On March 11, we were all feeling our way. Sports world included. A scattering of college basketball games had been played the previous weekend without fans. The Ivy League hoops tournament, due to be played in a few days, had been canceled outright. Social distancing was a new term and we were all just coming to terms with it. You could still get a haircut.
By sunset on March 12, sports was different, almost gone. Society felt different.
It’s been 10 weeks now since a man named Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus — a 7-foot-1 Frenchman who was averaging 15.1 points in his seventh NBA season for the Utah Jazz, but will now always be known as “Rudy Gobert, who tested positive for coronavirus, causing the NBA to suspend all play.”
Here, we’re going back to the start of quarantine life, with an Inquirer staff oral history that begins March 11 and carries into March 12.
— Sports columnist
“On March 9, I wrote a column that, in the face of the NHL and NBA refusing to suspend play, advised fans to stay home from all sporting events, particularly the Flyers game Tuesday, March 10, and the Sixers game Wednesday, March 11. I contended that teams should offer refunds to fans who stayed home if they were worried about contracting coronavirus. I cited a CDC advisory for event planners to create refund policies.“On March 9, I spoke with two Flyers. One compared the communicability of coronavirus to the flu. The other accused the media of overblowing the crisis. I spent most of March 10 fielding accusations that I'd written what I'd written to capitalize from the perceived alarmist climate surrounding the disease. Around midday on March 11 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. I learned that while sitting in my home, binge-watching news channels, as I'd done for the previous week.”
— Phillies writer
“The Phillies actually had an off-day on March 11. There was no clubhouse or ballpark access, but there was news: Seranthony Dominguez had a setback with his elbow and was scheduled for an MRI.“Mostly, though, everyone was still talking about the protocols that MLB put in place the day before to limit the number of people in clubhouses, including media, which now had to conduct interviews outside while standing six feet apart. Little did we know that those were merely the early days of social distancing.”
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Phillies pitcher Seranthony Dominguez suffered an injury setback days before MLB shutdown spring training in March.
— Sports columnist
“I had been at the Flyers-Bruins game the night before. The atmosphere and the attitudes of the players and fans were so different then and evolved so much over the subsequent 24 hours. I spent all day massaging and reworking my column to keep up with how fast things were changing.”
— Soccer writer
“As the sun set on March 11, I had just finished watching two UEFA Champions League games that were harbingers of the pandemic’s effect. Paris Saint-Germain hosted Borussia Dortmund, behind closed doors because the virus was starting to hit France. But it didn’t stop hundreds of PSG fans from congregating outside the stadium, with lockdown orders not in effect yet.“The other game was Liverpool hosting Atlético Madrid, a game that had fans in attendance — a jam-packed crowd, in fact — and has since been examined to see if it fueled the virus’ spread in England.”
— Hockey writer
“Instead of going into the locker room following practice, the media met Flyers coach Alain Vigneault and some players in an upstairs room generally reserved for more formal press conferences.”“Prior to the Flyers’ game against Boston the night before [March 10], a long table had been set up in the narrow hallway where the locker rooms are in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center. The idea was to give reporters and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy a measure of social distancing during his pregame availability. It felt absurd at the time, but things were developing so quickly, that it was better than nothing.”
— Sports columnist
“I was at the Sixers-Pistons game that night. The workday began with Brett Brown holding a press conference from within the confines of a roped-off enclosure. The experience was what I imagine it feels like to go to the Philadelphia Zoo and shout questions at a giraffe, though a giraffe would probably have had more to say about Ben Simmons back injury.“What I remember most of all is walking around the Wells Fargo Center and, for the first time in my life, thinking about how many different people touch surfaces like doorknobs, seatbacks, etc. I felt like What About Bob, and may have suffered irreparable psychological harm had I covered another game in such circumstances.”
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
The Sixers played their last game of the season against the Pistons on March 11.
— College writer
“I had contributed to what turned out to be a couple of different stories about the decision reached late that day to hold the NCAA tournament without fans. A shocker at the time, for that hour anyway. I had also written a short story about Andy Talley going into the College Football Hall of Fame.“I wanted to get to the Chester-Simon Gratz PIAA state playoff game for a future story but with each college league announcing something every hour, I got to O’Hara just before game time, parking lot already packed, gym full. Walking in, I saw a football coach I’d known for a couple of decades and he reached out his hand for a shake. I shook my head, told him I was done with handshakes. He gave me a funny look. I touched base with Phil Anastasia at the press table, then sat at the top of the bleachers with a coach I knew. He made room for me and we exchanged elbow bumps.”
