It was cloudy and cold in New York City the day the 2020 college basketball season died.
Big East commissioner Val Ackerman had hardly slept, up nearly all night trying to figure out how to play the quarterfinals of the league tournament at Madison Square Garden with virtually no fans. The previous evening had been a five-alarm fire for the nation’s sports, as concern about the coronavirus suddenly exploded. The NBA had suspended its season after Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive, literally yanking the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder off the floor so close to tipoff, the lineups had been introduced. The NCAA had announced March Madness would be held with restricted attendance, Ackerman getting that news in the middle of the Big East annual awards press conference.
League commissioners, shaken by a scary landscape that seemed to change and grow darker by the hour, had announced their tournaments would try to carry on, but before empty arenas. At the Big Ten in Indianapolis, Indiana coach Archie Miller summed up the crisis: “This is uncharted territory.”
No wonder a sense of foreboding followed Ackerman to work that Thursday morning. “Just the whole confluence of events was very anxiety-provoking, to say the least,” she says now. She was due to have a regularly scheduled teleconference with the Big East presidents and athletic directors at 10 a.m., before walking the eight blocks from her office in midtown Manhattan to Madison Square Garden, in time for the noon tipoff between Creighton and St. Johns. Those two coaches — Greg McDermott and Mike Anderson — were trying to keep their players focused on the game, even as virus-infested shock waves swirled around them. “It felt like a movie,” Creighton’s Mitch Ballock said, looking back seven months.
Across the East River in Brooklyn, coaches Matt McCall of Massachusetts and Mike Rhoades of VCU were facing the same challenge for their noon game in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Neither man had ever been through anything like this. “The night before, you generally don’t sleep as a coach, you’re making sure your team is prepared, you can watch one more game of the opponent on film,” McCall said. “That night was spent checking your phone on Twitter to see if the game was even going to be played. Two a.m., 3 a.m., the TV never went off. I think I watched SportsCenter 15 times, watching the Thunder be escorted off the floor.”
By Thursday night, the walls had caved in on college basketball, and sports in general. The conference tournaments aborted, the NCAA tournament cancelled. Everything just . . . gone. Creighton and St. John’s had played the most meaningless first half in history, the game called at halftime with St. John’s ahead 38-35. "I didn’t believe what was happening," Anderson says now. "I’ve been coaching for a long time and never been in a situation where we were the last college team that was playing an organized game, and it got shut down at halftime. It was almost like a helpless feeling."
Ackerman had spent 24 nearly sleepless hours, including facing the media to explain why the Creighton-St. John’s game even started. "It was my toughest day at the Big East for sure. It was my saddest day at the Big East for sure."
The UMass-VCU game had been called three minutes before tipoff, and McCall and Rhoades had shared one of the most unusual moments ever for opposing coaches. At the time they were supposed to be trying to beat one another in the Barclays Center, they were instead walking together on a Brooklyn street back to their hotels — "Still in suits," Rhoades said — trying to figure out what had happened in the world.
This, then, is the tale of two tournaments in one city, on the last day of the 2019-20 college basketball season, which ended not with One Shining Moment, but unprecedented angst, that in many ways still goes on.
ACKERMAN: "We had on that call, four members of the NCAA senior staff who were unaware at that time — this was 10 a.m. — that conferences later that morning were going to be pulling the plug on their tournaments, and were unaware that later that day, the NCAA would pull the plug on the NCAA tournament. So that I’ll never forget, that even the NCAA senior staff didn’t know what was coming down in a short time."
BALLOCK: "The night before, we all met in the film room to go over St. John's and the game plan. I think right before we started film, the Gobert thing came out. So Mac’s (McDermott) like, 'We don’t know what’s going to happen, let’s just prepare.' We went to bed that night, we had to give up our phones. As of that time, when I went to bed, the fans were still coming, our game was on. Then we wake up in the morning, no fans, but our game was still on. We thought, let’s do it, but it’s going to be weird."
