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When coronavirus stopped sports: A look back at an extraordinary 24 hours

St. John's played Creighton for one half in

It occurred to Tim Brando that he and his Fox colleagues had just worked the final college basketball game of the season. Under normal circumstances, that is a good thing.

"If you had told me in past years, ‘Tim, would you ever get to call the final game of the college basketball season,’ I would have been ecstatic," he said last week. "Where’s the confetti? Is it time to play ‘One Shining Moment’?

"But there was no ‘One Shining Moment.’ There was no confetti. It was just awkward."

That was early on the afternoon of March 12, 2020.

One year later, Brando, the Fox play-by-play man that day, still marvels at the oddness of what occurred during the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, which illustrated an extraordinary 24 hours in sports history.

Brando wasn’t the only one.

"It was all pretty surreal, to be honest with you, given what we know now and have been through and the events leading up to it," St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg said. "I would say mostly what I remember is just the time frame of how fast it all changed."

From the time Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11 to the time the NCAA axed its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments late the next afternoon, most sports simply vanished. Poof, just like that. Nothing quite like it ever had happened before.

The NBA had paused its season the night before after Gobert tested positive before a game in Oklahoma City, and most conference basketball tournaments followed suit before tipoff on Thursday. Not the Big East.

The night before, St. John’s had rallied to beat Georgetown before a large, raucous Garden crowd.

Cragg was enjoying the Red Storm’s victory but also aware of developments outside the Garden. "I remember seeing the news about the NBA player testing positive and thinking, ‘Oh, well, that’s not good,’ " he said.

Fans were to be severely restricted for Thursday’s quarterfinals, but initially the show went on, even as other conferences and leagues bailed.

Brando said in chatting with coaches Mike Anderson of St. John’s and Greg McDermott of Creighton before the game, he sensed both were skeptical.

"You could tell they were surprised, as were we, that we were going to move forward," Brando said.

Big East presidents and athletic directors met that morning and were updated by medical experts, but the St. John’s-Creighton quarterfinal began, shortly after noon.

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman determined during the first half that the tournament would be over at halftime.

Cragg received word with about five minutes left in the half and broke the news to Anderson at the corner of the court as the intermission arrived.

"He was just, ‘OK, we have to deliver the news,’ and it was tough," Cragg said. "They poured everything into trying to win a game. So it was hard. The guys didn’t know how to react other than, ‘You have to be kidding me.’

"But obviously it was very serious. Coach did a terrific job of talking to them about how there’s a bigger picture out there than basketball . . . All that happened really fast, but it’s definitely seared into the memory banks."

At least it was an entertaining half. St. John’s led 38-35 thanks to a late 12-0 run, but the best story was that of Jett Canfield, a former Creighton walk-on who scored eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in seven minutes.

"It was like a ‘Hoosiers’ story," Brando said. "He comes in and he’s throwing up teardrops that are going in. He’s throwing alley-oops to kids and they’re jamming it."

Canfield, helping in the absence of injured star Marcus Zegarowski, had scored 16 points all season before that game. This season he has scored two.

But those eight points last March 12 were erased from the record books when the game was called.

"That poor kid had the best half of his life," Brando said. "At least he’ll have the DVR, hopefully, to show his kids 30 years from now. ‘I really played great. Technically, it’s not in the books, but I had a hell of a half in New York in the Garden one day.’ "

Brando and his analyst, Nick Bahe, learned of the cancellation when Butler coaches who had been scouting the St. John’s game told them at halftime, "You guys can pack it up."

"In a lot of ways, it was an empty feeling," Brando said. "You understood why it had to happen, but just from the standpoint of what we do and all those kids had played a half . . . It was strange. It was very strange."

The St. John’s-Creighton game was but one memorable marker of a historic two days that led to a historic year.

HBO has a documentary called "The Day Sports Stood Still" premiering on March 24, and in December, ESPN produced a podcast recalling March 11, 2020, featuring interviews with many principals, including Gobert.

"The goal was really for me to hopefully get the results before the game, and if the results were negative, I was going to play the game," Gobert said on the podcast.

That did not happen. He recalled still being in his hotel room, waiting for his results and getting ready to watch the game go on without him.

"I saw that some doctors ran on the floor and stopped the game," he said. "That’s when I knew that something was going on and, I mean, I was a little nervous.

"I was waiting to get the call, and a few seconds later I got the call from the trainer and he told me that I had tested positive."

That night ESPN was showing a Nuggets-Mavericks game in Dallas, before which reporter/analyst Doris Burke had interacted with fans and colleagues as she began to feel unwell. She later tested positive.

The game in Dallas produced one of the most memorable sports images of the pandemic, when director Jeff Evans instructed one of his cameras to focus on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

That led to the shot of his shocked reaction upon seeing the news the NBA was on pause.

"It’s one of the most indelible images I’ve ever seen," then-ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi said on the podcast. "It’s a man in a chair looking down at his phone and whiplashing back into his seat."

St. John’s scored the game’s final 23 points to beat Georgetown, 75-62, that night. Attendance was 17,534. New York sports has not had a night that normal since.

By summer, pro leagues, their media partners and most fans were thrilled to have games back at all, and having no fans in attendance came to seem familiar — or at least less strange.

The NBA and NHL kept the virus at bay by playing in "bubbles" that restricted access to outsiders. Major League Baseball and the NFL got by with regular stadiums — opening the door to some infections and disruptions — and in time allowed fans to trickle back in limited numbers.

The world still is not back to the normal of early last March. But it at least is less abnormal.

The Big East Tournament is back, and Brando is scheduled to call the first five games for Fox. Last year was his first shot at a Big East Tournament, and he got only one night of the traditional vibe out of it.

This year’s event is a partial do-over, but he will be working from an elevated location, not courtside, and the place will not be packed with fans.

"As excited as I am about being there this year, I still feel like I’m owed one," he said. "I’d like to be there in ’22."

St. John’s will return to the tournament on Thursday against Seton Hall, a year to the day since that win over Georgetown and Gobert’s positive test.

"It will be emotional, and I guess in a lot of ways it will be an emotion of happiness, too, that we made it," said Cragg, who praised the Big East and the St. John’s staff, coaches and athletes for how they handled the challenge.

He acknowledged that "at the end of the day, we’re just playing sports," and the relative unimportance of that compared to the more than 500,000 American lives lost to the pandemic.

But, he said, "It’s an amazing accomplishment by our student-athletes and our coaching staff and everyone involved to get here a year later."

No one knew where any of this was headed last March. It has been a dizzying ride.

"It just happened really fast," Cragg said. "So it was definitely unique. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year, in some regards. In other regards, it feels like it’s been 10 years."

New York Sports