NBA players and legends like Magic Johnson took to Instagram to remind people to stay positive and stay safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.
It had been a surreal and unprecedented two days.
They were the days that were supposed to be the culmination of the first year of a prestigious posting for Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard. As a member of the Division I men’s basketball committee, he would be part of the process that set the foundation — the bracket — for one of sport’s cultural touchstones, the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, Pollard, the rest of the 10-person committee and the NCAA found itself tasked with making decisions that could alter — for good or ill — the trajectory of a global pandemic of the novel coronavirus in deciding the fate of a tournament that would host potentially hundreds of thousands of fans in 14 cities across the country.
Information flooded the environment with new statistics, directives, decisions and guidance seemingly changing by the hour.
Those two days in Manhattan already had delivered some of the boldest decisions ever made by the NCAA. The third day — Thursday (March 13) — would surpass them all.
“You went to bed Wednesday night thinking, ‘We aren’t playing,’” Pollard said. “I remember thinking that. ‘We aren’t playing.’”
USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon breaks down how NBA players using their voices to make an impact.
THURSDAY (March 12)
The NBA’s decision to halt its season was a turning point in the understanding of the severity of the situation facing not just the sports world, but the entire country.
If a multi-billion dollar league felt it necessary to immediately stop play with a positive test, it was clear how real the threat from coronavirus was. And by sheer numbers if an NBA player had contracted it, it was hard to fathom there wouldn’t be a participant — player, coach or staff — among the 68 NCAA tournament teams with the virus who would then be a candidate to spread the sickness.
By 12:30 p.m. ET, the basketball committee had voted unanimously to recommend the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament with a recommendation that all other sports be halted as well.
“We really only had say on basketball but there were several of us that said that we should use this opportunity to not let the other sports out there dangle because it will be a mess for all of us,” Pollard said. “During that time on Thursday, Iowa State had already announced we’re closed (for classes) until April 3.
“I remember saying to Danny Gavitt, the (NCAA) board has an opportunity now to fix a lot for all of us because if we just deal with basketball … it impacts all these sports differently and it will be easier if we can say, ‘Be done with all the sport competitions, we’ll heal faster because then we can focus on what we need to focus on rather than talking about every single sport.’”
Hours later, the NCAA announced its decision to stop its winter and spring sports championships.
“This isn’t about what we’re losing today, tomorrow or next week,” Pollard said. “We’ve got to think further than that. We’ve got this huge responsibility. Quite frankly, canceling that tournament, for the NCAA, for all institutions, you’re talking, depending on how things shake out with insurance, it could be three-quarters of a billion dollars that institutions aren’t going to get in distributions and the NCAA’s not going to be able to run future championships next year.
“It’s a lot of money, but it’s probably minuscule compared to what we’re talking about in our society, with stock markets and people losing jobs. We may look back in time that it was very symbolic that the NCAA and the NBA set in motion in the United States, but the economic impact of that decision, though huge in the moment, seems really small in totality.”
The severity and impact of the coronavirus across the globe has only grown since those decisions. Italy, France and Spain have all endured lockdowns. A number of states, including neighboring Illinois, have issued a shelter-in-place order to residents.
“Social distancing” is now a ubiquitous term in this country.
Undoubtedly, though, the decision to cancel the NCAA tournament — a national pastime, multi-billion dollar industry and cultural phenomenon — acted as something of a sobering siren to the serious nature of the situation.
“My overriding feeling during that 24-to-36-hour period was this huge sense of responsibility that I didn’t know I really had,” Pollard said. “This notion that we’re in denial about how serious this is when you looked at those charts from Italy and China.
“The basketball committee and the NBA had this responsibility of significance of really sending a message that we’ve got to take drastic measures. Drastic measures. That’s what I think back to.”