A year ago today was our last “normal” day. At least in the beginning. Only we didn’t know it.
Looking back on my notes and social media from March 11, 2020, I was at home, though I remember it as being in the studio, in Chicago, where I had a nightly show on sports talk radio. Try as I might, the events of the 11th and 12th, when we watched the entire sports world shut down, are all jumbled together and on top of each other, the way memories become after events when you are well and truly shocked. I remember Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg looking like death warmed over on the sidelines of the game against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. I remember broadcasters looking bewildered as they tried to explain to fans what was happening and when the games would return. And of course, I remember Rudy Gobert. Everyone remembers Rudy Gobert.
We were so naïve a year ago, thinking we might get a week or two off before sports returned. That all we had to do to be safe was to wash our hands (you should still wash your hands). We had no idea that 528,000 of us (as of today), wouldn’t last the year.
Today, on the anniversary of the shut down of the NBA (everything else would follow shortly after), Deadspin invited some of our colleagues in sports media to look back and help us remember that day. The day, it seemed, everything fell apart.
Rudy Gobert, aiming, I suppose, for a bit of levity, touched every reporters’ mic or phone on his way out of the postgame presser.
I remember watching this happen live in the studio, with my producers, and all of us laughing and saying, “OMG, what if he actually HAD coronavirus?!?!” But though we had started to hear of more and more cases in our states and neighborhoods, and even though we had to leave the studio a few nights later so they could fumigate everything, COVID still felt very remote. We didn’t know anyone who had it. Certainly, NBA players didn’t already have it.
Chuck Swirsky, Bulls play-by-play announcer for WSCR: We had heard about the “virus” for a few days in early March, but it became much more pronounced on March 10 as the Bulls hosted the Cavs. The locker room was now off limits and general media conferences were held prior to and after the game. We ( team) left the following day for Orlando expecting to play a game on Thursday.
The Dow Jones opens and drops 700 points in the first 60 seconds of trading.
7:45 pm ET - The NBA learns of Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test (back then we were still calling it “coronavirus”). Utah’s game is set to tip in Oklahoma City at 8 p.m., leaving Adam Silver less than 15 minutes to make the call. After sending both teams back to the locker room to buy time, Silver makes the decision to cancel the games that haven’t tipped and put the entire league on a “hiatus.”
Swirsky: We arrived in Orlando around 5 p.m. and, since I’m not one who ventures out much, I ordered in room dining and turned on NBA League Pass and flipped around watching four games. Then I received a text from our then-trainer Jeff Tanaka, saying something to the effect of “Tomorrow’s game has been postponed. Be prepared to leave Thursday morning back to Chicago.” I started making a few calls, then saw that the Thunder-Jazz game in OKC had been postponed and both teams were quarantined in their respective locker rooms. At that exact moment it hit me that something of major significance was going on.
Mike Tanier, Lead NFL Analyst, Pro Football Network: I was lying on the couch watching the boys play the PS4. Had just driven my 8th grader home from Odyssey of the Mind (the competition was scheduled for Saturday). Checked my phone for the first time in about an hour, and it was like the world turned upside down. Asked for the remote to flip over to ESPN where they were showing the one game that was going to finish before they closed up the league. Few things in life were more disorienting, and I was a teacher in the classroom during both 9-11 and Columbine.
Damon Bruce: Co-host Damon, Ratto, and Kolsky, 95.7 The Game, San Francisco: I was in-studio with Ray Ratto and Matt Kolsky. We all did one more show the day after the Jazz & Thunder cleared the court, and haven’t seen either guy, or my producers, in person in almost a calendar year now. Our PD (Program Director) immediately pivoted the entire station to home remotes in under 48 hrs.
Dave Hogg, Freelancer for AP and NHL.com: I covered the Red Wings-Hurricanes game on the 10th, the one day of socially-distanced interviews. That was the day Michigan announced its first two cases and declared a state of emergency. I was at home when the Rudy Gobert news broke, having just covered a Pistons-Jazz game on Saturday. I ended up in self-quarantine once Christian Wood tested positive. Haven’t been back in a pressbox since.
Matt Kolsky, Co-host Damon, Ratto, and Kolsky, 95.7 The Game, San Francisco: We were on the air when the Gobert thing happened, so we were responding live to the league shutting down. If I remember correctly, there was another game finishing its second half after Gobert shut the league down, and I remember talking about how weird the whole situation was, but also how this was (A) probably the right thing to do; and (B) only a temporary measure until it was safer out there and we had mitigated the disease, a “don’t worry, we should be back in a month or so” kind of vibe. So obviously we were WAY off on that. By the end of the afternoon show that day, we were already talking with our PD about going remote, by the next day I had the app I’m still using to broadcast from home. Never could have imagined we’d still be doing this. Even by June or July when it was clear how bad things were and what a mess this country was, I still would have guessed we would be back by now. At this point I don’t think we’ll be back in the studio until we are vaccinated.
