One year later: Spokesman-Review staffers remember the day sports stopped due to the coronavirus

Mar. 13—Ralph Walter, sports editor — in Boise

The sports world was in freefall.

It was March 2020, and my brother Jess and I were in Boise for our annual pilgrimage to watch Eastern Washington University play at the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament.

We saw no basketball, however. Only hours earlier, we’d learned that the coronavirus outbreak had not only sidelined the Big Sky tourney, but the following week’s NCAA Tournament as well.

And there we were, sitting stunned in a basement downtown bar, sipping whiskey as we tried to make sense of what was happening around us.

Me: I can’t believe these morons are standing in line to ride this mechanical bull.

Jess, pointing at us: I can’t believe these morons are sitting in a packed bar at the start of a global pandemic.

Not exactly our One Shining Moment.

Stupidity aside, the moment was surreal. The bombshell came March 11 with the shocking announcement that Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert had contracted COVID-19 and the NBA was suspending its season. By the next day, nearly every sport had pulled the plug, capped by the NCAA’s decision to call off March Madness that late afternoon.

It happened so quickly, and the eerie uncertainty moving forward was overwhelming: From Boise, where EWU was seeking just its third NCAA Tournament berth; to Las Vegas, where Washington State won what turned out to be the final complete game of the 2020 basketball season; and of course back home in Spokane, where the city was getting ready to roll out the red carpet for both Gonzaga basketball teams and the Big Dance.

And it reverberated to every corner of our region, from youth sports leagues to high schools to hockey and arena football.

Today, The Spokesman-Review sports staff reflects on those two unforgettable days in March when the sports world went dark.

Madison McCord, deputy sports editor — in Spokane

There were plenty of benefits to living just a 10-minute bike or Lime scooter ride from our downtown offices, especially on a nice spring or summer day.

One year ago, I opted for the 2-minute drive — which felt more like 30 seconds.

My wife had already started working from home by the 12th, and I had a feeling I wasn’t far behind. After the NBA pause and NCAA no-fans attempt the day before, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the tourney.

I spent that morning on the couch in our apartment refreshing Twitter and watching ESPN. Looking for the first sign of cancellation. That lasted until about noon when I decided to head into the office.

When the hammer dropped shortly after 4 p.m., we were ready to go.

We posted a story on the S-R website within minutes. Then the attention turned to organizing stories with our writers, working with web editors Tyler Grippi and Rob Kauder on what was needed online, getting words to copy editor Chris Derrick for a close read and taking the occasional breath.

By the end of the night, everything had changed. Discussions turned from how many pages we would need for our Selection Sunday coverage to how we were going to fill a four-page section and what we would cover in the coming months.

The pandemic showed the flexibility and resiliency of our staff, but it is a day none of us wants to live through again.

Jim Meehan, Gonzaga men’s beat writer — in Las Vegas

I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I’ll never forget where I was when the news broke that the 2020 NCAA Tournament had been canceled.

I’m certain Mark Few won’t forget, either. I was watching Gonzaga’s coach respond to a question during a live interview on ESPN when Rece Davis interrupted and informed Few of the NCAA’s decision.

ESPN / YouTube

It was crushing news for the Zags, who were projected to be a No. 1 seed playing the opening weekend at the Spokane Arena.

Few pivoted in seconds and offered perspective on a scenario he hoped would never materialize.

“Extremely, extremely disappointed,” Few told Davis. “I think all of us felt we could postpone and even postpone into May or whatever, and if we needed to cancel, we could cancel then. But if that’s what they’re doing, then I guess that’s what they’re doing.”

That entire week was surreal. Prior to Gonzaga’s semifinal game in the West Coast Conference Tournament, I was in the Orleans Hotel fitness room trying unsuccessfully to minimize the caloric damage from a giant bowl of Big Al’s seafood pasta. I overheard two men with an Italian flag on their workout shirts discussing how lucky they were to get out of the country just before a travel ban was imposed.

Hours later, I asked WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez if the conference was planning additional COVID-19 safety protocols following reports that a BYU fan among 19,000 attending the Cougars-Zags game in Provo on Feb. 22 had tested positive. Nevarez said the conference was following all CDC and local health department guidelines and the games would continue as scheduled.

Gonzaga won the WCC title Tuesday night. Just before boarding my flight Wednesday morning, news broke that fans wouldn’t be permitted at NCAA Tournament venues.

Jim Allen, who covers GU women’s basketball for the S-R, and I put together a reaction story after interviewing numerous Gonzaga fans at the Portland airport as we waited for a connecting flight to Spokane. The next day, the NCAA pulled the plug on the men’s and women’s tournaments.

Athletic director Mike Roth told reporters there was a “lot of emotion” from players during a team meeting. I thought about two in particular: North Texas grad transfer Ryan Woolridge and senior forward Killian Tillie.

The main reason Woolridge transferred to Gonzaga was to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Tillie battled injuries throughout his career, including a hip ailment that kept the Frenchman from playing against Florida State in the 2018 Sweet 16.

Tillie had played his best basketball over the last six weeks of his senior season. Parents Laurent and Caroline traveled from France to watch his Senior Night, the WCC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

“The city (of Spokane) is going to go crazy, I know that for sure,” the amiable Tillie told me after the WCC title game. “And I’m excited to see all the fans.”

