I saw John Paquette from the Big East Office in the Dunk on Wednesday night, March 4th, as we were getting ready to play Xavier in our 2nd to last Big East game. The Big East Tournament came up and I said something like “Well, that’s if we play it.” He laughed and said “Don’t worry about that.” The coronavirus was still relatively unknown. But I’ll never forget us laughing about it.
We had a good practice last week on Tuesday morning at the Ruane Center. Our guys were fired up to get down to New York, and having won 6 in a row to finish 12-6 in the league, we had a lot of confidence. We had gone from an afterthought in the Big East to one of the hottest teams in the country in 3 1/2 weeks, so it’s safe to say we couldn’t wait to get to New York.
At that point, nothing seemed very different. We had decided to take a bus down to New York instead of the train, partly because of concerns over the Coronavirus. But it was still just something that was mostly happening elsewhere. We weren’t really thinking about it other than making sure we washed our hands and used hand sanitizer at every opportunity. Honestly it was really just something funny to talk about at that point.
We got to New York around 4:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday and unloaded at the hotel. Everything was normal, and the buzz and speed of the city was invigorating. There really is nothing like the energy of the Big East Tournament. We had a little time to get settled in our rooms, we met to watch a little film, and we went to dinner at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ. We enjoyed a great spread and watched some of the other conference. championship games.
Some of the talk was about whether or not fans would be allowed at our games. But a shutout still didn’t seem like an option. Our academic coordinator Jaime Lipski glanced up at the CAA final between Hofstra and Northeastern and said “Wait, is that game being played without fans?” Nope, just a light crowd between two teams from New York and Boston playing their final in Washington D.C.
I was getting texts from a few friends who were planning on coming in to the City for the tournament, asking if fans were going to be allowed. To be honest, we hadn’t even heard any talk of that. I’m sure the Big East was discussing all possible options at that point, but word hadn’t really gotten to us about anything happening. I told all my friends fans were still on, they hadn’t told us anything different.
We woke up Wednesday morning, the day before we played, and everything was as expected. Coaches got their workouts in, we had our team breakfast and we left around 10:35 to get to practice at Baruch College at 11 (the battle for practice gyms at the Big East Tournament is real. Someone should write a story on all of the gyms that have been used over the years). John Alesi at Baruch took care of us, as he did Creighton who practice before us and Depaul who practiced after us.
Nothing had changed for us that morning, and now we were just over 24 hours from tip-off of our game. And obviously the 7-10, 8-9 games were going to be played that night. All was a go. Some more colleges had started to go to virtual/online classes only that morning, telling kids not to return after spring break. We started to wonder if and when Providence College would do the same.
As we started to warm up word spread that Villanova and Butler were having trouble finding a practice gym. They were scheduled to practice at John Jay College, but the school totally shut down. So they couldn’t use the facility. I’m not sure if they found a place or not to work out on Wednesday.
We had a good final practice and felt ready for Butler. We went back to the hotel, had some lunch and had a little down time before dinner. Some of our guys had study hall, the others just hung around and rested. I took a walk over to my father’s old apartment on 33rd and 3rd, a place I hadn’t been to in years. The city had plenty of life and it was a nice day to walk around. Maybe the city was a little slower, I don’t know – but to me it was hard to tell that anything was different.
We watched a little film before dinner, and then the team went out to eat. I went over to the Garden to scout the St. John’s – Georgetown game as they were on our side of the bracket. I just love the energy of the Big East Tournament at the Garden, and having grown up in New York there’s still something special about hearing “St. John’s – Georgetown”
The Garden was half-full that night, but had good energy as you would expect. Honestly, I didn’t think the crowd was any smaller because of the coronavirus, it was kind of what I’d expect for that game on the first night of the tournament. Both teams played hard and the building had a lot of life. Georgetown took control late in the first half and led by 10 until there were about 6 minutes to play. Then St. John’s scored 23 points to finish the game on an incredible run. It certainly wasn’t 1985, but the Garden had a lot of juice.
My wife and I left after the first game, taking the gamble that we wouldn’t see Xavier or Depaul in the finals 3 days later. We cabbed it back to the hotel, and former Friar point guard Donnie McGrath met us in the hotel bar when we got back. By that time Mark Emmert had announced that the NCAA Tournament was going to be played without fans, and they were looking for some smaller venues to play in. Word had spread that the Big East was having discussions about what to do with regards to fans for the tournament. My friends were still texting me, and my response was we were still playing, but likely without any fans. They were going to make a decision that night.
We were sitting at the hotel bar and Donnie walked in to say hello, but he was finishing up a phone call and stepped back outside. That’s when everything changed. I looked at my phone and saw the alert that said “NBA suspends season,” and said to my wife “Holy sh!t.” I showed her my phone and said “No way we play tomorrow.” A minute or two later I looked up at the TV and there was an announcement that the Jazz game had been canceled, and that the trainer had gone out on the court before the start of the 2nd half talk to the officials, and they pulled the teams off the court. They then announced that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus.
From that moment forward, the same for most people in America, everything was different. I think we are going to look back and be glad that Rudy Gobert tested positive (and obviously hope he fully recovers). But that was the moment where it really seemed like playing a basketball game was a stupid idea. What happens if a week from now one of our players test positive for the virus? A basketball game being played the week before would seem like a really dum idea at that point. From that point on I was very confident our season was over.
