When I drove down to Atlantic City to work the Metro Athletic Association Conference basketball tournament in mid-March, I could have never imagined that today, about a month later, we would be quarantined to our homes. That I would never return to Marist College for another class; that my graduation would be postponed; that the world would be so different. It was during the time I spent in Atlantic City that coronavirus would start its attack on the United States. It’s breach on our everyday life grew greater, frighteningly and oddly in stride with the progressing tournament.
I was a part of the student production crew that arrived on Monday night, March 10, and spoke with the MAAC’s interim director of new media and video, Matthew Gonzalez. As we filled out paperwork and were given a rundown on what was expected of us, the coronavirus came up. It was mentioned briefly, almost as a joke. Gonzalez mentioned how the virus was a small thing that could affect us and that if anyone wasn’t feeling well, they were advised to remain in their room.
Tuesday came and went without much fanfare. On Wednesday, we heard that many other conferences were announcing that tournaments were going to be held without fans. Pat Cody, a fan attending the MAAC tournament who had arrived late Wednesday evening, said, “at the rate these tournaments are announcing no fans, we might be leaving tomorrow.”
By the end of the night, I received a message from Cody. “Just saw that they are playing the tournament without fans starting tomorrow so we are probably leaving in the morning,” he said.
From my perspective, I thought that this was probably as bad as things were going to get for the duration of the tournament. I wasn’t alone.
Willow Duffell, a junior forward and sixth-man for Marist’s women’s basketball team, assumed the same; that the decision to have no fans would be the apex. “And this was do-able,” she said. “We’d still get to be playing and we still had a chance to bring the gold ball back to Marist.”
Thursday morning, I returned to the arena to work the first game of the day. We had breakfast and I went to the camera I was assigned to operate. As the game began, I heard over my headset the producers discussing the possibility that the tournament may be canceled. At this point, most of the other conference tournaments had pulled the plug. Some of them hadn’t barely gotten underway; I was hopeful that we may finish, as we had already begun.
As mentions of cancellation continued throughout the game, I also heard mention that we very well may have been one of the last live sporting events airing on television.
“I truly had no idea or had even thought about that in the moment when we were broadcasting, but one of the other producers – Drew from Monmouth – opened the door to the truck and said, ‘How does it feel to be the last NCAA basketball game being broadcast right now?’” Marist’s director of multimedia, Meghan Graham, said. “I’m pretty sure there were other professional games being played internationally but as far as the US, we might’ve been the last crew on air at that point. It’s a bit twisted to think about but I have my own little piece of history from the pandemic and it is something that I will remember forever.”
A fellow student working the game, Hailey Wicks, recalled that “one of the students said we are the last ones… One of the comments was, ‘Hey, on Twitter, they canceled all other college televised tournaments and professional, so we are the only ones on air.’”
Following the end of the game, Matthew Gonzalez told us to convene by our production truck and that he would meet with us after the current press conference. As we awaited his return, one of the school’s producers ran to the truck and started assigning people to cameras and positions. That was when the conference commissioner, Richard J. Ensor, got on camera for a press conference to announce the cancelation of the tournament. That was when the production staff found out. Team staff and players were informed separately.
“We gathered as a Marist staff and had a conference call with the entire department regarding the spring as a whole,” said Graham. “We were told that spring sports were going to be canceled and as soon as that call ended, we told the women’s team that the tournament was finished. That is another moment I will always remember.”
Marist point guard Allie Best said that they found out the tournament was canceled right before their practice ahead of the next game. “Our coaches had a meeting with the officials and then they told us.” Like the rest of the sports world, they were rendered helpless. Others had similar sentiments.
“It was a tremendously heartbreaking moment and not one that I feel I can have full ownership over,” Graham said. “Our women’s team [was] on [its] way to championship victory and to have an unprecedented international pandemic rip that away from you in an instant… it’s hard to think about the emotions they were feeling.”
“Obviously, this news was devastating to anyone who was a part of the Marist basketball team,” Duffell echoed. Perhaps those having it the worst in this context was the team’s leadership, a powerhouse quintet of seniors whose best chance at a conference title and NCAA berth evaporated instantaneously. “Everything we did throughout the year and endured as a group seemed to be for nothing. The timing couldn’t have been worse for this pandemic.”
After the production team held a closing meeting, we went to clean up the equipment before returning home. As we walked towards the court, we passed the Marist women’s team as they headed back to their bus. The seniors and many other players were in tears and consoling each other. Having played sports all my life, I knew the pain they felt, not knowing that the game they had played the day before was the last of their career. I’ll never forget watching them.
Next year’s returnees will try to remain optimistic. They got immediate help in that effort from their coaching staff.
“I think Coach Erin [Doughty] summed it up best when the coaches told us the news,” Best said. “She said something along the lines of, ‘we are playing for the five seniors who did not get to finish their careers next year.’”
It’s a sentiment that Best is behind wholeheartedly. “We are playing for a bigger purpose the next time we are able to step on the court together. I think it’s important to remind everyone of what happened because it was devastating, but next year we get another chance… [it’s] important to not let that chance go to waste because you never know if you are going to get another one.”
Edited by Will Bjarnar
Header photo taken by Carlo De Jesus