Camron Smith, Freelancer for MSG Networks, Stadium, and Comcast: I was in the green room with the rest of my on-air crew before our show on MSG Networks (MSG 150) in NYC. We were going over the show rundown with producers when I saw the tweet about Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. Shared the news out loud to everyone, and the room was filled with shock. Maybe five minutes later, Adam Silver canceled the rest of the games that evening. We sat in the green room with the look of fear on our faces and still had a show to shoot. One of the most surreal experiences I had in my 14 years of sports media.
9:08 pm ET: Tom Hanks posts on Instagram that he and wife Rita Wilson have tested positive for coronavirus.
Meanwhile, in college basketball, several conference tournaments were underway:
Dave Revsine, Host, Big Ten Network: We were in our green room, watching games with producers and whatnot, and everyone kind of gets that alert at the same time. The Rudy Gobert news and the fact that the NBA shut down the season. And at that time, the Big Ten was also in the process of announcing that they were not going to allow any fans the next day. So there were, there were limited fans. And so I think there was this sense of “wow.” Everyone kind of looking at each other, like “Holy cow, for the NBA to shut down.” All of a sudden the story took on such a different tenor, I think, for all of us.
Brooke Weisbrod, ESPN analyst: The last time I flew was March 10th. I was on my way to Dallas for the AAC [Tournament], landed, checked Twitter, and an hour later flew back to Chicago. I saw Adam Amin’s tweet about the AAC, then ESPN emailed us a few days later about the rest of the season
Kris Budden, ESPN reporter: I was in Kansas City during the first round games of the men’s Big 12 basketball tournament. When we got there that week, everyone was kind of jokingly bumping elbows, like, you know, giving people fist pumps. And what was interesting was that they had roped off the court. The fans couldn’t sit in the first two rows and it almost felt like, you know, we have to protect the court. Everyone else is like these possible infectors. And so games go on. The first game is about to start and, you start to see the dominoes fall with the other conferences, the Ivy league. And then I think the ACC had announced no fans. We came out about 15 minutes before we went on the air and announced that they were not going to have fans the following day.
Revsine: I don’t know if you recall, but Fred Hoiberg was sick on the Nebraska bench. It was just crazy to watch it. There was a real feeling of, you know, first of all, why is he there? I mean, I love Fred. He is a great guy. But you know, I think it was a little bit reckless in hindsight for him to be there. I mean, it just didn’t make sense. And there was a moment where I don’t mean to laugh at it because it isn’t funny, certainly in the context of what has happened with a half a million people dying in the last year, it’s not funny at all. But (Hoiberg) looked like death warmed over. I mean, he looked terrible. And one of his assistants is a guy named Armon Gates, and there was a shot of the two of them: Fred looks horrible and Armand, looks over at him like, “Oh my goodness,” and reaches down. And there’s hand sanitizer in between the two of them on the ground and [Armand] starts furiously sanitizing his arms.
Luckily, it turned out that Hoiberg just had the flu:
Budden: We still had two games the night of the 11th that would have fans, but they announced it over the speaker there. And so all these fans found out via the MC that they wouldn’t be able to come the rest of the week. So it definitely is “how much do we talk about this?” We wanted to focus on the game, but this is going on. And in the second game is when more of the dominoes started to fall in the rest of the country and the Rudy Gobert stuff happened. And when the news broke about the NBA shutting down their games, I was standing next to the Baylor team who I had become pretty close with from covering a bunch of their games. And I remember one of the players coming up to me who was a senior and he said, “Kris, the NBA’s shut down. They’re not going to end my season. Are they?”
Roger Hoover, Play-By-Play Broadcaster for the Alabama Crimson Tide: I was on the floor at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville ready to start Alabama men’s basketball’s pregame show, we were 13 minutes from airtime, then saw the tweet from the SEC that the tournament was cancelled. We did a quick update on the radio then I wasn’t on the air again until football season.
Revsine: One of the things that I do is when the sessions end at the end of the night, I sit down and I update all of my stats for the next day. And it might seem like really minor stuff … but this is my process. I update all of the things I keep track of: What the team’s shooting percentage is, where it fits in the Big Ten standings, you know. These are the little nuggets that you need to kind of get you through a day. So that’s a long preamble, unfortunately of saying I didn’t do it on that night for the first time ever.
Tim Cary, freelance sportscaster: I was broadcasting a women’s basketball game in a Christian college regional tournament on Wednesday night, March 11. No fans. Very surreal. Got home to find out about the Hoiberg news, NBA stuff, Hanks, etc.
Budden: We had no idea at the time, but in my mind, there was no way they were going to shut down March Madness and the rest of the tournaments. So, looking back on it, we all went to a wine bar afterwards (on the 11th), had dinner and shared tapas. Meanwhile, we thought that all the fans were the ones we had to keep away from the court. I don’t think at the time anyone realized, “Oh, well this is where it could really spread, sharing a ball. People sweating all over each other.”
11:15 am ET: The ACC cancels its conference tournament.
12:00 pm ET: The Big East Tournament tips at Madison Square Garden. St. John’s and Creighton play until halftime of their quarterfinal match, when the remainder of the game, and the season, is canceled.
