7:30 AM ET
FIVE WEEKS AGO , as the world draws closer, Creighton Jett Canfield walks onto the court of the Palestra, a Philadelphia cathedral disguised as a basketball arena on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.
His curly, frizzy hair hangs forward as he uses his entire weight of 6-foot-10 and 90 pounds to get the ball in the ring. In practice, he led the scout team by being the 21st pick. the Bluejays’ opponent instead of playing against them.
During the formation of the 3. In February, Canfield, with his hands on his hips, listened to coach Greg McDermott ask linebacker Mitch Bollock why he and Canfield got on the team bus 10 minutes late. Then McDermott turned his gaze to Canfield, who stood like a well-trimmed bush in the middle of a forest of teammates.
And Jett, if you want a scholarship, you need to start acting like McDermott said.
Those words… with a scholarship… hang in the air.
The Palestra echoed with the ambient noise, then someone laughed. Canfield’s teammates hugged him and bounced around in a huge group hug. The scene – a walk through a historic foliage tree – also evoked something larger. Creighton ended up with an unused scholarship – like the one from a transfer that never came through – that Canfield earned by working hard behind the scenes. But that was only guaranteed until the end of the season. Canfield got the deal: For a scraper like this, it may be the same. At that moment, however, he felt an overwhelming joy.
More than a month later, on the 7th. In March, star guard Marcus Zegarowski injured the meniscus in his right knee during Creighton’s regular-season finale against Seton Hall, in which the Blue Jays won a share of the conference title. That means Canfield, who previously had just one chance at the conference, will play for the top spot in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The 12. March 2020 should be the biggest day in Canfield basketball. But when he stepped on the field under the lights of New York, the rest of the sports world began to go black. Eleven days earlier, the first case of COWID-19 was confirmed in the state.
The NBA announced at 11. March that the games would be suspended. MLB will stop spring training soon and the NCAA tournament will be cancelled. Sports across the country would cease as part of this global upheaval.
The Big East tournament, the epicenter of the virus, will also be closed, of course. But not before he played against two teams for a year and a half, amid a cloud of confusion that would almost immediately define daily life.
Jett Canfield’s performance at the 2020 Big East Tournament was short lived, but impressive. Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports
A day before Canfield took the stage, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman stood in MSG’s bowels and led the awards ceremony, which began at 4:30 p.m. About a half hour earlier, Ackerman learned that the NCAA had decided that the tournament would go on without fans.
My decision is based on my current understanding of the development of COWID-19 in the United States, NCAA President Mark Emmert said on 11. Mars, in part.
The first confirmed case in the United States occurred in late January, and the first confirmed death in late February. In early March, a state of emergency was declared in several states, including New York. Radical shifts have suddenly surfaced in college basketball, including the relocation of the Final Four from Atlanta’s football stadium to a smaller arena. The NCAA will contact conference officials as soon as information about the virus becomes available.
However, Ackerman was blind to the NCAA’s statement that it controlled the national championships but allowed conferences to make their own tournament decisions, even though they included many of the same players with only a few days’ difference.
We were just trying to keep up as best we could with what we thought was the future with the city and the NCAA leadership in the NCAA tournament, Ackerman said later. But I think it’s surreal that it was so unstable and there was no central decision-making body or process.
On the first night of the game, shortly after the ceremony, Ackerman expected 17,000 fans. And she was responsible for dozens of student-athletes like Canfield, whose Creighton Bluejays checked into the Stewart Hotel, which was 3 points from the Garden.
Ackerman was in constant contact with New York City’s emergency management department, liaising with decision-makers and trying to keep everything running in real time.
Our pole star, as Ackerman later put it, was the city and state of New York.
She had no restrictions from the city, but said she would be willing to accommodate if asked. She contacted other major conferences before meeting with her own schools and MSG representatives. But with the first game only a few hours away, it was too late to ban the fans that night.