RHOADES: "Early in the morning, there were cancellations, people were talking about this and talking about that, but we’re playing. I told our staff, let’s not even talk about it, let’s not even bring it up. We’re going to play, so let’s have these guys ready to play. Our guys were excited. I think one player said 'Coach are we playing? It sounds like things are getting cancelled. I said not the A-10. And I just left it at that."
MCDERMOTT: "I remember talking to the referee before the game and the game was actually held up three or four minutes, and he felt like they were trying to make a decision whether to play or not. I remember joking with him, 'If it means you’ll get your full paycheck if you throw up the jump ball, I’m good with it.'"
CREIGHTON SPORTS INFORMATION DIRECTOR ROB ANDERSON: "(The referee) is walking over to the center circle, looking over his shoulder, OK, I’m going to do this, just waiting for someone to run out and say, 'Stop! Stop! Stop!' I could hear people around me saying 'throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball.'"
ST. JOHN’S SPORTS INFORMATION DIRECTOR STEPHEN DOMBROSKI: "Shortly before tipoff, I was following Twitter at my seat next to our bench, and started seeing the announcements of other conferences being cancelled. They were coming out rapid fire. I remember briefly seeing the referees pause right before tip, but they eventually got the thumbs up from the TV timeout coordinator, and the game was underway."
Meanwhile, over in Brooklyn, the Atlantic 10 was on course to play as well. Until it suddenly wasn’t.
MCCALL: "We’re out on the floor, the officials are coming over not to shake hands but basically fist-bump, and my SID jumps over the scorer's table and it was my boss, (athletics director) Ryan Bamford on the phone, and he said get the team off the floor, the game's not going to be played. It was such a whirlwind. I just remember sitting in the locker room in the Barclay's Center thinking. I told our team, we’ll always remember where we were when this happened."
RHOADES: "The players were loosening up, layup lines, they huddled with one minute left on the warmup clock and started coming over to the bench and I said to Ed McLaughlin, our director of athletics, 'I guess it’s going down.' We both smiled. Honestly, not three seconds later, one of the assistants of the league came out and put up his hands and said game's cancelled, sorry guys. And that was it.
"We had a band there, so the guys stayed out on the court about 10 minutes and the band was playing on the baseline, and our guys were hugging each other and they were around the band. We had five seniors and it was a crazy way to end their college career. I think when it hit everybody the most was when we got back to the locker room. I closed the door and it was just the coaches and the players and I think the shock sort of settled in, and everybody took a deep breath and that’s when it got emotional. There were a lot of red eyes in there."
Back at Madison Square Garden, there was frantic action — on the court and in the Big East office. St. John's, who had had come from 16 points behind the night before to stun Georgetown, was back at it with an early lead against the league-co champions. Creighton had stayed close with an unlikely star, former walk-on sub Jett Canfield, who had scored 16 points all season but come off the bench with two 3-pointers and eight points. What a day to have the game of your life.
ACKERMAN: "I got a call at about 12:20 from the city of New York. We learned that the city and the state of New York were going to be prohibiting large gatherings later that day. They had a 2 o'clock press conference planned. We learned that at 12:20. My board had already scattered after our earlier meeting. Within 20 minutes I was able to get a conference call lineup with our board and we recommended the immediate cancellation of the Big East tournament."
One option was to stop the Creighton-St. John’s game immediately in mid-dribble, but Ackerman would later say the league wanted to have "the least disruptive gesture of the athletes on the floor because this is a trauma for them, too, I suspect. For us to have Garden security march out onto the floor and pull them into the locker room didn’t make sense to us." So the last game of the college season rolled on. But word was getting out.
MIKE ANDERSON: "I think it was the last (TV) timeout, one of the officials came over to me and said, 'Hey I don’t know if we’re going to play the second half.' I didn’t say anything to the guys."
