Wednesday March 11, 2020.
It was a whirlwind 38 hours. I finished up the Deener Show at the ESPN Louisville studios on Wednesday March 11th at 10:00 am and drove to pick up TCZ Alumnus Matt McGavic (currently with Sports Illustrated’s Louisville Report) for our drive to Greensboro.
Upon our departure we expected to drive to the 2020 ACC Basketball Tournament and while we were aware of the COVID-19 crisis that had been looming for several weeks we never expected what was waiting for us. We did have a thought that perhaps fans could be limited or disallowed from attending and we wondered if media would be included in that limitation. But we felt like whatever was about to happen, it would be a story…… and it was.
On the drive McGavic read twitter basically the entire way down. One by one the dominoes began to fall.
- 11:34 am Rutgers closes athletic events
- 12:16 pm World Health Organization Declares COV-19 global pandemic.
- 12:42 pm CBI Tournament cancelled
- 1:50 pm NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets closes competition to fans
- 1:55 pm Tulsa Football players quarantined
- 2:10 pm NBA’s Golden State Warriors closes competition to fans
- 2:44 pm Ohio State Athletics closes competition to fans
- 3:00 pm Ivy League CANCELS All Spring Sporting Events
- 3:11 pm Penn State closes competition to fans
- 3:47 pm Washington closes competition to fans
- 4:15 pm NCAA advises against holding competition with fans present
- 4:30 pm NCAA announces that Men’s & Women’s Tournament will be held without fans.
At 6:00 pm Matt and I arrived in Greensboro and checked in to our hotel. With all the events that happened during our drive (and there were others, the events listed above were merely athletic related) we felt it was necessary to rush to the arena and get inside. It seemed like everything about to break loose…. and it was.
On the way to the Greensboro Coliseum it seemed like everything was business as usual. Ticket scalpers on the on-ramp, parking attendants attempting to wave us in and it was all sports has ever been…. except this time it was on the cusp of stopping like it never had been stopped before.
- 6:38 pm Big Ten closes its Men’s Tournament & Spring sports to fans
- 6:40 pm Big 12 limits its Men’s Tournament to teams, 125 & no cheerleaders.
Going through the media entry at 7:05 a North Carolina fan noticed me and said, “Louisville!? Who let you in here?”. We had an exchange about how he needed to be concerned about Syracuse more than Louisville at the moment. Despite everything, fans were geared up for March.
At 7:24 I met up with Drew Deener in the concourse and we bumped into UofL fans were who there for the tournament. We speculated that Louisville fans probably made the trip for no reason as they weren’t scheduled to tip until 9:00 pm the next day.
Drew and I spoke with a bartender who was working the concourse and asked him if he expected to be in Greensboro Coliseum tomorrow. “Yes! I’ll be here everyday!” I asked him, “What if they don’t allow fans?” And his response was as innocent as I wish we all still were, “Not allow fans? Everyone is already here!”
And he was right. Greensboro Coliseum was swarming with fans. North Carolina was the next game and fans were in the concourse drinking alcohol, walking up stairs using the handrails. They were in the stands sitting side-by-side in an arena with no cupholders. Drinks being sat on the ground where fans shoes had just sat…. and we’d never really thought about it until now.
One thing that was happening EVERYONE was washing their hands. In the restrooms where men might do a ‘quick pass’ or simply just ‘trust their own germs’ now patrons waited in line as long as they may have to use a urinal to wash their hands as if they were entering surgery. In the concourse the ACC had provided hand sanitizer on almost every column and it was being used at an incredible rate.
- 7:57 pm Halftime of Notre Dame vs. Boston College
- 7:58 pm The ACC closes its Men’s Tournament to fans starting Thursday
There was a pall over Greensboro Coliseum. Knowing the ACC Tournament would be closed to fans tomorrow and the NCAA Tournament already having announced as being closed to fans there was an understanding that there were 3 more halves of basketball to be able to watch in person in the 2020 season. Fans of Virginia, Louisville, Duke and Florida State had made the trip for nothing.
- 8:40 pm Utah Jazz/Oklahoma City Thunder game is postponed.
