Chaos, confusion and college basketball: Remembering the day the Big East shut down

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  • Anthony

FIVE WEEKS BEFORE the world shut down, Creighton’s Jett Canfield, a walk-on, stood on the court at The Palestra, a Philadelphia cathedral disguised as a basketball arena on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

His flop of curly hair leaned forward like his shooting form, which seemingly needed all of his 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds to get the ball up on the rim. He ran the scout team in practice, impersonating the 21st-ranked Bluejays’ opponents instead of playing against them.

With hands on hips at this Feb. 3 practice, Canfield listened to coach Greg McDermott question guard Mitch Ballock about why he and Canfield were 10 minutes late to the team bus. McDermott then shifted his stare to Canfield, who stood like a closely cropped shrub among a forest of teammates.

“And Jett, if you’re gonna be on scholarship, you gotta start acting like it,” McDermott said.

Those words — on scholarship — hung in the air.

The Palestra echoed with ambient noise, then somebody laughed. Canfield’s teammates mobbed him, hopping up and down in a massive group hug. The scene — a walk-on getting promoted on some historic hardwood — also spoke to something bigger. Creighton found itself with an unused scholarship — set aside, say, for a transfer who never came available — which Canfield earned thanks to his hard work behind the scenes. But it was only guaranteed through the end of the season. Canfield understood the deal: For an end-of-the-bench scrapper like himself, it could be one-and-done. In the moment, though, he felt overwhelming joy.

More than a month later on March 7, in Creighton’s regular-season finale vs. Seton Hall in which the Bluejays won a share of the conference title, star guard Marcus Zegarowski injured the meniscus in his right knee. That meant Canfield — who had attempted one shot in conference play to that point — would see playing time in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden for the tournament’s No. 1 seed.

March 12, 2020, was set up to be the biggest basketball day in Canfield’s life. But as he stepped on the court under the bright lights in New York City, the rest of the sports world was beginning to go dark. Eleven days earlier, the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the state.

The NBA had announced March 11 that games would pause. Soon, MLB would halt spring training, and the NCAA tournament would be called off. Sports around the country would stop as part of a global upheaval.

The Big East tournament, in what would become the epicenter of the virus, would shut down, too, of course. But not before two teams played, for one half amid a cloud of confusion that would come to mark daily life almost immediately.

ONE DAY BEFORE Canfield took center stage, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman stood in the bowels of MSG, presiding over an awards ceremony that started at 4:30 p.m. About a half-hour earlier, Ackerman learned that the NCAA decided its tournament would be played without fans.

“My decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” NCAA president Mark Emmert’s March 11 statement read in part.

The United States’ first confirmed case was in late January and its first confirmed death in late February. By early March, several states, including New York, had emergency declarations. In college basketball, drastic measures suddenly were on the table, including moving the Final Four from a football stadium in Atlanta to a smaller arena. The NCAA was in contact with its conference leadership as information about the virus became available.

Still, Ackerman was blindsided by the announcement from the NCAA, which had control over its national championships but let conferences make their own tournament decisions, even though they’d include many of the same players just days apart.

“We were just trying to keep up as best we could with what we thought was coming down the pike with the city and the NCAA’s guidance on the NCAA tournament,” Ackerman said later. “But I think that the surreal nature of it was that it was so fast-moving and there was not a central decision-making authority or process.”

Ackerman was set to welcome 17,000 fans for the first night of games not long after the ceremony. And she was responsible for dozens of student-athletes such as Canfield, whose Creighton Bluejays settled in at the Stewart Hotel, a long 3-pointer from The Garden.

Ackerman was in constant contact with NYC Emergency Management, a liaison to the decision-makers trying to navigate it all in real time.

“Our North Star,” Ackerman later said, “was the city and state of New York.”

She did not have any restrictions from the city but said she “would be prepared to adjust” if directed to do so. She contacted other major conferences before conferring with her own schools and representatives from MSG. But with the first game tipping in just a few hours, it was too late to bar fans from entry that night.