ROB ANDERSON: "I had a coach come over at one point and, say are we going to keep playing this game, because we’ve got a guy in foul trouble? I think they were trying to figure out, can we just let it ride?"
BALLOCK: "There was probably less than 500 people in the building, but I thought it was a cool atmosphere. Obviously, it's not as loud as 15,000 but I thought it was going to be dead quiet. It was fun."
Fun, that is, until everything was shut down.
MCDERMOTT: "One of our assistant ADs grabbed me as we were walking off the floor, and told me, 'I’m not 100 percent certain but I think we’re done.' I just waited in the hallway for a minute or two and then got official word."
The game was left hanging forever; St. John’s possible upset, Ballock passing 1,000 points. He came in with 996, scored nine but had those erased, and went back to 996. Canfield’s Cinderella moment was officially washed away.
MIKE ANDERSON: "You can imagine the disappointment in our players. We were playing some of our better basketball. We had guys who were seniors and you’re in a tournament, you’re at halftime and leading one of the best teams in the country in the greatest tournament there is, and they say your season is cancelled? I had to calm my guys down and make sure they understood, there’s a game bigger than basketball, and it’s the game of life. This Covid-19 is very serious and safety is first. Eventually, they calmed down. We cleaned up, got on the bus and went back to campus, and the next day our guys were already on flights traveling home."
BALLOCK: "It escalated so quick. Everybody had all these emotions. Some people were shook."
CANFIELD: "For me in particular, it was a roller coaster of emotions. I was playing, and then all of a sudden they came in at halftime and told us it was off. It was a very surreal feeling, going from being all locked in, to it being over. (Having his stats wiped out) was not my first general thought. I was just excited to be playing in March Madness. It was my dream as long as I could remember."
ROB ANDERSON: "Our fans were like, 'Hey, he’s the MVP of the Big East tournament.'"
Ackerman had to get to Madison Square Garden to discuss with the media how events changed so quickly, and explain why the Big East was the only conference in America to play that day.
ACKERMAN: "I walked down Eighth Avenue to 42nd Street and Madison Square Garden because the journalists who covered the tournament were all waiting to get the explanation. It was hard to grasp in many ways. I sort of felt like I was on autopilot, because you had a responsibility to fulfill and that was to get to the Garden and talk to my staff, and talk to the journalists. It was a very difficult walk, if you will, but that was my responsibility, to face up to that.
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"The Garden had a concert on Tuesday night, with a full crowd. The NBA had a Knicks game at the Garden on Sunday. Full crowd. The Garden was in direct contact with the governor's office who was assuring them that things looked good. Hindsight's 20-20 but I think we did everything we did to anticipate this and lay out the options for our schools about how to manage this. We had eight meetings before the tournament. We all agreed our North Star was going to be the city of New York. At that point schools were open, subways were running, Broadway was open, restaurants were open. So that was telling us the city had made a determination that we were safe. But we were ready if the city made a different determination, and that's exactly what happened."
Back in Brooklyn, the UMass and VCU teams were departing from the arena. The coaches had to stay behind for their press conference, discussing the game that never was.
MCCALL: "My wife has the press conference on and she's back in Amherst texting me. 'Don’t touch your face, the guys sitting next to you coughing.' It was kind of a panic. I walk out of Barclays, the bus had already gone back to the hotel so I thought I’d just walk. I didn’t even know if it was safe to get into a cab. I ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, it was about a mile and a half or two miles, in my suit, just thinking, man, what’s next here?"
Rhoades walked along with him, until they parted, each to his own hotel, trying to figure out what to do next. He kept his game day folder from that day, to always remember.
RHOADES: "As I like to say, our lifeline was March with the NCAA tournament and the A-10 tournament, and it just got pulled right from underneath us. I guess I don’t say a lot of words, but the words I say to our staff and our players, I want them to be meaningful. I talked a lot about, guys we can only control what we can control, and believe in the leaders who are going to tell us what to do. If we have questions, let’s ask them the right way so we understand things. I think pretty much every coach in America was probably handling that. The disappointment of ending the season, the disappointment of seniors getting cut short, what do you say about that? What can you do when it’s not because of anything you did?"