- 8:49 pm AAC closes Tournament to fans.
- 8:53 pm PAC 12 closes Tournament to fans.
Inside Greensboro Coliseum we were back to Basketball. Notre Dame ran away with the victory and they were set to take on Virginia in the ACC Quarterfinals Thursday. By this time Matt McGavic & Mark Ennis had joined Drew Deener and I in this stands of the Greensboro Coliseum. There was speculation as to why the Jazz game was postponed. Was it a player? Was it an official? Was the NBA about to make a much larger declaration?
- 9:04 pm President Trump addresses the nation, announces closure of travel from the EU among other measures.
- 9:06 pm Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson announce they have tested positive for COVID-19.
- 9:11 pm SEC Tournament closes tournament to fans.
By now North Carolina has tipped off vs. Syracuse. The largely sky-blue hued crowd of the Greensboro Coliseum is upset with Syracuse’s hot start and coronavirus seems to be less of a concern as Tar Heel fans are watching the beginning of the end of their season.
- 9:27 pm The Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tests positive for COVID-19
- 9:31 pm The NBA season is suspended
Nothing is going well for UNC and a season’s worth of frustration is coming to a head. There was murmuring around the arena and eventually fans were happy to NOT watch the 2nd half of North Carolina’s final game of the season. There is a sudden realization that the ACC Tournament might be halted in light of the Gobert news. But Carolina fans are happy that the 2020 season is coming to a merciful end for them.
- 9:52 pm Conference USA closes its Tournament to fans.
Before leaving Greensboro Coliseum I wanted to stop by the media center and just see what might be happening. I ran into WDRB’s Rick Bozich and he said that the only occurrence that he has ever been present for was the Bay Area World Series in 1989 that was postponed for a large Earthquake that affected the entire San Francisco Bay area. Tim Sullivan independently said the same thing…. both columnists were at that World Series.
Upon arrival to my hotel instead of turning on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or any of the other major news networks covering the COVID-19 outbreak. I turn on ESPN and watch the end of the North Carolina/Syracuse game in my hotel room. Before it ends I start pulling stats about Syracuse and remembering the great ball movement Louisville Basketball had against the Orange in the Yum! Center. It seems like UofL’s best shot to make its first ever ACC Semifinal…. if we get to play.
We were also seeing live cut-ins of Nebraska Head Coach Fred Hoiberg actively coaching the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten tournament despite being obviously sick. Hoiberg was later confirmed for FLU and NOT COVID-19, but the imagery of a coach on the floor visibly sick (and not self-quarantining himself) and the news that a NBA player in Gobert actually testing positive for COVID-19 made this situation a real one for players, coaches, administrators, commissioners and leagues. COVID-19 was going to affect play. The hope that was the games would go on, but now?????
- 10:44 pm Big East closes Madison Square Garden to fans for Tournament
Thursday March 12, 2020
I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel where Louisville, Virginia and Florida State were staying in Greensboro to do the Deener Show from the lobby of the team hotel. This is something Drew has done throughout his career and I’ve been joining Drew on these for the past several years at bowl games, tournaments, big events where the radio station travels.
As I arrive the equipment that we use to broadcast with is not cooperating. It worked the day before when Mark Ennis broadcasted his 3-6 show from Greensboro…. but this morning it’s not working. Without getting too far into the weeds of broadcasting, we have the ability to broadcast with one voice from our phones and so I fired that up and Drew started the show. Meanwhile I was left (and I’m not a tech for our Comrex system) to troubleshoot our equipment. The decision was quickly made to try to relocate, find a better signal and find Mark Ennis who might be able to help us.
In the end we broadcasted well-within the 6 foot ‘social distancing’ space but we were able to do a two-man show side-by-side while sharing an ear each of wired Apple Head Phones from my iPhone 11 Pro (this is not an ad, that actually happened).
Caller after caller offered advice, regret an anecdote, a worry. It wasn’t much of a show about basketball or even sports, but society. Sure we were at this point in time still wondering if we would play the ACC Quarterfinals but there was word that ACC Commissioner John Swofford would be speaking at 10:00.
