College basketball tries to return to where it was before pandemic



The college basketball light switch was flicked off eight months ago, leaving the sport in darkness, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and leaving millions of fans just plain mad.

COVID-19 was just beginning to stretch its icy grip to more states as the 2019-20 season was reaching a crescendo. We had no concept of the misery in store for us, how the Ides of March would portend the creeping worry of Thanksgiving.

Just as Syracuse completed an unholy massacre of North Carolina, 81-53, in an early round of the Big East Conference tournament March 11, my television set went blank. Metaphorically. The scroll at the bottom of the set began a series of the equivalent of Tweets announcing postponements and cancellations.

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Games evaporated as the world, not just the sports world, began trembling apart. College basketball went away, a big blank spot next to the “This year’s champion” line for the NCAA title.

Until Wednesday. Nov. 25, the night before Thanksgiving, the sport tip-toed into a new season with the first games of 2020-21 around the country contested with a grim sense of optimism.

Indiana played. Purdue played. Butler played. I had a ringside seat for Butler’s 66-62 victory over Western Michigan at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but just as our daily habits and psyches have been altered by the rampaging virus, the mind was forced to assimilate new ways of doing business.

Aspects of appearing in public, so alien to us on Valentine’s Day, are now commonplace. There are rules about the manner in which we are allowed to breathe, troubling questions about public safety, and yet when the jump ball jump-started the proceedings, much of the strangeness went away and basketball became just basketball.

Hinkle’s 10,000-seat capacity was limited to 1,500 fans. There was no media work room for those covering the game and court-side seating was socially distanced, so that it was easier to shout rather than whisper to our neighbor, and of course we all wore masks throughout 40 minutes of play.

Perhaps the most comfortable attendee was Butler Blue IV, the AKC registered bulldog who is the living mascot representative of the home team’s nickname.

An hour to game time, Blue was on the lawn in front of Hinkle, unashamedly taking a tinkle. Welcome to Indiana, Western. There were few witnesses. That’s because the parking lot was nearly empty of a pre-game traffic jam.

You had to admire Blue’s casual attitude.

The pandemic provoked panic in March with most of the country shutting down, restaurants, bars, sporting events off-limits as people sheltered at home after storming grocery stores for toilet paper.

Butler’s last game was March 7, a 72-71 win over Xavier. The Bulldogs were scheduled play Providence March 12. Never happened. We never crowned a winner of that Big East tournament. No NCAA field was picked, nor games played. Butler finished 22-9.

The story of the season was not how grandly seniors played leading Cinderella teams to glorious finishes, but seniors having their seasons truncated and saying early goodbye as they set off uncertain lives.

Eventually, months late, the NBA and NHL completed their playoffs perfecting the Bubble concept for safety. The NBA draft did not take place until Nov. 18, providing landing spots for some seniors and departing underclassmen.

NCAA basketball, some 350 Division I teams alone, and lest we forget all governed by their schools and their state’s governors, had no such neat tie-up.

Butler basketball stayed connected via social media over the summer, started practice later than usual and started this new season later than one has begun in years.

Remember the days when the first college basketball game was Dec. 1? Only the dearly-departed Great Alaska Shootout had an exemption to play over Thanksgiving and the rest of the country wrapped the TV games around their turkey and cranberry sauce with the four-hour time-zone difference from the East.

Butler graduated 63 percent of its scoring from last season, so coach LaVall Jordan needed more time with his men, not less. But there was only one scrimmage before Western showed up at Hinkle.

“It’s the same for everybody,” Jordan said.

Everything is almost the same for everybody. The virus may have favorites in assaulting those at high-risk, senior citizens and those with chronic health conditions, but it also seems random infecting others.

On the day the Bulldogs played Western Michigan, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and his wife were in quarantine because some members of his security detail got sick. The John Hopkins world-o-meter registered 60.6 million COVID cases worldwide with 1.4 million deaths. The United States was at 13.1 million cases with 268,000 deaths. Indiana had 312,500 cases with just under 5,500 deaths. That was the 14th most cases after skyrocketing from 21st among the states over a few weeks.