The crowd watched as St. John’s erased a 15-point deficit against Georgetown, tying the game on a Marcellus Earlington basket with 3 minutes, 10 seconds remaining. As the ball fell through the hoop, The Garden roared. Red Storm swingman Julian Champagnie remembered the environment as “a madhouse.”

The Red Storm scored the next 13 points to complete a 23-0 run and a 75-62 victory. Coach Patrick Ewing, perhaps the conference’s greatest player ever, was left disappointed on the Hoyas’ sideline.

Seated 20 rows up behind a basket, Canfield visualized himself out there the next day and took in everything — the lights, the fans, the stage and the aroma. It smelled like an event, popcorn and beer and hot dogs melding together. He was completely in the moment, the last one like it for a long time.

Directly above the court on MSG’s Chase Bridge, Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson and radio broadcaster John Bishop watched the night’s second game, between DePaul and Xavier. They glanced at the monitors where they sat, a Championship Week slate going strong, and noticed visibly ill Cornhuskers coach Fred Hoiberg, bent over in his seat, during a Big Ten game between Nebraska and Indiana.


“We don’t have all the sound up but we’re seeing … that he’s coughing,” Anderson said. “He’s not feeling well. The doctors are talking to him, and people [on Twitter] are trying to correlate that, ‘Oh, he’s got the virus.'”

Anderson and Bishop sat up straighter. At 10:34 p.m., following Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test and the NBA’s suspension, Ackerman announced a restricted attendance policy for the rest of the Big East tournament. By 10:40 p.m., Hoiberg was on his way to the hospital. It turned out he had the flu, not COVID-19.

But uncertainty was everywhere. Things had begun to spiral.

Back at the Stewart, Canfield had unplugged from the world by 11 p.m. Per team rules for non-home games, a manager collected phones from players, bunking two to a room, protecting them from their devices’ late-night glow. They heard about the Gobert incident but weren’t up all night dissecting the fallout.

Basketball was on their minds, not a burgeoning pandemic. Masks and 6-foot buffers were not yet concerns. They were unaware of what was to come. “The avalanche,” Canfield said later.

On the day the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a pandemic, the team’s focus was on next afternoon’s game with St. John’s.

“The city and state,” Ackerman later said, “were telling us we were good to go.”

“WHY ARE WE even going?” Dave Fried, a veteran television statistician, said to himself on the morning of March 12 from his home on Long Island. The night before, he had watched on TV as the NBA hit pause. A domino effect seemed inevitable. But Fried was assigned to work FS1’s broadcast of the Big East tournament during Thursday’s early session. He took the train into the city and sat at the scorer’s table about 10 feet from the visitors’ bench.

Fried used a disinfectant wipe to clean the headset, then the table, then the chair. He was taking the precaution because he shared duties with John Labombarda, a longtime director of research at the Elias Sports Bureau who was seated courtside the night before. They might have shared a chair.

New York recorded 355 cases on March 12, after having just three a week earlier. Testing was still relatively scarce, but it was obvious the city had a problem on its hands.

While Fried settled in, Ackerman sat in a meeting at the law offices of Proskauer Rose, the conference’s outside counsel, at Eleven Times Square. The board of directors, made up of the Big East schools’ presidents, had convened that morning at 9. It was tradition for the board to gather at these offices on the morning of the tournament’s second day. But this was the group’s eighth meeting in five days.

“My board normally meets three times a year,” Ackerman later said, pausing for emphasis.

Like everyone else, the group was out of its depth. The members wanted to be prepared. Ackerman had arranged for four of the NCAA’s senior-most officials to join the meeting by video call. She said they did not warn of any cancellations; however, the NCAA would not make its decision about March Madness until later that afternoon. The meeting ended at 11:30.

Shortly after, major conferences started cancelling their tournaments. Zegarowski, standing near the Madison Square Garden court on crutches with phone in hand, was watching them come in one by one.

The SEC at 11:47.

The Big Ten at 11:49.

The Atlantic 10, also set to tip at noon about 5 miles away at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, called it at 11:58.