The St. John’s team headed back to campus, the Red Storm wondering how far their late-season surge might have taken them. McDermott scheduled Creighton’s return flight to Omaha later that night, giving his disappointed players a chance to spend some time with family in New York. The Bluejays had developed into one of the finest teams in school history and might have had a dream March. But not to be.
MIKE ANDERSON: "I would have loved to have seen what took place, but it will always be a question mark."
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BALLOCK: "I actually went to the World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorial, and obviously didn’t have my phone on for two hours. Then I looked at my phone and I saw the NCAA tournament was cancelled, everything was cancelled. I started thinking about the seniors. That was their last chance. Then you start thinking about everything. You start thinking about Omaha. Omaha lost the College World Series, they lost the first two rounds of the tournament. All that revenue for the city, all those small businesses, it’s devastating. That was more about life. Basketball was probably my last thought. My phone blew up, people would text me and say sorry for the end of the season and I’m like, I’m really not worried about hoops right now."
CANFIELD: “That was almost the weirdest part, after the game, we’re headed back to the hotel, I think I went to go grab a bite to eat with my dad, and we were walking through the streets and there wasn’t anybody out. It was a complete ghost town, the most popular city arguably in the world. It felt like it was straight out of some sort of apocalypse movie."
When the day ended, all four teams who were in uniform that remarkable afternoon were left to put the experience in context. The commissioner of the Big East, too.
ACKERMAN: "Hopefully we’ll come back from it. I know the Big East will go on. This will be a memory at some point. We’ll look back on this and we’ll tell our grandchildren about it, but for now it’s clear we still have work to do to work our way through these dark clouds."
MIKE ANDERSON: "March 12, 2020 will always be in my mind. We’re playing against Creighton and boom, we get to halftime and it’s over with. I’ve had so many friends say they saw the last game. I guess I’ll hold onto their memories and my memories. That’s good enough right there."
MCDERMOTT: "I remember the disappointment of finding out that the NCAA tournament was cancelled later that afternoon and not being able to share that news with our team; rather they found it out on social media like everybody else. We didn’t ever get the chance to meet as a team and talk about the disappointment. That didn’t happen until we got back here in August. It was a helpless feeling. You felt for your team. You go from just four or five days earlier celebrating an incredible night when we were able to defeat Seton Hall and get a share of the Big East title, to the disappointment that your season has come to an end. I continue to feel for our guys that they didn’t have the opportunity to finish what they started. As I’ve told the guys, you can choose to look at the positive or the negative. We played one of the only games in the history of Madison Square Garden with a couple of hundred people in attendance. It’s never happened before and it may never happen again."
"I have (the tape of the first half) on my iPad. I haven’t watched it yet. For Jett Canfield’s sake we have to make sure we keep that forever."
MCCALL: "I look at the memorable days in my career; obviously the two national championships at Florida (as director of basketball operations), being there for those. Going to three straight Elite Eights and busting through to get to the Final Four in ’14 as an assistant coach at Florida. I think the most memorable day for me was winning the Southern Conference (head coach at Chattanooga) to go to the NCAA tournament. I had my wife there, my mom and my dad were there. I put this day in that category, a thousand percent."
RHOADES: "I think what I remember the most of all was when I got back to the hotel room and changed, I called my family. My wife was at the house and all the assistant coaches’ families came over and they were going to watch the game. And I was trying to explain to my kids what happened and going forward, what’s it all about. I didn’t know that for the next three months I would be home with them every day, which has never happened in their lives. I was explaining to them what a pandemic is and why they stopped college basketball and what could be next. And now we’re still here at this position, I’m still explaining things to them."