Illness and death had come to my door. One worker tested positive and became sick, closing our building temporarily. My wife’s father, passed away at 84 from the virus, shockingly, after ups and downs in treatment.

The NCAA chose Nov. 25 as college basketball’s start date because campuses were going to empty for Thanksgiving and it was the end of many fall semesters of study.

Wednesday, the big names in the Big Ten played. Ranked teams, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, played. But Oregon-Eastern Washington and Duke-Gardner-Webb were postponed. Tennessee-Charlotte and Baylor-Arizona State were cancelled.

Each blip indicated illness, or at the least a positive virus test demanding caution. Was college basketball’s return frivolous? Or was it the right to try to force a return to much normalcy as we can muster?

Originally, Butler and the Marion County Health Department planned to allow 25 percent of Hinkle capacity for the Bulldogs’ opener against Western. A couple of days before this game the school cut the limit to 15 percent, or 1,500 fans.

As fans slowly moved to their seats, the overhanging scoreboard kept repeating the message , “Face Coverings Are Required At All Times. #maskup.” The public address announcer said, “Be a good teammate. Mask up.”

Blue was not masked up, though it had been tried. His handler said masks slip off his ears.

Jordan wore a towel, as well as a mask, on the sideline. He draped the white towel over his right shoulder in homage to the late John Thompson, the Hall of Fame coach from Georgetown who died at 78 over the summer.

Jordan, who is Black, said he was honoring Thompson’s commitment to principles of equality for Black Americans and was an inspiration to him personally.


Butler came into the game against the Mid-American Conference opponent with home-opener wins for 21 straight years and the nation’s longest winning streak of 58 straight home games versus non-conference teams.

There was considerable opportunity for doubt during this one. The game remained close, with nine lead changes and 23 ties.

Senior Aaron Thompson slithered down the middle, made timely outside shots and hit his free throws for 21 points, lifting Butler whenever necessary.

Usually, historic Hinkle is jammed with roaring fans. The 1,500 sometimes appeared no bigger a crowd than for a typical half-time, rest-room line. And when the Bulldogs were in a scoring lull, there was a cheering lull.

“It’s different,” Jordan said of the decibel level and pledging more self-clapping. “I thought about (it). We’ll get used to that. We’ve got to give ourselves a better boost.”

Occasionally, during some slow-motion spells my mind drifted to the ravages of the virus, to the ripple effects shutting down businesses and causing unemployment, to news stories I read about people forming lines to receive Thanksgiving food.

Maybe I felt a little guilty being in the house at Hinkle, enjoying in-person college basketball, appreciating Thompson’s slick moves, Jair Bolden’s 15 points and 9 rebounds, and the other Bulldogs’ just-good enough-to-win performance.

For sportswriters, there was no entering a locker room for interviews in the age of the coronavirus. There were no face-to-face interviews, only Zooms permitted.

Bolden said he registered the 85 percent empty Hinkle.

“I’ve never played a game that wasn’t sold out,” he said of the venerable arena. “Then it was just basketball.”

And yes, having a game, playing his game, playing their game, basketball, was special.

“I’m just extremely thankful,” Bolden said. “I’m extremely grateful to play the game we love.”

After Hinkle fans departed, a man with a tank containing liquid disinfectant walked through the stands spraying the seats, another health precaution.

Masks worn, social distancing to the extreme, seats hosed down, all weapons to fight the virus mustered, Butler was prepared for its next game, Sunday evening back at Hinkle against Eastern Illinois.

Yet by morning word came that a member of the school’s Tier I personnel, a coach, player or high-level support staff member, had tested positive for the virus. This was part of the three-times-a-week NCAA and Big East “surveillance testing” protocol. The Eastern game was postponed.

Close contacts went into quarantine. Bolden’s thankfulness, an awareness of the fragility of the whole playing plan, was not misplaced. Schedules may be written, but in pencil. Tomorrow is not promised this season.

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