What I’ll always remember was the flight to Indianapolis. Having never traveled more than a short drive for a sporting event, I was largely unsure what to expect when I booked a trip across three states to cover the Big Ten tournament. That changed when I observed a boarding line with people wearing apparel of Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern, and, yes, one guy in a Minnesota shirt.
My flight screamed "Big Ten tournament," and I thought to myself, this going to be wild.
Indeed, it was.
Any worries I’d had about heading to a massive public gathering in the midst of a declared-pandemic largely dissipated upon my arrival at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Our media passes granted us access to roughly everywhere, to the point that I was able to walk onto the court a few minutes before tip-off and ask a fellow reporter to take a picture of me. (After seeing the picture, I felt dumb for ignoring months of people telling me to get a haircut.)
It was about 90 minutes before game-time between the Gophers and Northwestern when the news broke that the NCAA tournament would be played without fans. After the initial shock wore off, debates began in hallways and the media room whether this was the correct call. But everyone seemed to agree that the Big Ten would end up taking a similar stance, and sooner rather than later.
As the big picture remained in limbo, however, in the immediate things kept moving. There were signs pictured around the bowels of the arena reminding people to “stop the spread of germs,” and bottles of hand sanitizer planted everywhere, including the path to get onto to the court.
As I stopped to take a picture of this in an attempt to highlight the absurdity of the situation, someone from the Big Ten walked by and looked at me. I assumed I’d be in trouble for highlighting this, but instead he jokingly asked if I was going to be selling any bottles.
“Yeah, I actually am,” I replied. “I’m a New York City bodega owner. It was a long trip but I’m hoping to turn a profit.”
I have no idea why I said this, but the guy laughed. Soon after the teams came out to warm up, and shortly thereafter fans started filing in.
It all felt a bit off, but none of it felt wrong, per se. My first inclination of uneasiness came, bizarrely enough, while getting dinner in the media room. I got in line and noticed the serving utensils sitting on the table. This is an obvious and common practice, but the idea of hundreds of people – media members and arena staffers and university folks and network producers and whoever else – going through the same two or three sets of tongs seemed like a very efficient way to spread germs. The roll I’d picked out of a basket suddenly didn’t seem so appealing.
But free food was free food, so I ate and then headed out to watch the game.
The Minnesota-Northwestern game itself ended up being icing on the cake, as I was mostly focused on the fact that I was getting to watch it from far-and-away the best seats of my life. This seemed almost fitting after-the-fact, as the focus of the week wound up being on anything but the games being played. (Someone from the Big Ten came around right before tip and asked us to remove the labels from our water bottles, which also felt a bit of a disjointed priority.)
This was too bad for the Gophers because they looked pretty good. The Wildcats weren’t a great team, but going 9-14 from three in a half is no joke. Seven players knocked down threes on the day. Daniel Oturu, with 24 points in 30 minutes, looked every bit like the All-American he was named that afternoon.
I can’t tell you the Gophers were going to win the Big Ten tournament – they probably weren’t – but it’s fair to wonder if they could’ve made a run. Iowa, losers of three of four but nonetheless a ranked team with a 20-11 record on the year, opened the next day as just 1.5-point favorites. Illinois, awaiting the winner of that game, was the only double-bye that didn’t win a share of the conference title.
The postgame press conference also ended up being fairly nondescript. Northwestern coach Chris Collins talked about the importance of taking measures to prevent public safety, while Oturu told me there was no extra motivation going into the game after being named to the Big Ten’s second-team, not the first team.
I decided I’d ask him the same question the next day after he went up against Luka Garza, named the conference’s player of the year. Then I went to the media room, got an apple, and headed back to the court to catch some of the Indiana-Nebraska game.
This was when things really got surreal. Standing just behind the baseline – that credential really worked anywhere! – I overheard a few security guards talking about an NBA game where they had simply stopped playing. The players had apparently just been walked off the court, and the game had been called off. This seemed ominous. A short while later, someone else said that an NBA player had tested positive for COVID-19. Then I got an alert saying that not only had someone on the Utah Jazz tested positive, but that the NBA was indefinitely suspending its season.
While the news surely raised eyebrows everywhere, it was striking to read this as a basketball game continued a few dozen feet away in front me.
A few minutes after that, a second announcement over the PA system – the first came during the first half of the Gophers-Northwestern game – reminded fans that the rest of the tournament would be played without fans. A smattering of boos had occurred earlier, but this time the mostly local crowd in attendance to cheer on the Hoosiers let the PA announcer have it.
Then the timeout ended and the game just…kept going. Workers continued wiping down the chairs on the bench. People continued high-fiving in the crowd. The IU band literally played on. By the time I left 20 or so minutes later, midway through the second half, I’d been made aware that not only were two NBA teams apparently quarantined in their locker rooms, but President Trump had addressed the nation about the pandemic, travel from Europe had been temporarily banned, and Tom Hanks had tested positive. What?!
I met a local friend at a bar and as we chatted, the Big Ten Network blared from most of the televisions in the place, showing highlights of both games and a broadcast team discussing the remainder of the tournament. Imagine my surprise then, that upon retiring for the night, I found out Fred Hoiberg had been coaching the just-ended game while visibly sick.
As the video made clear just how easily disease could spread, suddenly the jokes about hand sanitizer and my unease sharing utensils didn’t seem so innocuous. And when I woke up the next morning and checked my phone, I was shocked to see that Thursday’s games were scheduled to go on.
I was equally as shocked – and on my way back to the arena that morning – when I saw an email from the Big Ten announcing that the tournament had been canceled. As I processed this, my first thought was one of relief, that this was definitely the correct decision for public health, which seemed far more important than finishing the Big Ten tournament. My second thought was that this really didn’t bode well for the NCAA tournament, my favorite time of the year.
Only later did I realize that, as Michigan and Rutgers were taken off the court and Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren gave a hastily scheduled press conference and the few remaining people inside were directed to leave the arena and I found out about all of this via the internet, what a crazy final morning it must’ve been at the arena.
It was a perfect encapsulation of everything playing out across the country. Consequences of exposure not withstanding, I was bummed I’d missed out on it.
And so, having concluded my experience at the Big Ten tournament, I went home. The flight back wasn’t nearly as memorable.