- 9:30 a.m. John Swofford appears on the “Packer & Durham” Show on the ACC Network and details that the ACC Tournament will continue. He leaves the interview with “Toss it up”.
Drew and I close the show feeling good that there will be a tournament these measures are believed to help stem the tide of COVID-19 and while fans wouldn’t be there to see any of it we discussed the responsibility of telling the story better than ever as fans would not have the opportunity to be there first-hand.
- 10:23 a.m. Media assembled for John Swofford’s Press Conference previously scheduled for 10:00 a.m. is obviously delayed.
- 10:42 am John Swofford Press Conference begins, it’s the same message as the “Packer & Durham” show. The ACC is planning on playing the games. Swofford notes, “My heart bleeds for Greensboro”
I had picked up Matt McGavic and drove to the Greensboro Coliseum for the noon games. As we were pulling into the Purple Lot of the facility McGavic yelled, “NNNNOOOOOO”.
- 10:49 a.m. Donovan Mitchell tests positive for COVID-19.
As we get the news about Donovan was take a big sigh and tell each other that Donovan is healthy and will get through this. But this is a person I know, that Louisville loves. He’s a Cardinal.
- 10:56 a.m. Louisville SID Kenny Klein sent a text “We’ll have Vince Tyra available in the lobby of the Sheraton at 12:15 p.m.
Rather than going into Greensboro Coliseum and setting up shop, McGavic and I decide to instead head back to the hotel. No sense in having our equipment in two places on a day like this.
As we pulled in to the Sheraton hotel we weren’t sure exactly where we needed to be, but we knew we needed power and a place that we might need to occupy for a long period of time. So we found a place between two seating areas in the lobby with two different TVs and power. We finally had a chance to catch our breath somewhat….. my phone had been ringing off the hook since the end of the radio show (and during let’s get real) and texts were coming in faster than I could read them. I respond to almost no one.
- 11:15 am Kenny Klein sends an update that they are having to move the Tyra press conference to 1:00.
- 11:35 a.m. MAC Tournament cleared the court. The Conference wants each player’s temperature checked and cleared by their respective team doctor.
Stephanie Davis (Admin for Louisville Basketball) meets with some folks near where Matt and I had set up to work. We make a casual joke like, “I’ll see if I can find you inside the arena” knowing that there will be literally dozens of people inside the arena should the games take place. We know that if you are in the arena EVERYONE will know who is in attendance. We laugh at the absurdity of it all…. but there is clear concern with the future of the tournament.
- 11:42 am The American Athletic Tournament Cancelled.
- 11:43 am The Big Ten Tournament Cancelled.
I see Kenny Klein in the lobby and I tell him the news about the Big Ten. He had not yet heard about that league making that move. Everyone is clearly worried about our tournament.
- 11:47 am SEC Tournament Cancelled.
- 11:49 am Big 12 Pulls Players off the court
TheCrunchZone photographer William Caudill is en route to Greensboro via car says to me on Twitter, “Looks like I can turn around”. “Yes” is my reply. It’s going to happen, this fragile situation only needed one reason.
Back in the lobby of the Sheraton more and more UofL folks are showing up. The hotel has to find someone to open the bar….. someone makes the comment, “Why is no one at the bar?” Despite a global pandemic Louisville fans are still the thirstiest group out there. Never change.
I make the joke about self-imposing a penalty for the 2020 NCAA Tournament during the Brian Bowen scandal. It’s met initially with a ‘yeah right’….. and suddenly “Actually you are right, we should.”
- 11:53 am No players were on the court in Greensboro. But the bands were still playing music. Defiant….. or maybe as comforting as the Titanic.
- 11:53 am Big 12 cancels its tournament.
A sense of inevitability now came over the lobby. We’ve all come here for nothing. Will we have the NCAA Tournament next week? Can they post-pone it?
At this point in time Vince Tyra and his wife Lori walk into the lobby and Lori joins the group close to where I am set up with Matt.
- 12:06 p.m. The Big East Tournament between St. John’s & Creighton tipped off.