Informed by Zegarowski, Canfield thought the Big East would follow suit. “Oh, s—,” Canfield said. “It got real.”

Ackerman was getting the information on her phone, too. She got a call from another conference commissioner at around noon, just as Canfield settled into his seat on the bench. The cancellation of that tournament was due to government order. Ackerman still did not have one from New York City.

The crew that sat courtside at The Garden — the public-address announcer, officials who ran the clock and other game personnel — anticipated the game could be called off at any minute.

The players positioned themselves for the opening tip. The television broadcast listed the starting lineups. It looked like any other game — except no one was sure that it would actually begin, including Canfield.

One of the on-court officials, Brian O’Connell, walked to the scorer’s table with the same question everyone else had: We still doin’ this?

At 12:05, the ball went up in the air at Madison Square Garden.

WHEN JETT CANFIELD entered the game midway through the first half, he debuted at the World’s Most Famous Arena in its strangest moment.

The arena’s trademark roar was replaced by intermittent silence.

“We heard all of the other team’s calls,” Canfield said. “It was weird.”

He adapted quickly, starting with a 3-pointer from the left corner with 8:11 remaining in the first half. All net. Then a feathery teardrop from the foul line with 1:37 remaining. Twenty-one seconds later, in front of Knicks superfan Spike Lee’s famous spot, he made a left-wing 3 from well behind the line, his legs overlapping in midair like a figure skater.

Three shots. Three makes.

“Finally getting a chance to live out my dreams,” Canfield said later.

Around the time he was hitting the shots of his life, about 12:20 p.m., Ackerman spoke with her contact at the city of New York who had some big news: That afternoon, Mayor Bill de Blasio would hold a news conference and effectively shut down the city.

Gatherings of more than 500 people would be banned in accordance with the state. Broadway would be shuttered. A state of emergency would be declared.

Ackerman knew what she needed to do. Within 20 minutes, she reconvened her board via phone. Its members agreed that play needed to be stopped. They’d wait until halftime.

With St. John’s leading 38-35 at the break, Xan Korman, a Butler student photographer, walked to the media room. He had spent the first half roaming the empty stands taking photos. The media room’s TV indicated the fun was over. He hustled back to the court to see what was going on.

And that’s when he heard The Garden’s public-address announcer: “The Big East has canceled the remainder of our men’s basketball tournament, effective immediately. We believe the decision is in the best interests of our participants and the fans.”

Then, over scattered boos from those allowed in, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the loudspeakers. Korman, from a perch in the stands, captured one last photo before he left: a dark arena, the only colors coming from the sweatshirts of a handful of exiting loyalists. When the music was done, and the arena empty, that sound was replaced by one of finality: metal chairs being closed and put away.

For Canfield, it was tough to swallow. Those three shots he made, the most rewarding of his career, were nullified. The locker room was in shock. The players sulked.

Ackerman made the eight-block walk to The Garden for a news conference. Seated at a table in front of a black backdrop, she said the cancellation of “the greatest college basketball tournament ever” broke her heart, but she didn’t want to be imprudent about safety. When asked that day why the New York City-based Atlantic 10 tournament could cancel before starting but the Big East couldn’t, she said, “We just literally didn’t think that another 15 or 20 minutes of game time was going to make that much of a difference.”

Meanwhile, Canfield and his father took an Uber from the hotel to Mastro’s Steakhouse, blocks from Rockefeller Center, typically one of the most congested areas on a congested island.

There were no cars on 52nd Street, near the intersection with Sixth Avenue. Inside Mastro’s, they were the only people eating at the bar. They talked about the game and those three shots but couldn’t help scanning the place. Just three tables were filled. It seemed the city had rolled up its sidewalks while they were in the arena.

Canfield described the feeling: “Apocalyptic.”

WHEN ST. JOHN’S COACH Mike Anderson relayed the news to his team, in the same building that hosted Gobert and the Jazz for a game against the Knicks eight days before, the players dropped their heads, disappointment washing over them when the chance to make the semifinals was taken away. But soon, real life intervened.