— High school writer
“One of the most surreal nights of my career. First, the game. Chester vs. Gratz in the PIAA 6A second round with half the city of Chester, it seemed, in the stands at O’Hara. And for good reason — Chester players decided that day to play even though sophomore Edward Harmon had been shot and killed the day before. They draped his jersey over a chair at the end of the bench."The end of the game was insane. Chester won 63-62 when senior Zahmir Carroll beat the buzzer with an off-balanced three-pointer that brought Chester fans pouring on the court in celebration.”
Zahmir Carroll hits a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to lift Chester past Simon Gratz in a PIAA state playoff game on March 11. (PHIL ANASTASIA / Staff)
— Sixers writer
“Some of March 11 remains a blur to me. I don’t even want to relive that day. I did cover that night’s 76ers vs. Pistons game at the Wells Fargo Center.”
— College writer
“The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden began as scheduled on Wednesday night, March 11, and I watched the two games from my home. During the nightcap between DePaul and Xavier, the conference announced that the remainder of the tournament would be played under a “restricted attendance policy,” meaning each school would be limited to 200 tickets, mainly family members of the players.”
— General assignment writer
"On March 11, I busied myself with in-person interviews for an enterprise story. In between, I checked my phone for virus updates. I was starting to get concerned, though I wouldn’t admit it. I talked myself out of the anxiety, employing a healthy journalistic skepticism about how much our lives could really change. I thought at most leagues would start playing games without fans.”
“The sports desk is pretty hectic most nights, with late game stories rolling in, updates being made to existing stories, and, ahem, writers calling in corrections as we try to keep the website up to the minute while also putting out the next morning’s paper. March 11 was a little busier than usual, with all the college basketball tournament cancellations coming in one by one.”
“The thought of basketball, under any circumstance, all but went away during that game. That’s when we learned the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder contest was canceled right before tipoff due to Jazz center Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. PhillyVoice reporter Kyle Neubeck, seated to my immediate right on press row, kept me informed of all the Twitter updates. That’s how I found out about Gobert.”
DUANE BURLESON / AP
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's positive test triggered the NBA's immediate suspension.
“At around 9:15 p.m., the Sixers beat the Pistons — a game I’d planned to attend, but did not, heeding my own advice. At around 9:30 news broke that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for coronavirus. I immediately looked up the Sixers’ and Pistons’ past schedules. The Pistons had played the Jazz four days prior. My heart sank. Within eight days of March 11, at least one Piston and three Sixers employees had tested positive.”
“The Inquirer/Daily News copy desk scrambled to keep up with the developments. I worked with Marcus Hayes to update his column three or four times before realizing it really needed a rewrite. Marcus came to the same conclusion and revised and recast it less than an hour before deadline.”
“Afterward, it felt like the ground was moving under our feet. I remember Delco Times reporter Terry Toohey telling me Tom Hanks was positive. Then somebody else mentioned Rudy Gobert. Then somebody else said the NBA was shutting down.”
“Gobert’s positive test led to the league announcing the season would be suspended shortly after the conclusion of the Sixers/Pistons game.“The next two hours were a blur. I didn’t have time to think. My focus was on making deadline. But after leaving the building, I do recall sitting in my car in a vacant arena parking lot in shock while trying to get a better understanding of our new reality.”
“That night, I couldn’t stop checking my phone. When I saw the initial report about Rudy Gobert on Twitter, I said, ‘Oh my God’ out loud. It didn’t seem real. I knew then that everything was going to change.”
— Sixers writer
“Sixers coach Brett Brown and GM Elton Brand answered a total of three postgame questions, both barely able to find the words to describe their emotions.“I stumbled doing a postgame video with Keith Pompey, overcome by the enormity of the situation.“As I departed the arena well past 1 a.m., there was a fear of the unknown at the time and an empty feeling that has yet to go away.”
“At night, the U.S. women’s team played its last game in the SheBelieves Cup, against Japan in Frisco, Texas. The virus was starting to hit a few parts of the country, with teams on the West Coast moving games behind closed doors and pressure rising on others to follow suit.“By the final whistle, there was a widespread sense that it would be the last soccer game anyone would watch on American soil for a while. The next day, soccer leagues worldwide shut down.”