Revsine: We started on the [Big Ten Tournament] pregame show and I think we were a little less than 15 minutes into it. And the producer gets in my ear and says, “Hey, we’re hearing the tournament may be canceled. Don’t say anything yet, but I just want you to know we’re waiting on official word from the conference, just keep going.”
And so we’re having some conversation about the Michigan-Rutgers game and about 30 seconds later, I’ve asked a question of Coach John Beilein, and he started to answer the question. And as he is answering, the producer gets back with me and says, “The tournament’s canceled. When you get it back from Coach, turn to Camera 4 and say ‘The tournament’s canceled,’ and we’ll go from there. And that was just kind of a surreal moment.
I think in hindsight, again, it’s small potatoes compared to everything else that happened in the world subsequent to that, obviously we had no idea what was going on. But I’ll never forget that moment.
12:03 pm ET: The Big Ten Network announces the remainder of the Big Ten Tournament has been canceled.
Budden: Some players didn’t want to be there after all this started to happen. And so we’re sitting there watching them warm up, and all of a sudden it was “get off the court, everyone off the court, what is happening?” All the teams had to go to a locker room and, and then it was announced that this was the end of the tournament. And from there, it was almost kind of scary — we didn’t know what was happening to us. Are we going to be able to get flights home? I had a rental car. I live in Texas. We had a lot of people work with us from Texas that were like, “if we can’t get on flights, can we hop in the car with you?”
3:16 pm ET: The NCAA cancels March Madness and all remaining winter and spring championships.
Budden: I was able to get on a flight home. I was sitting next to the TCU athletic director and we both on our phones got the note that March Madness was canceled. But also within that note was that all the spring championships had been canceled as well. I do the College World Series. So that was when I was like “the College World Series is in June.“ We’re sitting here and it’s March 12th and they’ve already made this decision. And that’s when it started to be like “this is real.”
Swirsky: The plane ride home (to Chicago) was very quiet. We honestly didn’t know what to expect. We arrived and immediately went home. It was our last game of the season. It’s the last time I have connected face to face with any individual representing ownership, management, coaches or players. Everything is done via Zoom. I am a people person. I love conversation and love connecting. This has been an extremely difficult year personally and professionally and while I’m not sure what the “new normal” will look like, I can’t wait for the day society returns to daily in-person relationships and attendance at events.
Matt Baker, college football reporter, Tampa Bay Times: This is debatable and gets into semantics, but I believe I was at the last major sporting event that happened (kind of) before the shutdown.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is a big annual event here. 130,000+ people in downtown over three days for the IndyCar Series’ season opener. On Wednesday, officials held a presser to say the event was still on. On Thursday, they eliminated fans but said it would still happen. It did indeed start on Friday, and they did four practice sessions total across various series. Then on the fifth, they just … pulled out the red flag and brought the 13 cars in. It was done. Everyone go home.
It was so, so crazy and weird for a lot of reasons. I was in the media center that morning, and they were testing the virtual interview setup, getting mic stands ready, all that. Then a few hours later, as I’m taking in the eerie scene outside, the cars just stopped. Over. In a four and a half hour span, it went from cars starting the first practice session to forklifts tearing down the track.
The NBA, NHL, MLB, soccer leagues and PGA had already shut down. NASCAR pulled the plug at the same time, but it hadn’t started its race weekend yet. So when things shut down in St. Pete, the entire U.S. sports scene shut down, too.
Meanwhile, back at the Deadspin offices in Gotham:
Eric Barrow, Editor in Chief, Deadspin: The plan was to relaunch the site on Monday, March the 16th, but freelancer Chuck Modiano was able to get an exclusive with then-Panther Eric Reid, who had famously kneeled alongside Colin Kaepernick in protest of police brutality and is one of the leading voices on the issue.
Reid had a lot to say about the NFL’s CBA proposal, with the deadline to vote on the new deal with owners on Saturday the 14th. Reid wanted his thoughts on the proposal known and read by players, so in order to get the exclusive with him, we realized we had to move up our launch date to Friday the 13th of March, less than 24 hours after the entire sports world shut down. Discussions were had about postponing the launch, but in the end, we realized that with so much unknown, there’s no telling when sports would return. If we had delayed the launch we would have no idea when we could bring the site back. So the decision was made to push up the launch to Friday and lead with the Reid exclusive.
In retrospect it was absolutely the right call, as not having sports didn’t prevent us from not having issues to write about, particularly as it pertained to teams, leagues and college sports’ response to a major health crisis.
Revsine: I think the big thing that we all understand is that sports are not life and death, but they are a reflection of our society. They are a microcosm of our society; all of the issues that play out in sports play out more broadly. And I think some would argue more significantly. Although, you know, I think we learned over the course of this summer, particularly with some of the social justice issues, that sports can play a really important role. But it’s also a diversion for us. We care about (sports). Why do we care about it? I don’t know, but it’s something that’s just kind of for all of us, right? It just, it matters.