“[The cancellation] bothered me, but I’d rather not play than risk getting sick,” Champagnie said later. “The city was a hot spot.”

Anderson, Creighton’s SID, had left the arena to grab a burger and saw Bluejays assistant coach Terrence Rencher wearing a surgical mask. “Whoa,” he said. Rencher was the first person Anderson knew who had one.

Providence — which had won six games in a row and was readying for a March run — was already on its bus, idling outside the Shelburne Hotel at Lexington and 37th. Friars coach Ed Cooley, dressed in his sideline suit and holding a game card, wasn’t yet on board, so he sent a manager to pull the players off after he got a call from his school’s president. In a makeshift film room at the hotel, he told them the Big East tournament was off. Tears began to flow. “This is some bulls—,” one player responded.

Sean McDermott, then a redshirt senior at Butler, Providence’s scheduled opponent, was outside a Manhattan Shake Shack, processing the Big East news, when he learned that it wouldn’t end there. A notification on his phone formed a pit in his stomach: the NCAA tournament was canceled.

“That was it — not only for this season, but for my college career,” McDermott, now with the Memphis Grizzlies, said later. “I didn’t know what my next steps would be.”

Neither did anyone else. The immediate reactions of McDermott’s teammates after the Big East news were mixed. Some thought the worst, the beginning of a new reality. Others thought the whole thing would be over in a week. But now, March Madness, an annual piece of Americana, was gone in an instant. It was gut-wrenching.

Rece Davis, the ESPN broadcaster who was on air when all the news came down, later said knowing what to do next was like waking up in a pitch-dark hotel room. “You’re walking with your hand out in front of you,” he said. “You’re trying to go safely without any light to help guide you. You were just sort of feeling your way around.”

It turned out basketball was the least of anyone’s worries. Just eight days after the cancellation, Labombarda, one of the statisticians at The Garden on March 11, was hospitalized with a 104-degree fever spiked by COVID-19 pneumonia. He recovered after 11 days in the hospital.

By early April, when single-day cases and deaths peaked in New York City, hospitals overflowed and morgues were overwhelmed. Those quarantined in the city coped by coming together each night at 7 p.m. to cheer frontline workers, the roar coming from apartment balconies instead of Garden seats.

A year later, the virus having mushroomed throughout the country, more than 500,000 have died in the U.S.

College basketball pressed on in 2020-21, with mostly empty arenas and socially distanced sidelines. Players who weren’t thinking about health last March accepted masks and testing protocols. Games were called off — for some teams more than others — thanks to positive tests from players and even a referee. The Ivy League didn’t play at all.

A year later, the decision to shut down the college basketball season has proved prudent.

“There was no clear pathway in terms of managing it,” Ackerman says now. “For the most part, we were operating in the dark.”

This year’s Big East tournament, which began Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, is on as scheduled but operating with the perspective of the past 12 months. In accordance with Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowing some fans in New York arenas, a limited amount of tickets have been dispersed to teams for families and guests. And a Lower Manhattan hotel is housing all the teams, officials and conference staff — a de-facto bubble.

Creighton entered this year’s tournament as the No. 2 seed after Zegarowski, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, helped the Bluejays contend for another regular-season title. Greg McDermott, who was suspended for a game last week for racially insensitive comments made to players in February, was reinstated Monday ahead of the tournament.

Canfield, for his part, has returned to leading the scout team and his walk-on status after last season’s scholarship expired. So he’s back to mimicking the other team’s best players.

Creighton plays Friday — exactly one year after everything abruptly shut down — against Connecticut for a trip to the Big East tournament championship game. Canfield, with one made field goal in 2020-21, played 6 minutes in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Butler. But living in the moment is what it’s all about this time of year.

“I think our team is just excited to have the opportunity to compete in [the Big East tournament], because it was kind of stripped from us last year. We’re just excited for it. And I’m ready for the opportunity, really regardless of my role.

“I mean, at this point in the season, I’m still just as ready to start it up and get to go.”

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