They say that basketball is just a game. But four days deep into a post-sports world, I’m not sure I agree with that.
The Pac-12 tournament is my favorite week of the year. Five days in Las Vegas, surrounded by Bill Walton, twelve squads of desperate dreamers, and hapless animatronic horse races is spectacular in itself. But what I love more than anything is how life and all its problems seem so distant from my court-side seat aft.
As I write this, I’m reclined beside a pool on a perfect March day. The carefree splashing scenes from the commercials are nowhere to be found. Life guards battle ennui as they look over the vacant petri dishes in their stead. The whole city seems like a ghost town, and not in the fun Comstock Lode way. Most resorts announced the shuttering of their night clubs the other day, and tomorrow many of the restaurants will fall in step. This isn’t the tournament week I’ve come to love. We no longer have the luxury of acting like life won’t matter until Monday.
On Wednesday, my photographer and I were building our lather of a tournament buzz when the dominos began to topple. Beside us in the media section was a previously jovial Pac-12 Conference official, expressing his dismay that his trip to the First Four would be devoid of fans. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was quick to bar large gatherings in his state. It seemed that we had plenty of time before others would follow suit. Who cared that the Ivy League cancelled their tournament? They didn’t like having one in the first place.
The games in T-Mobile opened with a bang. Utah’s Alfonso Plummer was on his own plane of existence, launching bombs the instant the ball reached his hands. His 11 triples broke the conference record, and yet somehow it wasn’t enough for the Utes to come out on top. Oregon State fifth-year legend Tres Tinkle unselfishly found a freshman teammate for the winner in the corner. In the post-game press conference, there was much talk about how he had extended his career.
By the conclusion of the Beavers’ victory, we found out the NCAA Tournament would be held in empty gymnasiums. But it would take some time before other conferences would choose to do the same. The Pac-12 was one of the last to make the call, issuing the announcement moments before the beginning of the second session of games. The hundreds of fans who had shrugged off the pandemic fears to be in attendance booed the decision as loudly as they could. I couldn’t even mask my emotions, since the CDC said the health professionals needed those.
Even traveling to the tournament felt surreal. Mind you, that was Tuesday, nearly 24 hours before the United States opted to declare war on social events and the toilet paper shelves. My Uber Pool from Marin to SFO saw one fellow passenger in horror that her cough almost escaped her clutches, and a driver who gave a token toweling to every freshly vacated seat. The airport itself was flights of 15 or 25 passengers boarding full-sized Boeing models, with TSA agents vocally declaring their boredom. My flight was so empty that I considered asking if I could steer the plane for a bit.
Getting an upgraded room was easy. They knew that we knew the manifest was brief. We looked like the sort that would insatiably hand away all our money in their sports book and slots and pharmacy, so they didn’t dare lose us to a more desperate resort. Of course, the joke’s on them, since we used approximately 6 liters of their hand sanitizer.
We ended up back in the room early Wednesday night. The idea had been to stay until the completion of the day’s final game, but I wasn’t so in love with basketball after Stanford’s early exit. By that time we had learned that Rudy Gobert, he who sophomorically laid his oversized mitts on everything he could, had tested positive for the Virus. The NBA quickly rushed to suspend their season. That was the NBA, though. March Madness is a beloved American institution that surely wouldn’t meet the same fate. I mean, think of all the scheduled vasectomies!
One by one, conference tournaments felt the panic and pulled the plug. The Pac-12 cut theirs short on Thursday morning, and only the Big East had the audacity to let a game tip off that day. The NCAA tournament couldn’t find a way to make it happen, and I suddenly reconsidered calling in sick when I returned to work. The last holdouts, golf and the XFL, couldn’t weather the storm either. The world of sports went dark.
We had more friends flying in on Thursday, now without a tournament to attend. As the nation started to hunker down, we considered returning home and cutting our weekend short. But we were already in Las Vegas, so we decided to gamble with our health.
We went to a brewpub near the arena, and tried to think of things that happened in the world that weren’t sports. Politics, traffic, weather... The conversation shifted to rainfall, but we had a hard time betting on it, so we got way too invested in a game of Sorry. We chased that with some oversized Uno.
The next morning we decided to drive to Red Rock Canyon. Along the way, we stopped at a Best Buy in search of a camera lens that would make our pictures look dating profile caliber. We never found it. We were way too enthralled by the soccer stock footage playing on the display televisions. It wasn’t much, but at least it might tide us over until we could search YouTube for high school lacrosse highlights. As we drove off toward the scenic drive, we used the aux cable to blast Rudy Gobert diss songs.
You would think being in Las Vegas with no sports to bet on and no clubs to do club things in would bring us together. It ended up being our blind hatred for the Stifle Tower himself that catalyzed our bonding. We killed some time in the hotel spa (while it was still open), since there’s no way the Virus is a fan of steam. At night we went to the final comedy show for at least the next few weeks. Still, there was no escape from life.
Several MGM employees have tested positive for the Virus. Considering we stayed at an MGM resort, ate in their restaurants, played their casino games, fidgeted with their chips, and breathed their mentholated air, I’m sure we’ll be fine. No amount of Ghostbusters slots could take our minds off the mortality of our grandparents and the stock market and whether our shelves held enough lentils for our inevitable quarantines. The polaroids we took of the tournament’s first day look as if they came from another era, and in many ways they did. If only basketball were still going, things might not have to seem serious.
This year’s edition wasn’t the event that I’ve grown so fond of, and it only featured 4 of the 11 scheduled games. But that’s okay. Maybe the real fun was the Virus we caught along the way.