Donnie walked back in and I told him that the NBA had suspended the season and that Rudy Gobert had tested positive. He said “Oh, sh!t, Rudy?” He and Gobert had been teammates for a year playing overseas and remained good friends. The Jazz had been in New York the week before, and they had practiced at Baruch. All of the sudden hearing stuff like that made you a little nervous, hit close to home. We kept talking and checking our phones, and I kept saying “There is no way we are playing tomorrow.”
I got a text that we were going to have a team meeting around 10:00 and we needed to get all of our guys downstairs. Coach Cooley, Bob Driscoll and Kevin Kurbec had been on a call with the Big East, talking about what was going on the next day. The NBA news had just hit, a good example of how fluid and rapidly moving the situation was. We were going to play tomorrow as scheduled, but the Garden would be closed to fans. Each team would get 200 tickets for everyone – staff, band, team and close family members. That was it.
I remember Coach saying to the team, “and this looks like how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future, even in the NCAA Tournament. If there is an NCAA Tournament.” And a few guys took exception. “Man, Coach, don’t say that.” I think that’s when it first hit them that this thing wasn’t headed in the right direction.
I remember walking out of the room after the players left saying to no one in particular, “I can’t believe we are going to play.”
It was an interesting challenge, dealing with the reality of what was going on around you, the changing landscape of the dynamics of our game, and trying to keep the players mentally ready to win. Obviously we didn’t want to have conversations with the players about not playing the game, but I do think it was in the back of everyone’s mind. But it was so close, the first game literally just 14 hours from tip-off, that you had to take the approach like the game was on.
I went upstairs – took a long, hot shower – and kept the news on the TV. The whole day just felt like a tidal wave, with more and more cancellations and decisions that 24 hours ago were impossible to imagine. There was too much going on. I must have told my wife half-a-dozen times “I still don’t think we are going to play.”
But the game was on, so I got up early, got my workout in and went to our team breakfast. We were talking about it amongst the coaches, and Coach Blaney said “next week is cooked,” referring to the NCAA Tournament. I remember saying “I still don’t think we are going to play today.” It seemed hard to believe, as it was about 90 minutes until the Creighton-St. John’s game was set to tip.
I went upstairs and got dressed for the game, but it still didn’t feel like we were going to play. I got in a cab with Ivan Thomas and Matt Garvey to head over to scout the first game, and we were all talking about it in the cab. None of us could believe we were playing. It seemed very clear there was no way the Big East Tournament was making it to Saturday for a championship game, so why were we playing today? At that point the NBA, the G-League, Fiba and the Euroleague had all been suspended. We were really the only national basketball league in the world still playing. It didn’t feel right. But I also understand that an awful lot goes into a decision like canceling the Big East Tournament.
We got to the Garden at about 11:40 and dropped our stuff off in the locker room. Andrew Ford started laying out the uniforms in the locker room and we walked into the arena to grab a seat at the press table. The Garden looked different for sure, but there was still some buzz. The bands were playing, and there were small groups of fans behind each bench making noise. It felt a lot like some of the early-season tournaments we play in sunny locations that don’t draw a lot of fans. Except you look around and realize you are in Madison Square Garden. It was certainly odd.
As we sat down, I still wasn’t convinced we were going to play. I even thought when the teams went into the locker room for their final preparations, they might not come back out. I think others felt the same way. Just after the ball was tipped, I got the first alert on my phone and read it out loud “The American Conference and the Big 10 have canceled their tournaments. The Big 10 pulled Michigan and Rutgers off the floor during warm-ups.” John Cahill, the Big East Director of Officials was sitting right next to me and he said “this game won’t last very long.” Other alerts came rolling in, as other conferences made the same decision. I had my notes out on Creighton and St. John’s, but we were sitting there watching a game that likely wouldn’t be finished.
I can only imagine what the Big East office was going through with the City of New York. So many people are affected by this, and we are playing our tournament in the biggest city in the country. I’m sure at first no one even imagined shutting down the tournament was even a reality. Within 24 hours it became a certainty. Not an easy time for people in leadership positions with how fast the impact of this situation was spreading. You want to talk about a no-win situation? This was it for any leader in athletics.
About midway through the first half, we got a text from Kevin Kurbec saying that they had pulled the team off the bus. The Big East didn’t want us bringing the team over. They hadn’t officially canceled the tournament because I think they were in conversation with the leadership of the schools making them aware. But our players were back up in their hotel rooms packing their stuff. It took us a minute, but finally we got up and walked to the locker room. We were going home.
As we walked out of the Garden in the first half of that game, it was obvious a lot of people noticed. There were a lot of looks and whispers like “where are they going?” Kevin McNamara actually sent out a tweet about us leaving, saying it didn’t look like the game was going to be played. Less than 24 hours earlier we were finishing up our practice at Baruch, ready to play. Now we were heading home.
On the way home it was announced that the NCAA Tournament was officially canceled. The season was over, just like that. I wasn’t on the bus, but I know it was a pretty depressing ride home. When we got back, we met as a team in the locker room. It was almost impossible to comprehend. Coach thanked and congratulated the seniors. The seniors spoke up and thanked their teammates and coaches. Not only was the season over, but the campus was closed. Everyone needed to make plans to get off campus within the next 36 hours. I had this feeling like “are we really doing this?” It was all incredibly sudden, and hard to swallow.
It was a numb feeling, still hard to process. It was the right decision for sure, with everything going on in the world. But it still didn’t make sense. It was as strange of a day as you’ll probably ever see in college basketball.