Tillie was primed for a big finish, but sadly never got the chance.

Jim Allen, Gonzaga women’s beat writer — in Spokane

The reality of COVID-19 didn’t sink in until the afternoon of March 12, when I learned that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled.

Like any good reporter, I grabbed my iPhone and called Gonzaga women’s coach Lisa Fortier for her reaction.

My timing was awful.

Fortier, on a recruiting trip to California, picked up the phone and said, “Hello.”

“Hi, Lisa, this is Jim. … I suppose you’ve heard …”

Sobs from the other end told me that she had. I felt the emotions, too, and it was a short, awkward conversation.

“We had worked so hard,” Fortier said.

It had been the best of seasons. The Zags were 28-2 and regular-season champions of the West Coast Conference as they arrived in Las Vegas the previous weekend for the WCC Tournament.

The shadows fell rapidly after that. GU lost in the semifinals, but flew home with the consolation that it would probably be hosting NCAA Tournament games at the Kennel.

By the time I boarded the plane back for home on March 11, news broke that no fans would be allowed at games.

During a layover in Portland, colleague Jim Meehan and I got reactions from GU fans, nearly all of whom couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

We wrote our stories on the plane to Spokane. Then I got home, went to sleep and wondered what the next day would bring.

I drove to The Spokesman-Review office, still in denial as I planned for stories ahead of the tournament.

A few hours later, the news hit, and I had to change my focus. Instead of writing about Selection Monday, I would be dealing with broken brackets and broken hearts.

And then I reached for the phone.

Theo Lawson, WSU beat writer — in Las Vegas

Hours before the Pac-12’s media relations department released a statement confirming the cancellation of the 2020 conference basketball tournament, T-Mobile Arena employees were already at work removing the signage and props that had been set up around the 17,000-seat venue right off the Las Vegas Strip.

Just outside the main entrance, workers began deflating the oversized, Pac-12-branded prop basketball — in some ways the perfect metaphor for what transpired in college sports over the next 24-48 hours. The Pac-12 Tournament lost its air on March 12, and the rest of the country would soon follow suit.

It wasn’t long before “quarantine” and “socially distant” became part of the everyday lingo, but two days earlier, those words hardly resonated. On March 10, minutes after Gonzaga walloped Saint Mary’s to win the WCC Tournament, a swath of writers and TV reporters charged into the Bulldogs’ locker room at the Orleans Arena to gather postgame reactions.

The risks of COVID-19 transmission were minimal at the time, but one year later, it’s almost hard to recall 15-20 unmasked journalists navigating through a compact locker room, trading droplets and jockeying for position to grab a few face-to-face quotes from the country’s most accomplished college basketball players.

On March 13, I flew back to a Spokane that was much different than the one I’d left six days earlier. Not much was known about the novel coronavirus, or exactly how it was transmitted, but “pandemic” was a term that instilled fear and stories of COVID-19-related fatalities were enough to make me skittish boarding a 2-hour Southwest flight.

Among the passengers on the semifull flight were members of Eastern Washington’s women’s golf team. The Eagles had finished one round of the Pizza Hut Invitational in St. George, Utah, when COVID-19 kicked them off the course. As I waited for my luggage, I watched EWU senior Madalyn Ardueser collect a duffel bag and follow a small group of teammates and coaches out of the terminal.

Ardueser shot the lowest score in the field on Day 1 at Sunbrook Golf Course, but never had a chance to see her tournament out, let alone her career. Not until writing this a year later did I realize Ardueser chose not to return to the Eagles in 2020-21 — or was not given the opportunity because of the financial stress that COVID-19 brought on smaller schools like EWU and Idaho.

Locally, most of us would spend the next week discussing the ramifications of the canceled NCAA men’s basketball tournament, what it meant for Mark Few’s highly regarded Gonzaga team and how the pandemic would shake up Nick Rolovich’s first season at WSU’s football coach.

But that night, and periodically through the past 365 days, I’ve tried to express compassion for Ardueser, her EWU golf teammates and, on a much larger scale, the small-sport athletes who were unable to continue doing what they love — in some cases for a brief period of time, and for others, on a much more permanent basis.

Ryan Collingwood, EWU beat writer — in Boise

Consider it an omen for the eeriness that ensued.

When I checked into my Boise hotel to cover the Big Sky Conference Tournament, I was issued room No. 666.

Then I lost my wallet while on a morning run though the Idaho capital.

Then, you know, college basketball — and the world at large — stood still.

The Idaho women had already qualified for the championship game, but the Eastern Washington men were just 1 1/2 hours from tipping off their Thursday morning quarterfinal when I got a text from head coach Shantay Legans that the tournament was canceled.

Legans was disappointed, but found solace in the fact his top-seeded Eagles were likely going to be given an automatic bid to an NCAA Tournament that would try to go fanless.

Two hours later, I watched from a Red Lion television as Gonzaga’s Mark Few was being interviewed live on ESPN, the news broke: The NCAA Tournament was canceled.

My jaw fell into my continental breakfast.

I wrote three different and changing stories about the same thing that day, trying to convey a major gut punch for the EWU men and Idaho women.

When I flew back to Spokane the next evening, I was welcomed with darkness, an epic winter storm and truck buried in snow in the airport parking lot.

An appropriate ending to one of the strangest weeks of my life.

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