The crowd saw St. John’s. St. John’s reversed a 15-point deficit against Georgetown and equalized after a Marcellus Earlington basket with 3 minutes and 10 seconds left. As the ball dropped into the ring, Garden roared. Swan claw Julian Champagne remembers the area as a madhouse.
The Red Storm scored the next 13 points to end the run with a 23-0 run and a 75-62 victory. Coach Patrick Ewing, arguably the best player in the conference, was disappointed in the Hoyas.
Mr Canfield sat 20 rows behind the basket, sat there the next day and saw everything – the lights, the fans, the stage and the smell. It smelled like an event, popcorn, beer and hot dogs all mixed together. He was completely in the moment, the latter enjoying it for a long time.
Security guards talk to fans outside Madison Square Garden before the St. Louis game. St. John’s-Crayton. Crowds were limited when the coronavirus swept through New York City. Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Directly above the field on MSG’s Chase Bridge, Creighton athletic director Rob Anderson and radio host John Bishop watched the second game of the evening between DePaul and Xavier. They looked at the screens they were sitting on, a strong championship board, and saw a visibly distraught Cornhuskers coach Fred Hoiberg leaning back in his chair during the Big Ten game between Nebraska and Indiana.
We don’t have all the audio, but we can see that he’s coughing, Anderson said. He’s not feeling well. Doctors are talking to him and people [on Twitter] are trying to make the connection, Oh, he has a virus.
Anderson and Bishop stood up straight. At 10:34 p.m., after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive and was suspended by the NBA, Ackerman announced a limited attendance policy for the remainder of the Big East tournament. By 10:40 p.m., Hoiberg was on his way to the hospital. Turns out he has the flu, not COVID-19.
But uncertainty was everywhere. Things have started to change.
Back in Stuart, Canfield was cut off from the world at 11. In accordance with the team’s rules for away games, the manager recovered the players’ phones by placing two of them in a room to protect them from the blinding light of their devices at night. They heard about the Gobert incident, but stayed up all night dissecting the implications.
They were thinking about basketball, not an emerging pandemic. Masks and foot guards were not a problem. They didn’t know what was going to happen. The Avalanche, Canfield said later.
The day the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a pandemic, the team focused on the game against St. Louis. St. John’s the next day.
The city and state, Ackerman would later say, said we were ready to go.
Fox Sports presenter Tim Brando, right, and analyst Nick Bahe discuss the cancelled quarter-final amidst the destruction of the arena. Porter Binks/Getty Images
Why are we going to ? Dave Fried, an experienced TV statistician, said on the morning of the 12th. Mars from his home in Long Island. The night before, he was watching television when the NBA took a break. A domino effect seemed inevitable. But Freed was scheduled to broadcast the Big East tournament on FS1 during Thursday’s morning session. He took the train into town and sat down at the bomb table about ten feet from the visitors’ bench.
A disinfectant wipe was used to clean the helmet, then the table, then the chair. He took precautions because he shared the responsibility with John Labombard, the longtime director of research for the Elias Sports Bureau, who was absent the day before. You could share a chair.
New York recorded on the 12th. in March 355 cases, just three weeks earlier. There were still relatively few tests, but it was clear that the city was in trouble.
While Mr. Fried was setting up, Mr. Ackerman attended a meeting in the office of Proskauer Rose, the conference’s outside counsel, in Eleven Times Square. The board, made up of the presidents of Big East schools, met at 9 a.m. that morning. Traditionally, the board meets in these offices on the morning of the second day of the tournament. But this was the group’s eighth meeting in five days.
My council usually meets three times a year, Ackerman said later, pausing for emphasis.
Like everyone else, the group was overwhelmed. Members wanted to be prepared. Ackerman arranged for four top NCAA officials to attend the meeting via video link. She said there is no cancellation, but that the NCAA will not make a decision on March Madness until this afternoon. The meeting ended at 11:30 a.m.
Shortly thereafter, the major conferences began to cancel their tournaments. Zegarowski, standing on crutches and holding the phone, watched them come in one by one.
