One year ago this week, COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt. Some of The Post’s sports reporters reflect on their experiences before all the leagues shut down.
By Marc Berman, Knicks beat writer
The Knicks players learned about Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test and the NBA’s decision to suspend the season during the third quarter of their game in Atlanta. They played the second half, then overtime, knowing the season was headed toward a hiatus.
The Knicks prevailed 136-131 behind Julius Randle’s 33 points. At the final buzzer, several Knicks, despite the recently employed pandemic protocols banning high-fives, hugged the retiring Vince Carter. They figured this was it for Carter — and the Knicks.
This was before Randle was the team’s leader, and the public relations staff trotted one player to the press room — Wayne Ellington.
“We wanted to go out on a good note,’’ Ellington said. “We’re waiting to hear what’s next.’’
The Knicks’ Delta charter was not headed to Miami for the next game. What came next was the Knicks quarantining overnight in their Atlanta hotel. They had faced Gobert’s Jazz a week before. Without any players showing symptoms, a bus arrived at their hotel at 3 p.m. and a Delta plane was found to take the team back to Westchester with its 21-45 record.
Knicks president Leon Rose paced around the bus on his cell phone, gathering information from the league. I watched the players and coaches board the bus, staying at a 10-foot distance. It was one year ago. Thanks to the magic of Zoom, I haven’t been within earshot of a Knicks player or coach since.
By Ken Davidoff, Baseball columnist
Spring training exists for players to get ready. For baseball reporters, though, it’s a great time of year to catch up — with contacts, specifically, while you’re all in the same state, before the flurry of the regular season envelops you.
On March 11, 2020, I took a contact to dinner at a Cuban restaurant in Tampa. We were out for about two hours. I didn’t check my phone at all. And when I returned to my hotel room, well, that’s when the real catching up began.
I can still remember feeling my jaw drop, spiritually if not literally, as I digested what had gone down in such a short amount of time:
The Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The NBA suspended its season.
Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for COVID-19!
I spent six more days working in Tampa, and I recall that time vividly, even as I feel like I was wandering in a daze, like Will Smith’s character in “I Am Legend,” for the entire time. “Rapidly evolving story” doesn’t do justice to the dizzying array of developments that occupied our time, from the shutting down of Major League Baseball to a Yankees minor leaguer contracting the coronavirus (the first ballplayer to do so) to the Yankees players vowing to stay in town together and abandoning that vow within 48 hours, to my serendipitous encounter with a Mets minor leaguer, making his way back home to Iowa after being instructed to leave Port St. Lucie, at a ballfield in St. Petersburg.
On the 17th, with a flight home booked for the late afternoon, I made one last stop at George M. Steinbrenner Field. We assumed our usual places by the player and staff parking lot, monitoring entrances and exits and hoping someone would stop and chat for a moment. We were all exhausted.
Right there and then, a bird pooped on my head. Message received: Time to get the heck out of Florida. I often feel like I’m still catching up from that insane week on the job.
By Brian Lewis, Nets beat writer
The NBA shut down a year ago today in a move that made COVID-19 seem real to many. It’s a day that seems like yesterday but feels like a decade ago.
I can remember having covered a Nets game against the Lakers in Los Angeles the night before, the first day of games when we were separated from players in what would become social distancing. Now I was flying to San Francisco to cover a game the next night against the Warriors, the first game scheduled to be played without fans.
It’s crazy to think that was a novel concept, one players I’d asked had scoffed at. But that’s where we were at that point, the virus something many could still ignore. And when the wheels of my Delta flight touched down, feeling good because we were 25 minutes early, that mood lasted only about 10 minutes.
Walking down the ramp to the gate, I looked at my phone to price an Uber and got a message from the NBA at 6:37 that the season had been suspended. Utah’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive at a game in Oklahoma City, and just like that, the season was shut down. And just like that, the present we knew became a before-COVID past.
I spent hours sitting at a baggage carousel, feverishly writing news story after news story on what this meant. And I started to realize I had no clue.
I remember calling people in the league, in the team office, asking about timelines and foreign players and getting scouts home amid a national emergency and travel ban that was coming. But as much as I’d been forewarned — people in the Nets’ Chinese-based ownership group had told me what they’d seen for months — I wasn’t forearmed.
Well, maybe a little.
Back when New Yorkers could pretend COVID was a California thing, I’d actually packed a mask. And after never wearing it a second on crowded flights to LAX or San Francisco, I remember feeling unease and putting in on as planeload after planeload of passengers came to what I’d commandeered as my office to pick up their bags.
I thought it was paranoia. It was just the new normal I never saw coming.
By Mike Puma, Mets beat writer
My annual one-week break from spring training was concluding at home in New York last March when sports went dark.
In those early days of the pandemic there was so much confusion. Would the Mets be sent home or continue working out in Port St. Lucie? With colleague Dan Martin leaving camp as part of a rotation that sent him to Tampa with the Yankees, I returned to Florida on the evening of March 13 unsure of the landscape.
Players were still reporting to Clover Park when I pulled into the parking lot the following day, but the complex was closed to the media. I parked down the street and watched from behind the fence at a back field as general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, with players and staff socially distanced, held a brief meeting. A short workout followed.
Hoping to speak with players, I waited near the exit to the complex as they departed. A few stopped. But I was informed they had been instructed not to speak about the situation.