JEFFREY MCWHORTER / AP
U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn (4), forward Lynn Williams (13), and teammates acknowledge fans after beating Japan in the SheBelieves Cup on March 11. Soccer leagues around the world began shutting down the next day.
“I called the desk right after the Chester-Gratz game, since I’d just gotten a text that the A-10 tournament would play the next day without fans. ‘Got it, I’ll go back into the story for the seventh time,’ Nick Cristiano said, very calmly, talking about a story with all the NCAA changes. Nick added, just as calmly, ‘The NBA just suspended all play. Rudy Gobert tested positive.’“I think I said, ‘Holy s—,’ then repeated the news when I got off the phone. A man I didn’t know said, ‘The PIAA isn’t suspending play.’ He wasn’t being sarcastic. He meant the PIAA tournament would play on. In fact, while it took some time to sort that out, it was over.”
— College writer
“That Wednesday was the first day of the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. The increased concern was felt throughout the city. New York’s Penn Station shockingly looked like the middle of the desert, but basketball went on with minimal restrictions. Since it was the first day of the tournament, the crowd was light in the Barclays Center. The games that Wednesday were played before Rudy Gobert’s diagnosis went public. However, the tournament announced that it would go on without fans.”
“I walked over to a Chester player who was talking about the crazy ending to the game and the tragic events of the week. When the interview was over, he stuck his hand out to shake. My split-second calculation after listening to him say what it was like to play a basketball game the day after his teammate had been murdered … I shook his hand, then walked right out the door to my car. It was the last hand I’ve shaken in 10 weeks.”
“I was doing layout that night. Circumstances were changing almost by the minute it seemed, so stories had to be updated repeatedly. Just after 9:30 p.m., Nick Tricome, who was doing agate that night, yells ‘The NBA just suspended its season.’“ ‘Damn it,’ I said, knowing more changes were coming.“I guess it hit me that sports were pausing and this was serious when I had to change the label from the Sixers game. It said, ‘76ERS 124 | PISTONS 106. Next: Vs. Pacers | Saturday at 7:30 p.m. | NBCSP.’ And then instead of the second line for the next game, I simply typed ‘Season Suspended.’ ”
Inquirer Sports front March 12, 2020
“It seemed like a weird dream. I thought about being in the middle of that crowd in the revelry after the game — it was like a mosh pit on the court — and was immediately convinced I must have caught it. That was a Wednesday. On two separate nights during the following week, I woke up in the middle of the night with teeth-chattering chills. No other symptoms. Was that coronavirus trying to sink its hooks into me? The regular flu? Some other bug? I still don’t know.”
— General assignment reporter
“Before they went to school that morning, their last day of fifth grade as it turned out, I told our 10-year-old grandkids the NBA news. The question they asked was one I’ve heard 1,125 times in the 10 weeks since: ‘When will they be back?’ Sadly, the answer hasn’t changed.”
“I woke up the next morning trying to figure out the right time to leave for New York. I knew I’d have to get there well before the 7 p.m. start of Villanova’s opening game against DePaul. But in the middle of the morning, the announcements began, one by one, conferences throughout the nation were canceling their tournaments.“Meanwhile, the Big East began its first game of the day at noon between Creighton and St. John’s ...”
MARY ALTAFFER / AP
Fans react after the game between St. John's and Creighton in the quarterfinal of the Big East men's tournament was canceled at halftime on March 12.
“I was writing from my spring-training condo when I heard the news about Rudy Gobert. Baseball had little choice, I figured, other than to suspend spring training. Matt Breen took the road trip to Port Charlotte on March 12; I stayed back at the Phillies’ complex to report on Dominguez. I recall seeing John Middleton and Andy MacPhail having lunch in the media dining room. Middleton said he was surprised I didn’t travel to the Phillies game against the Rays; I told him I suspected there would be more news away from the field. He smiled, sort of knowingly. Shortly thereafter, Middleton got on a conference call in which it was determined that MLB would halt spring training.”
