TODAY'S PAPER
54° Good Morning
54° Good Morning
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

It's fall and we still have plenty of sports to watch amid pandemic

Lakers forward LeBron James in the Western Conference

Lakers forward LeBron James in the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets on Sept. 18, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

Back on April 6, when we all were six months younger and still mostly locked in our homes, I wrote a hopeful column anticipating "the most squished-together autumn in the history of American sports."

It seemed like a daydream then, but now that fall officially is here, how has it all turned out? Pretty darn well.

As always, it is important to note the return of sports primarily was about protecting television contracts, not giving you an emotional lift and/or a distraction from real life.

There also are valid questions about the massive resources — COVID-19 testing and otherwise — that the effort has required, given a world in which such resources are limited.

But as an achievement in logistical engineering — done relatively safely — props to everyone involved.

The NBA and NHL are at the top of that list, piling up thousands of negative tests in restricted "bubbles" in Orlando, Toronto and Edmonton.

When the NBA assembled in Orlando in July, Florida was a COVID-19 hotspot, and many predicted the bubble would become more of a Petri dish.

Later in July, the NHL flew two more teams and many more players than the NBA to Canada, had two of those teams — the Islanders and Lightning, as it turned out — relocate from Toronto to Edmonton and still . . . nothing.

Now, the NHL is a week or so from becoming the first of the major North American team sports to reach the championship finish line.

The WNBA postponed a playoff game over the weekend because of inconclusive tests, but its bubble mostly has held. Major League Soccer had several setbacks in its back-to-action tournament bubble but got through it.

Early on, Major League Baseball nearly was derailed by a series of outbreaks in its non-bubble format, and many assumed the experiment soon would be over. But MLB stayed the course and appears likely to make it through one more month.

The NFL also is trying to make this work without a bubble, and after two weeks of games, the league reported zero positive tests.

Not that any of this has been ideal.

Baseball has had the most difficult time making us forget the stadiums are empty of fans, because of the nature of its camera angles. (And it has done the most COVID-inspired tinkering with its rules.) But even in the other sports, something obviously is missing from the TV experience.

And the disruption of the normal calendar has led to seasonal disorientation, scheduling conflicts and lower ratings for some events.

Some things still on the table when April began never did happen, including Wimbledon, the British Open, the Ryder Cup and the Boston and New York City Marathons, but most have occurred or are scheduled to.

That includes The Masters from Nov. 12-15. "We hope the anticipation of staging the Tournament brings a moment of joy to the Augusta community and those who love the game," the green jackets said in early April.

Heck, yes. But no one knew whether to believe it or not.

How bleak were things then? At the time, when I mentioned the NHL, it was with the hope that while the 2019-20 season might never be restarted, at least the 2020-21 season might start on time in October.

Instead, we got 22 Islanders postseason games and a Stanley Cup Final that could end as late as Sept. 30.

So, to review: Six months later, the virus remains among us, with what comes next a matter of much scientific and political debate.

But we got our sports back, in a bigger way than anyone had a right to expect. It has not been normal. It will not be normal for some time. But it beats the alternative. Been there, done that.

From that April column:

"What could be better for fans if this spring of our discontent turns into a fall in which the rest of us can stop doing jigsaw puzzles at home and instead watch media executives work on scheduling jigsaw puzzles?"

Also, this: "For now, there is hope, both for better days and for sports’ return, with the promise of a late summer and early autumn traffic jam."

We’ll take it.

New York Sports