In a way, it’s not even the games that will be missed the most, although, for me, there is nothing that touches college basketball in March and April for sheer delight. The pro game itself is better. It is faster and played at a higher level, but it is also a job, and that weary dedication to commerce is palpable.
The college game, even for the short-timers who drop in only for a season to apprentice for the draft, is played with a passion that lifts the event from the ordinary geometry of a rectangular court and a round ball to something that can rekindle our own flagging spirit.
So, yes, of course the basketball is special, but the setting and scenes of the conference and national tournament games are what separate those events from everything else in our sports landscape. That’s one person’s opinion. All sports usually provide some measure of escape from reality. Right now, they are a reminder of it, and something else on the long list of cancellations and suspensions might mean more to you. Not me.
Several hours before the Big East Conference tournament was halted mid-game on Thursday, during the first of four scheduled quarterfinals, I decided not to get on the train to New York. It is my favorite assignment of the year, even more than the NCAA Tournament that follows. Maybe it is the comfort of walking a well-worn path.
I was in Madison Square Garden the night Jim Boeheim ended a post-game press conference by throwing his chair across the room. I was there in the years when the tournament annually interrupted the run of circus dates, and there were always elephants placidly munching hay in the corridors adjacent to the working press areas. For a long time, I associated the Big East Tournament with a lot of yelling in what smelled like a barnyard.
The sounds of the Garden are their own as well, starting with the horn that booms plaintively like a ship at sea feeling its way through a fog. The sudden harshness of a pep band striking up during a time out is a reminder that even “The Theme from Hawaii Five-O” can become inspirational in the right setting. That is never the case with “Sweet Caroline,” however, but to each his own.
At the Garden, the ticket-takers at the doors were once adept at snapping the ticket between a thumb and middle finger, separating the ticket from the stub at the perforation in one sharp motion. Only a few of those lifers remain, and it always made me smile to find one still working.
“You snap it?” I asked the guy at the press entrance door last year.
“Nah. Manny does, but he’s off today,” he said.
Call me odd, but part of the anticipation of getting from the train to the Garden on Thursday was hoping that Manny would be at the door.
Even the ushers are part of the show. For as long as I can remember, two of the ushers working courtside are named Mark and Timothy. Mark is dark-haired, although it is now thoroughly salted, with glasses and a neatly trimmed moustache. Timothy is a large, florid-faced Irishman with wavy blond hair that has gone to gray.
Every year, both make a point of finding me at the courtside press table. We shake hands and talk about the only thing that bonds us.
“We made it another year,” Mark said, last March.
“We did,” I said. “Let’s keep going.”
In this March of true madness, I don’t know whether Mark and Timothy hung on for another tournament, or whether, with spectators already barred, their jobs weren’t even there this time around. It makes me sad that had we seen each other this time, we wouldn’t have shaken hands.
That’s the overwhelming emotion for having lost the true and lasting friend that is the Big East Tournament, even though this sadness is a whisper of what is taking place worldwide among families that have lost or will lose loved ones. The sense that the bottom has dropped out of everything we have previously relied upon for comfort extends far beyond anything as trivial as basketball.
We assumed that modern medicine could prevent a pandemic in the 21st century. We were wrong. We assumed that even a country as culturally different as China would no longer allow open-air markets in which exotic wild animals are crammed in filthy cages prior to sale and consumption. We were wrong. We assumed that even if a pandemic occurred, our government would be a world leader with a smart, fast reaction to the crisis. Yeah, we didn’t get that one right, either.
So, where is the comfort? It can’t be found in the familiar routines of our sports. Not for now, anyway. The NCAA Tournament is gone. Baseball, hockey, soccer, the NBA? All of them gone.
I didn’t get on the train Thursday, not because Villanova’s game had been canceled. It was still set for 7 p.m. I didn’t get on the train because nobody should get on a train right now. Or an airplane. Or sit in an arena with other people. Until we know who is sick, everyone is sick. Until then, each of us can cause others to die.