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Mike Lopresti | | March 14, 2020

The NCAA tournament had 81 years without interruption. Hall-of-fame writer Mike Lopresti was there Thursday when that all changed

NCAA's Dan Gavitt walks Andy Katz through the decision to cancel the NCAA tournament, including all contingencies

INDIANAPOLIS — It was the Thursday the arenas went silent and the lights went out in college basketball. March Mumness had arrived. There had never been 24 hours in sports like these 24 hours. Never.

This was Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 30 minutes before the noon tipoff. Those were the Michigan Wolverines taking the court for warmups, running out before 20,000 silent, empty seats. That was Brandon Johns Jr., waving to an imaginary crowd. There’s a kid, for you. Fun for every occasion. The Rutgers team appeared soon after, and the solitude of a nearly deserted arena was broken by the bouncing of basketballs and the chirping of teenagers. But then, a loud voice, and another, and another. . ."everybody get to the locker room!"

MORE: NCAA cancels basketball championships due to coronavirus concerns | Official NCAA statement 

The two teams vanished, the courtside media was herded in the press room, and soon the word came. The Big Ten tournament had been summarily canceled. Commissioner Kevin Warren said later in a press conference he had been thinking hard about what to do, had even prayed about it that very morning. “It became crystal clear to me. . .I feel very good with our decision, I’m very confident with our decision.” The ACC, SEC, Pac-12 and other leagues rapidly did the same — cancellations coming by the minute from every point on the college basketball compass, the matter so urgent, many teams were already in uniform. The Big East even started with the St. John’s-Creighton quarterfinal, but pulled the plug 20 minutes in with St. John’s ahead 38-35 — possibly the most inconsequential halftime lead in the history of college basketball.

Sarah Stier | Getty Images The scene at the Big East tournament. The scene at the Big East tournament, where St John's-Creighton was canceled at halftime.

Baseball suspended spring training, the NHL halted play. The sands ran fast. By late afternoon, the other shoe to drop that everyone knew must come — the NCAA Tournament was canceled. It had been played for 81 years without interruption, through a world war and all manners of national woes. But this was different.

Between Thursday and Wednesday night, it was as if someone was holding down the fast forward button on the sports world. Wednesday night, after the NCAA had announced there would be no fans at its tournament, the frenzy began. The Big Ten, the ACC, the SEC quickly followed. Then the biggest shocker of all — the NBA suspended its season, with one player testing positive for the coronavirus. A strange night turned even more chaotic in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg, taken to the hospital sick? His team quarantined in its locker room hours after the game? Whatttttt? Guards stood in the hallway keeping everyone from that end of the building. No, said the man, you can’t go down there.

NEWS: NCAA cancels remaining winter and spring championships due to coronavirus concerns 

Turned out, Hoiberg had the flu, but still. The entire universe seemed off-kilter, as the last crowd of the Big Ten season — probably one of the last crowds anywhere for some time — filed out. Some of them had booed when it was announced there would be no fans allowed after Wednesday. They even booed when it was added they’d be getting their tickets refunded. They wanted March, as usual.

Well, this is March. But it sure ain’t as usual.

 “Uncharted territory,” Indiana coach Archie Miller called it. And Thursday, college basketball and all of sports just kept wandering into it deeper and deeper.

There are moments when you see something happen, and you instantly know it is unforgettable. It will be talked about forever. Usually it is a remarkable play, an extraordinary finish, a giant upset or dramatic rally. This moment is none of those — but it surely is as unforgettable as any buzzer beater ever taken.

Joe Robbins | Getty Images The scene of an empty Big Ten tournamentSome media was present for the Big Ten tournament, before it was canceled.

We talked for months about how strange this college basketball season has been. How unconventional. How filled with surprises. We didn’t know what strange and unconventional and surprising really were — not until the past 24 hours.

" writer Mike Lopresti" writer Mike Lopresti

Now we know there will be a big empty space, where the champion’s name should go. There could well be a lot of big empty spaces in a lot of sports before this is over. We’ve seen one or two before in professional sport, with the occasional labor war. But never because of something like this, and across the landscape of every size and shape of ball. And the games are only a corner of our disrupted lives. We are retreating into our shelters of safety, as if endangered by nuclear fallout, only without the bombs. And look who’s to blame. A virus. You can’t yell at it, you can’t confront it, you can’t even see it. All you can do is try to wash it off your hands.

The past 24 hours have presented a sobering reality. Sport — including and especially college basketball in March — is supposed to bring compelling entertainment and vibrant joy; something of an escape and distraction from any real world unpleasantness. But what if it’s so bad, you can’t even have the escape and distraction?

The most definitive sound Thursday at Bakers Life Fieldhouse was this: A security guard pushed a button that lowered a door at the entrance to the court. It closed with a loud clang! No entrance, no game today. That clang sounded so. . .final.

We guessed this season might be famous for all the upsets and underdog stories at the end. Boy, were we off. This is what March of 2020 will be immortal for — not just because we had a crisis, but because it was so serious, everyone had to take their basketballs and go home.

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