The Big East tipping off was a great sign. It appeared that maybe we would have basketball! Maybe the ACC & Big East would play?
- 12:15 pm The ACC Tournament is Cancelled.
No more than 60 seconds pass after the cancellation of the ACC Tournament when the Louisville Basketball team came down to the lobby via elevator. The family, administrators and others who were still there in Greensboro had mixed reactions. Some clapped. Others made sympathetic sounds. It was a surreal moment.
As the team passed by a Louisville woman had traveled to Greensboro and had just arrived at the team hotel. She was set to be one of the 150 people allowed in to the 9:00 game. I heard her say sarcastically, “I’m glad you talked me into coming!”
- 12:21 pm Florida State presented with ACC Tournament Trophy.
- 12:24 pm Kenny Klein texts to say that the Vince Tyra stand up with happen at 12:45 instead. Lots of change was happening.
- 12:28 pm The Louisville Basketball team all got on the same elevator (except Darius Perry) and went back up to their rooms.
- 12:29 pm Jay Bilas says on ESPN that one school was not going to play (later identified as Duke).
Media gathered around the lobby and spoke with Vince Tyra who told us basically what we already knew. Tyra laid out a timeline for other decisions to be made and expressed uncertainty about what decisions might be made as the news, information and decisions were being made rapidly. Drew Deener used my phone to broadcast back to the studios of ESPNLouisville and my dad actually called in the middle and interrupted the broadcast briefly. (Why does the iPhone not shut off incoming calls while that particular app is active?)
- 12:59 pm Chris Mack & his family were now seated where Matt and I had set up our equipment. He’s clearly unhappy.
Vince Tyra and Chris Mack have a conversation. The area around us of fans, friends, family, team personnel were all now coping with the sudden cancellation of the tournament. Some folks grabbed a beer and Lori Tyra offered one…. “I’m probably going to drive home here in a bit.”
I uploaded the interview of Vince Tyra onto TheCrunchZone.com and started packing up my stuff. No one was happy. And now Louisville Basketball was working on the logistics of travelling back home. All of the teams travel via private bus and plane charter and the system is fully equipped for normal elimination returns…. but to have all of college basketball cancel at once with the most teams possible on-site of Thursday during Conference Tournament week is a logistical nightmare.
Chris Mack gets word that the team would be leaving the lobby at 4:25 for a 5:15 flight (The Cards actually didn’t end up leaving until Friday) and tells a few people with the team there in the lobby.
- 1;20 pm Florida State arrives back at the Sheraton with Championship hats. Their families congratulate and one dad said, “Won the title without firing a shot!” A good joke.
After a quick lunch Matt and I get our stuff from our hotel and start headed back to Louisville. We travel only as far as the thin part of Virginia between North Carolina and West Virginia when the news comes:
- 4:18 pm NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tournament cancelled.
Matt and I drove home wondering about the student athletes, the universities, the future of sports. How long will this last? What will we work on? What will we talk about? When will the next game be?
It was a sad ride home. COVID-19 is a real threat. It’s not like the weather, an earthquake volcano or even a war. It’s something we can’t see in order to prevent. It’s intangible until it’s too late. Wash your hands, keep your distance, make smart decisions and maybe this will be a brief hiatus of our normal society.
As for sports, people want normal during an abnormal time.
We’ve cancelled events, closed Disney World, and all of it is terrible. I think we are all just sad that we won’t discover Cinderella, we won’t have our surrender cobras, our crying piccolo player, our buzzer beater, our bracket buster, our dancing mascot….. and we won’t have the random hysterics that we’ve all become accustomed to during March Madness. I’m sad that real life has interrupted one of our greatest annual escapes.
Here’s to hoping COVID-19 is in our rearview soon and we can get back to the games safely and more aware than ever.
Latest posts by Mark Blankenbaker (see all)
- PROTECT THE FOOTBALL: DON’T GET MARRIED ON A COLLEGE FOOTBALL SATURDAY - August 15, 2022
- VIDEO: Marshon Ford Talks Scrimmage - August 14, 2022
- VIDEO: Monty Montgomery Talks Scrimmage - August 14, 2022