Richard Clark IV
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Easterner, its staff or Eastern Washington University. This letter has not been edited except for AP style.
I was walking down the pleasantly clean streets of Boise, Idaho, toward CenturyLink Arena on March 12, my backpack and camera bag in tow. Suddenly, I got the alert on my phone: The Big Sky Conference had canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments amidst concerns surrounding COVID-19.
This came to me as a slight disappointment, but was no surprise. The whirlwind events of the past 20 or so hours were clearly leading to this … and it was also clear that there was much more at stake here than just a basketball tournament.
The day before the BSC tournament was canceled, Wednesday, March 11, I was getting ready for my short afternoon flight down to Boise. I was lucky: The Easterner had funded my flight fare and hotel stay, making my personal expenses for the trip quite slim.
My roommate dropped me off at the airport, and as I sat waiting to board the plane, I saw on Twitter that the NCAA would be playing its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments with no fans and limited, essential personnel due to COVID-19 concerns. It was shocking for me to consider one of the biggest sporting events in the country to be played in a practically empty arena. Little did I expect that it wouldn’t end there.
“It was shocking for me to consider one of the biggest sporting events in the country to be played in a practically empty arena.” -Drew Lawson, Sports Editor
Not even close.
I landed in Boise at 4:55 p.m. mountain standard time. After Ubering to the Cabana Inn, where I was planning to bunk for the next five days, I began to mentally plan out my evening. EWU wasn’t scheduled to play until the next day at noon, so I had no direct coverage responsibilities that night.
My first step was to ensure my survival: get some food. As I walked to a nearby Albertsons, my phone buzzed and I saw there was an email from EWU President Mary Cullinan that was sent to all students: EWU would be moving to online courses for spring quarter and all university-funded student travel would be suspended.
After getting over the shock of realization that my final college quarter would be strictly remote and I had already attended my final class as a student, I began to inwardly chuckle at the irony. EWU had suspended student travel a mere half hour after I had landed in Boise, making me likely the final student to take a university-funded trip that year, excluding the men’s basketball players.
After purchasing five days’ worth of granola bars, smoothies and bagels to nourish myself for the extent of my stay, I meandered back to my hotel room. I pondered whether or not to go check out CenturyLink Arena and view one or two games of the women’s semifinals, since my media pass was valid to get me into any tournament game.
I was hesitant at first because I partially wanted to take the evening to rest and get ready for (hopefully) four days worth of intensive EWU coverage, but I had a strange feeling that I should experience the tournament sooner rather than later. I decided to head over to the arena, pick up my pass and take in the second semifinal game: Idaho vs. Idaho State.
When I arrived at the arena, I knew immediately that the whole weekend would provide a highly enjoyable atmosphere. Fans cheered on their teams when they were playing, then stuck around to take in other games that didn’t involve their main loyalties. Idaho and Idaho State fought all game, with Idaho eventually pulling away to advance to the women’s final.
“EWU had suspended student travel a mere half hour after I had landed in Boise, making me likely the final student to take a university-funded trip that year, excluding the men’s basketball players.” -Drew Lawson, Sports Editor
During timeouts and stoppages of the game, I did what most modern sports journalists do best: browse Twitter. Suddenly, something caught my eye, something that would spiral into one of the craziest nights in modern sports history: The Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were postponing their game out of concerns that one of the Jazz players were feeling ill. Twenty minutes later, ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski broke the stunning news: Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus. Later, his teammate, guard Donovan Mitchell, also revealed he had tested positive. Almost immediately, the NBA suspended its season.
I knew right then that this would have nationwide ramifications. Now that professional athletes, a demographic which are widely considered to be in the best physical shape of anyone in the world, had tested positive for the virus, it was clear that life for everyone would rapidly begin to shift.
When I got back to my hotel that night, my phone began to buzz off the hook like it never had before. Dozens of people were reaching out over text, call, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter with questions about myself (which I could usually answer) and questions about the future of sports in America (which I could not usually answer). Family, friends, coworkers and faculty all sent messages and started conversations about my plans and thoughts about the whole ordeal.
As I communicated virtually with all these people, SportsCenter played on the TV. The topic was plain: What would the fallout of COVID-19 be on sports? The consensus appeared to be that NCAA basketball would be at risk to continue.
The next morning confirmed these opinions. One by one, conferences around the country decided to cancel their respective basketball tournaments. Around 10:30 a.m., I began to make the 15-minute walk back to CenturyLink Arena. The Big Sky tournament hadn’t canceled when I left, but I was 10 minutes into the walk when the aforementioned notification came.
I continued to walk to the arena. EWU was already in the building doing a walk-through before their now-canceled game against Sac State. But in the five minutes it took for me to see the cancelation notification and arrive at the arena, it was already completely locked, bolted and closed to fans and media.
The conference had taken action, and it had taken action abruptly.
The tournament was now done, and thus my mission in Boise was prematurely cut off. The next objective: get back to Spokane, stat.
“Luckily, that process went smoothly, the hotel was accommodating to my early check-out and I was able to get on a plane that evening back to Spokane.” -Drew Lawson, Sports Editor
At this point, news began to circulate of the conference tournament getting canceled. Thus, friends, family and coworkers reached out to me again asking when I was coming home. My immediate answer: No clue, dude! (This was my response to almost everyone except my mother.)
The Easterner’s director, Jeff Bunch, gave me a much clearer direction to head. I was to contact EWU student accounting and let them know I needed a flight home as soon as possible. Luckily, that process went smoothly, the hotel was accommodating to my early check-out and I was able to get on a plane that evening back to Spokane. Meanwhile, the NCAA Tournament was canceled. College basketball season was over.
As I reflected on this whirlwind of a 24-hour period, I was surprised at the lack of disappointment I felt. I was disappointed for all the teams that would’ve been involved in the NCAA Tournament, which would possibly have included EWU, and I was certainly disappointed that I wouldn’t be filling out a bracket this year.
Ultimately, however, the disappointment was overtaken by my realization at how serious this virus could and would become. (There’s plenty of time to reflect on these things when you’re alone for 24 hours in an unfamiliar town.) As we all know well by now, cancellations have extended beyond sports and are impacting families, the elderly, the economy and, well, everyone.
Now, on Day 10 Without Sports, I’m joining the millions of Americans staying inside with those close to me while waiting and hoping for the spread of Covid-19 to be halted. Perhaps Gobert’s positive test was instrumental in helping all of us sports fans to realize the seriousness of the virus. We should all stay cautious, but stay optimistic that this will pass.
After all, “there’s no crying in baseball.”