Securities and Exchange Commission at 11:47.
Big Ten at 11:49.
Atlantic 10, also scheduled for a noon peak at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, reported at 11:58 a.m.
According to Zegarowski, Canfield thought the Big East would do the same. О… said Mr. Canfield. It’s become real.
Ackerman also received information on his phone. She got a call from another conference official around noon, just as Canfield was settling in on the couch. The cancellation of this tournament was prompted by a government order. Ackerman still hasn’t received one from New York.
The team that was in the Garden – the announcer, the officials who controlled the clock, and the other game personnel – expected the game to be stopped at any moment.
The players line up for the kickoff. The television broadcast showed the starting lineup. It was just like any other game – except no one was sure it would start, including Canfield.
One of the clerks, Brian O’Connell, came to the scorekeeper’s table with the same question as everyone else: Are we still doing this?
At 12:05 p.m., the ball was thrown into the air at Madison Square Garden.
Jett Canfield had three champions on three shots in the first and only half. Sarah Senior/Getty Images
WHEN JET CANFIELD enters the game midway through the first half, he makes his debut in the world’s most famous arena at the strangest time.
The characteristic roar of the arena was replaced by an intermittent silence.
We heard all the calls from the other team, Canfield said. It was strange.
He adjusted quickly, starting with a 3-pointer from the left corner at 8:11 of the first half. The whole network. Then a featherweight crack from the foul line with 1:37 to go. Twenty-one seconds later, in front of famous Knicks fan Spike Lee, he hit a three-pointer from the left wing, well over the line, his feet overlapping in the air like a skater.
Three shots. Three stamps.
I finally got the chance to follow my dreams, Canfield said later.
Around the time he took the pictures of his life, at about 12:20 p.m., Ackerman spoke to his contact in New York, who had big news: Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference that day and effectively shut down the city.
A gathering of more than 500 people would be prohibited by the state. Broadway is closing. A state of emergency has been declared.
Ackerman knew what she had to do. Within 20 minutes she got her sign by phone. The members agreed that the match should be stopped. They would have waited until after the break.
At halftime, Xan Korman, Butler’s student photographer, entered the press room. He spent the first half walking around the empty stands taking pictures. The television in the media room indicated that the party was over. He rushed to the courthouse to see what was going on.
Then he heard the announcement of the public performance of The Garden: Effective immediately, the Big East has cancelled the remainder of the men’s basketball tournament. We believe that this decision is in the best interest of our participants and fans.
Then Frank Sinatra’s New York sounded from the speakers, amid loud boos from those who were able to get in. Korman took one last photo from his seat in the stands before he left: a dark arena, the only colors coming from the vests of a handful of loyal followers who walked out. As the music ended and the arena emptied, this sound was replaced by one last sound: the metal chairs were covered and removed.
For Canfield, it was a tough sell. The three shots he took, the most useful of his career, were cancelled. There was a shock in the locker room. The players sulked.
Ackerman walked the eight blocks to the Garden for the press conference. Sitting at the table with the black blanket, she said the cancellation of the greatest college basketball tournament of all time broke her heart, but she didn’t want to be reckless with security. When asked that day why the Atlantic 10 tournament in New York could be cancelled before it started but not the Big East tournament, she said: We didn’t think that 15 or 20 minutes of extra play would make that much difference.
Meanwhile, Canfield and his father took an Uber from the hotel to Mastro’s Steakhouse, a few blocks from Rockefeller Center.
There were no cars on 52nd Street at the intersection with 6th Avenue. At the Mastro, they were the only ones eating at the bar. They talked about the game and those three shots, but they couldn’t help but scan the place. Only three tables were occupied. It seemed the city had broken up the sidewalks while they were in the arena.
Canfield described this feeling: Apocalyptic.
