This is the strangest and somewhat darkest day to be a sports fan. Never would I have imagined when I awoke this morning that by the end of my workday, all sporting events in the U.S. would be cancelled or suspended. No NBA. No MLB. No NHL. Most importantly, and most significant, no NCAA college basketball conference tournaments and even worse, no March Madness.
In just a few hours, my college hoops season came to an abrupt end. Just like that. No American Athletic Conference games, no cheering my Shockers, no brackets, no time off to watch games…done.
If you are not a sports fan, I don’t expect you to understand. Just like I don’t understand why people get excited to attend weddings or wrap toilet paper around an expectant mom’s belly at baby showers or sing karaoke. None of those items are anywhere near my jam – not even close. But I do love sports, especially college basketball. Sports are my family’s jam. I’ve written about our passion for sports, handed down to us by our parents who took the train to KC on their honeymoon to attend a college basketball tournament. Yeah, it’s in our blood. I’ve mentioned more than a few times how sports created some of the most incredible moments with my family, how sports bind us together even when we are miles apart as evident by our maniacal text threads during games.
March is our favorite time of year. As a child of Christmas, I confess the season of March Madness runs so close a second to Christmas it’s truly a tie for my affection. March and all its college hoops madness is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s when me and my siblings, parents and cousins get together to watch the games. We mark our territory at high top tables in neighborhood bars and follow our brackets on our phones (once upon a time, our table tops were actually littered with paper copies of brackets and a smattering of highlighters), while eating chicken wings, drinking cold beer and reminiscing about tournaments past. It’s our holiday.
At one time, it was our vacation. I used to fill out the applications for tickets to the NCAA regionals and we’d head to the host cities of Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and the ever-popular San Antonio. We’d cram two to three people per hotel room and spend four days immersed in the fandom of college basketball. Two days with our butts in the seats watching bucket list teams and their coaches (Michigan State and Tom Izzo; Syracuse and Jim Boeheim; UConn and Jim Calhoun) and two days stationed at sticky table tops in unfamiliar crowded bars watching the other games in the other regions on multiple televisions and fuzzy big screens. We learned other teams fight songs, hand signs and cheers, and we sat riverside after a day of games and talked with fans from Arizona, Minnesota and Iowa.
This year, covid-19 had already altered the plans for my sister and I to meet in KC to watch the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games with my brother and his family. She decided not to risk being exposed on the train and gifting the virus to her niece and nephew or our 87-year-old parents. But, my brother and I planned to raise a few pints in her honor while we wore our Drink Angry shirts featuring a boozy, cigarette smokin’ WuShock (yes, an homage of sorts to the Play Angry mantra) and followed our probably near-busted brackets. Now, here we are with no games, no plans, and feeling a bit lost.
I’d joked at work shortly after the announcement that the NCAA better set up a helpline for us sports fans, as the gray cloud of life without March Madness began its descent and enfolded us in its darkness. But I wasn’t really joking. I have no idea what to do with myself. Beginning today, my life had been scheduled around the AAC conference tournament, Bracket Sunday and March Madness, just as it is every year. I don’t know how to do the month of March or April without a college basketball tournament. And to make matters worse, I can’t even fall back on NBA games. I foresee weeks of endless workdays followed by restless evenings where I periodically check CBS sports or ESPN to ensure I didn’t somehow miss the announcement the games were back on or it was just some misunderstanding.
Look, I understand the implications of this virus. I am not one of those who ignorantly believes it’s a hoax or that everyone is overreacting. I’m clear about the magnitude of what could happen if we don’t slow the spread, I just never thought it would impact the sports world in such a manner. Especially, I did not foresee it impacting these student athletes so abruptly. My heart is broken for those seniors who have worked so hard to get to the precipice of seeing their childhood dreams fulfilled on the big stage of the Big Dance. Particularly Jaime Echenique, Wichita State’s lone senior who came to the U.S from Columbia to fulfill a dream of playing Division I basketball and setting foot under the lights of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I heard he was in tears as he and his teammates left Dickies arena in Fort Worth following the announcement of the cancellation of the AAC tournament, and that he was crushed when the NCAA lowered the boom on the tournament of so many dreams.
Sure, I know many will say “it’s just a game,” but you must understand that for many of us it’s more than a game. College basketball is our sanctuary – the place we find happiness when faced with doubt or sorrow – our home where we make memories with our family – the place we set our inner compass and return to every year.
So, if you see me in the next few weeks and I look a little lost, be kind. As the saying goes, you never know what others are experiencing or hardships others are going through – even sports fans.