— Phillies writer
“I went to the ballpark in Clearwater that morning pretty much knowing that MLB would follow the NBA’s lead and postpone its season. But we didn’t know when that would happen. Watched the Phillies bus leave for Port Charlotte and carpooled with three other writers. We had a conference call with Matt Klentak on the way, asking him if he thought the bullpen was deep enough to overcome Seranthony Dominguez being injured the day before. It felt silly even talking about it, since we were pretty sure the season wouldn’t start on time.”
“The Flyers canceled their morning skate in Tampa, and a short time later, the season was put on pause. I went to the Flyers’ hotel in Tampa — they had been scheduled to play the Lightning − and got some comments from the players and GM Chuck Fletcher.“At the time, most of us didn’t realize the severity of the virus. In a poll I created on Twitter before the NHL’s announcement, 55 percent of the nearly 5,000 participants said the league should NOT suspend the season. [They were undoubtedly influenced by the Flyers’ nine wins in their last 10 games.]“I boarded a packed plane back to Philly. There were no masks, no panic, no empty seats.”
“The conference tournaments were being postponed while we drove and the NHL canceled morning skates. But baseball was still going through with games that day. Phil Gosselin asked us in the dugout before the game if we knew if the Phillies were going to play. No one knew anything.“The game started and MLB announced during the game that spring training was canceled and the season was delayed. But the game still went on and finished. It’s the final sporting event played by a Philadelphia team. Looking back, it was so strange. We booked early trips back to Philadelphia before carpooling back to Clearwater. I don’t think those quotes from the Matt Klentak conference call ever saw print.”
“The A-10 was canceled on Thursday morning. It was a drastic shift in about 12 hours. I left the Barclays Center, contacted my editors, and jumped on the next train at about noon and went straight to the Philadelphia Inquirer building to help with the constant breaking news of conference tournament cancellations. It was March madness, but not the one we all anticipated.”
FRANK FRANKLIN II / AP
People line up for a mobile food pantry at Barclays Center on April 24 in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
“Once the city made it known that large gatherings would be prohibited, commissioner Val Ackerman pulled the plug at halftime of the [Creighton-St. John’s] game.“I had left my home around 12:45 p.m. for the drive to New York but 20 minutes later, WFAN-AM announced that the tournament had been canceled. When I heard, I was within a mile of the Fort Washington exit of the turnpike, got off, turned around and returned home.”
“Denise Dillon, then Drexel’s women’s coach [now the same at Villanova], called from North Carolina, where her team was told four minutes before tipoff in the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament that they wouldn’t be playing.”
“Villanova left New York literally minutes after the announcement and arrived back at campus around 3:45 p.m. Jay Wright spoke to maybe eight or 10 media folks in front of the Davis Center, then continued his chat with us after the tape recorders and cameras were turned off. After about a minute of small talk, KYW’s Ed Benkin looked at his phone and announced, “The NCAA has canceled its men’s and women’s tournaments.“Tape recorders and cameras clicked back on, and Jay gave us another 3-4 minutes before taking his team back into the locker room at Davis to speak with his stunned players. That was it.”
“Mid-afternoon, I heard on the radio that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had pulled the Blue Devils out of all postseason play ... I thought, ‘That’s the end of the NCAA Tournament,’ and sure enough, after the NCAA honchos tried desperately to salvage at least a 16-team tourney, the whole shebang was shut down.”
“Thursday, March 12, was the last night I worked in the newsroom, and we all had a feeling that this would be the capper.“We had our usual budget meeting for the desk, making sure we all stayed far apart at the conference table. The Big East Tournament had been called off at halftime of the earliest game that day. Then the NCAA Tournament was called off and the NHL suspended its season and baseball canceled the rest of spring training. The only sport left was golf, and we knew it was only a matter of time before that was scrapped as well.“The overarching headline at the top of the page: GAME OVER. I didn't take any joy writing that headline, but it told the story.”
Inquirer Sports front March 13, 2020.
— Baseball columnist
“I spent that entire week wondering and worrying if I’d be getting on my scheduled Sunday flight to Clearwater for the end of spring training and the start of the season in Miami.“That Thursday I got my answer and I felt sick to my stomach about what was happening. I’m still feeling sick. I’ve watched my daughter lose her job, two nephews lose their college baseball seasons, one niece lose her high school senior season of softball and another niece get the coronavirus while working as a nurse at Einstein Hospital. She is OK and so is everybody else. I thought on that Thursday that this was going to be bad. I had no idea it would be this bad.”