Creighton’s Mitch Bollock leaves Madison Square Garden after the game was stopped at halftime. Nicole Friedling/Sportswire Icon
IF ST. JOHN COACH Mike Anderson delivered the news to his team. In the same building where Jobert and the Jazz played against the Knicks eight days earlier, the players were left with their heads down and disappointed that their chance to play in the semifinals was taken away from them. But real life soon intervened.
The cancellation] worries me, but I’d rather not play than risk getting sick, Champagne said later. The city was a hot place.
Anderson, Creighton’s ISC, left the arena to get a burger and saw Bluejays assistant coach Terrence Rencher wearing a surgical mask. Wow, he said. Rencher was the first person to recognize Anderson.
Providence, which had won six consecutive games before March, was already on the bus parked outside the Shelburne Hotel at Lexington and 37th. Friars coach Ed Cooley, who was standing on the sidelines in a suit and holding a game card, wasn’t on board yet, so he sent a manager to get the players out after getting a call from his school principal. In the hotel’s makeshift movie room, he told them the Big East tournament had been canceled. The tears have begun. That’s nonsense… One player responded.
Sean McDermott, then a senior at Butler, Providence’s expected opponent, was outside the Shake Shack in Manhattan processing the Big East news when he heard the news wouldn’t end there. He had a hole in his stomach: The NCAA tournament has been cancelled.
That was it – not just this season, but my entire college career, McDermott, who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, said later. I didn’t know what my next steps would be.
No one else is doing it either. The immediate reaction of McDermott’s teammates after hearing the news from the Big East was mixed. Some thought the worst was the beginning of a new reality. Others thought it would be over in a week. But now March Madness, the annual slice of Americana, is over in a flash. It was heartbreaking.
Rek Davis, the ESPN host who was on the air when the news broke, later said it was like waking up in a dark hotel room and not knowing what to do next. He said, walking with his hand held out in front of him. You’re trying to get to a safe place without a light to help you navigate. It feels like everything is going to be okay.
It turns out basketball is the least of his worries. Just eight days after the cancellation, Labombard, one of the statisticians at the Garden of the 11th. March, admitted to hospital with fever of 104 degrees, caused by KOVID-19 pneumonia. He recovered after 11 days in the hospital.
In early April, as the number of cases and one-day deaths in New York peaked, hospitals were overloaded and morgues crowded. The quarantined people in the city gather every evening at 7 p.m. to cheer on the workers at the front, the roar coming from the balconies of the apartments and not from the squares in the gardens.
A year later, as the virus spread across the country, more than 500,000 people died in the United States.
College basketball enters the 2020-21 season with empty arenas and socially distant sidelines. Players who didn’t think about health last March picked up masks and testing protocols. Matches have been cancelled – for some teams more than others – thanks to positive tests from the players and even the referee. The Ivy League didn’t play at all.
A year later, the decision to end the basketball season proved to have been a wise one.
There was no clear path in terms of management, Ackerman says. Mostly we worked in the dark.
This year’s Big East tournament, which began Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, is going as planned, but with a look back at the past 12 months. As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order to allow certain fans into the New York City arena, a limited number of family and guest tickets were sent to the teams. And the Manhattan hotel houses all the teams, officials and conference services – a de facto bubble.
Creighton is seeded No. 2 for this year’s tournament after Zegarowski, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, helped the Bluejays win another regular season title. Greg McDermott, who was suspended last week for making racist comments about players in February, was reinstated Monday before the tournament.
Canfield returned to lead the scouting team and also received walk-on status after his scholarship expired last year. So he came back to imitate the other team’s best players.
Creighton will play against Connecticut on Friday – exactly one year after everything suddenly stopped – for a spot in the championship game of the Big East Tournament. Canfield, who has a goal in 2020-21, played six minutes in the quarterfinal victory over Butler. But living at this time of year is living at this time of year.
I think our team is looking forward to the opportunity to play in the [Big East tournament], because last year it was kind of taken away from us. We’re just excited. And I’m ready to take that chance, whatever my role is.
I mean, at this point in the season, I’m still ready to ride it and start it.
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