At one point Van Wagenen pulled up and his window lowered. Here it was, I thought, some sort of insight into the Mets’ plans: “On my way to lunch,” Van Wagenen announced as he turned left and sped away.
I watched his car accelerate down the street. Suddenly, he pulled a U-turn. Now I’m thinking he’s had a change of heart and felt badly for the reporter standing on the corner and would answer a few questions, even on background. He turned into the parking lot: “I forgot to pick up Omar and Allard,” he said, referring to top lieutenants Omar Minaya and Allard Baird as he pulled away.
The futility continued for the next few days. Finally, the players were told to cease workouts. I flew back to New York on the evening of March 17 and spent the next 3 ½ months at home. It felt like 3 ½ years.
By Steve Serby, Sports columnist
There were no COVID-19 alarm bells ringing in Port St. Lucie at the beginning of last March, only hand-sanitizer stations inside the facility and recommendations about washing hands but not shaking them. I remember a few of us chatting with Post photographer Anthony Causi in the press room.
It would be the last time I saw our friend. Causi succumbed to the virus in April, and everyone misses him.
In a matter of days, the Big East Tournament would begin at the Garden, packed with college basketball fans cheering — not a mask in sight — as St. John’s defeated Georgetown.
The game was about to change — from NCAA and NBA and MLB and NHL and NFL and every other league to CDC and WHO.
Utah’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus.
That was the night they banged the Jazz-Thunder game and suspended the NBA season indefinitely.
I wondered whether it was too risky to cover the St. John’s-Creighton quarterfinal game at noon the next day. It had already been decreed that there would be no locker-room access, that interviews were to be conducted from a distance of 6-8 feet.
Most fans were no longer welcome.
It was with some trepidation that I picked up colleague Zach Braziller in Astoria and headed to the Garden.
We’ll never know how much virus was in the air, but there sure was uncertainty and apprehension.
Other conferences had already canceled their tournaments.
But the Big East was still deliberating, with city and health authorities.
It was all so eerie. The bounce of a basketball never sounded louder. The cheerleaders had no one to implore. It brought back memories of my days covering high school basketball in near-empty gyms. The band played on.
Whispers quickly began to circulate that the game could be canceled at halftime. And the announcement soon followed.
The media retreated to the press conference room where Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman tried her best to explain why the game had even started.
March Madness suddenly had a whole new meaning.
By Mollie Walker, Sports reporter
The headlines darted across my computer screen like shots out of a cannon. “Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell contracts COVID-19,” “Four Brooklyn Nets players test positive for coronavirus,” “NBA suspends season amid pandemic.”
I could suddenly feel a tightness in my lungs, a shortness of breath, one of the symptoms said to be associated with the virus that was swallowing up our country. I flashed back to when I was standing no more than a foot away from Mitchell in the Jazz locker room just days before when they faced the Knicks. I was so close I could see the sweat drying on his forehead. We exchanged breaths when I asked him my questions. There was no way I didn’t catch whatever he had.
Shaking those thoughts out of my head, I was transported to the Nets practice facility in Brooklyn, where I traveled a few days after standing in the Jazz locker room. I interviewed at least three players — were those the ones who caught the virus? How many things did I touch in the facility? When was the last time anything was cleaned?
My mind was racing. I had literally been right in the middle of the two NBA teams that had the first COVID-19 outbreaks that put the rest of the country on high alert. I was exposed. What was going to happen to me? To my mother, grandparents and friends I had seen in between?
Then my phone buzzed. It was the HR Department at the New York Post. “I’ve seen your recent bylines and who you’ve been in contact with,” the woman said as my throat tensed. “Are you OK?” I thought she was going to report me or that I was going to be thrown in isolation. But she was compassionate and warm and genuinely cared about my well-being.
This country just might survive this, I thought, if we maintain our humanity.
By Charles Wenzelberg, Chief photographer
There was a strange feeling for sure.
It was noon on Thursday, March, 12, 2020. St. John’s was playing against Creighton in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. After allowing fans in the day before, only a handful were allowed in for the Thursday game, as the pandemic started to creep into our lives. Everyone working in the building was saying the same thing: Why are they still playing? Why haven’t they canceled the games like the other college tournaments?
Just the day before, there was a Garden full of fans for a big doubleheader, and that felt wrong. I will never forget that Wednesday. It would turn out to be the last time I saw my longtime friend, incredible photographer Anthony Causi, in person. Three days later he would be sick with COVID-19.
No one thought Thursday’s game would start, yet there I was sitting on the baseline, shoulder to shoulder with photographers on either side of me, wondering if they were infected with the virus or if I could be infecting them. Turns out the photographer on my left tested positive a few days later, and on Monday, March 16, I came down with a fever.
Before tipoff there was this feeling of, “Is this really happening?” The talk between photographers on the court that afternoon was not of buckets and the promise of these young players, but of uncertainty of the unknown. I watched the ref throw the ball in the air for tipoff and all that came to mind was, is this smart?
The first half was played in an eerily quiet Madison Square Garden. Sneakers screeching on the court seemed to be the loudest noise in the building. At the half, the teams went into the locker rooms and never returned to the court. The announcement that the game and tournament were canceled surprised no one. Uncertainty set in. I photographed the players leaving the building and hugging family members on West 33rd Street outside the Garden. No masks and no hugging people — it seems much longer than a year ago. A lifetime ago.