life was still carrying on. No one wore masks, there was no social distancing, restaurants operated at 100 percent capacity, toilet paper was available at your local supermarket, and my hotel bar was open. So I went down to do some work and catch the game.
That Wednesday night, I sat down near the TV to draft interview questions for the morning. I remember writing a few notes down and checking the screen to catch tip-off, set for 6:00 p.m. local time.
The game never started. Instead, the teams stood around their benches while both coaches and officials met at center court.
At the time, no reason was given for the delay.
After the refs deliberated, the PA announcer read a carefully crafted statement.
“You are all safe?” Um... doesn’t sound like it, I thought.
By that point, Rudy Gobert was rumored to be patient zero. Members of the sports media confirmed the positive test shortly after.
Just days before, though, the big man rubbed his hands all over microphones at a press conference, joking about the virus... It wasn’t really funny anymore.
Within an hour, the game was off, the Jazz were in quarantine, and the video shoot was canceled. I was told to leave Salt Lake as soon as I could find a flight. I booked one for Thursday morning.
At my old job, I spent most hotel nights browsing HBO, usually scrolling my way to an old Curb episode. But that night, I watched cable news instead. It was one of those rare times when ESPN and CNN were talking about the same thing. In this case, it was the NBA shutdown. For me, and probably many others, it was the moment that made me take the virus seriously.
I remember getting into my Uber to the airport on the passenger side. Maybe I can reduce my chances of getting this thing if I sit diagonally from, not directly behind the driver, I thought (foolishly). I had also just bought a travel-sized bottle of Purell from the hotel gift shop. I probably used it three times throughout the 15-minute ride.
“Are you nervous?” the driver asked. That’s one way to start a conversation at the crack of dawn, I thought. But I was, and I could tell he was anxious too. We spoke about his job, about how he was tasked to pick up and drop off strangers, like me, all day. When I got out of the car, he told me to “stay safe,” which, I guess, would become the new way to end a conversation in 2020.
The sun was rising over the Rockies when I boarded my flight. Maybe half of the plane was full and customers were cleaning their seats with disinfectant wipes. Two days before, my flight was packed and no one took the time to clean their surroundings.
I wiped my seat down too, then doused my hands in Purell for good measure. I had the whole row to myself and spent the four and a half hour watching sports leagues and tournaments get postponed on the inflight TV. It seemed like no one played games after Gobert’s positive test. It would be months before most team sports would return to play.
The shutdown of sports mirrored the shutdown of American life at large. Within days of Gobert’s positive test, the White House issued coronavirus guidelines, states closed schools, and businesses shut down or moved online.
We’re now a year removed from that positive test. And whether you’re a sports fan or not, March 11 was likely the day your world changed, too.