Coming up on the first anniversary of when the world as we know it changed in a dramatic way, I was debating whether to do a blog on the impact of our ongoing battle with the COVID-19 virus that stopped first the sports world, and then the country at large in its tracks at this time last year. I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to look for coverage of the one-year anniversary, but ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast on March 11 was quite good and worth the hour listen. March 11, 2020 for this generation was as symbolic as September 11, 2001 for the last generation and even more so in a lot of respects. Anyone like me who’s lived through both knows there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences – it’s not worth going through all of them here. Both were truly shocking and rocked our collective belief in being safe and secure. Of course September 11, for as horrific as it was still didn’t change as many people’s daily lives in as many ways as the pandemic has over this last year.
You need to only look at sports as a prism for this difference. Just ten days after the attack on the twin towers, there was a baseball game in a packed stadium in New York City. One made truly iconic, magical even by Mike Piazza’s game-winning HR that started the healing of millions of grieving citizens, for mostly intangible reasons that are hard to put into words. Of course you still couldn’t help but feel a difference in the air that September and October as both baseball teams played on with increased security and reverence for our police and firefighters. While the Mets’ season ended after September, the Yankees went back to the World Series leading to another breathtaking moment before Game 3 when then-president Bush stood on the mound alone, giving a still-grieving nation a defiant thumbs up before throwing a first pitch strike to the cheers of a sold out Yankee Stadium.
Of course, sports’ return to the field last year wasn’t so easy or cathartic.
It wasn’t even a sure thing that sports would return after the events of early March. Just like people of generation X will never forget where they were and what they were doing when the world stopped on September 11, 2001 – people won’t soon forget what they were doing on March 11, 2020 either. Sure, we had a bit of a warning this was coming unlike what happened in 2001 but it was a really slow rampup to where we got in one crazy day. Outside of sports, you had the WHO officially calling the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic earlier that afternoon. That evening, acting icon Tom Hanks announced he and his wife both had the virus. Those two things alone might have started our collective alarm bells sounding, but for a lot of people nothing hit harder than when the NBA canceled its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19, and everyone realized all sports (and a lot of other entertainment) would necessarily have to follow soon enough.
I know I sure wasn’t taking this virus as seriously as we all would be taking it a couple of days later. The night before the country stopped, I was out at a packed bar doing trivia with a couple of my friends and hugged them both hello (one was a little nervous about the virus, the other wasn’t yet), the way I’d done on Mondays or Tuesdays for many weeks before that. Actually, I had already gone to the Devils game against the Penguins but my friends Kyle and Justine wanted to do trivia at the last minute and I would rather have done that then be at another meaningless game by myself, even if the Devils were playing better then. So I pulled a first and left the arena soon after arriving to go see my friends instead. I did at least make the right decision on that score as it turned out, considering the Devils lost 5-2 and I wouldn’t see either of them for a few months after that night. My last official game was thus on the 9th last year, when the Devils actually beat the Blues.
Part of our collective naivete was that we just didn’t know the extent of how much the virus was already here. After all, we didn’t have rapid testing then or for weeks after. One of my older friends (a Devils season ticket holder) recently told me he and his wife probably had the virus a couple weeks before the pause but were never tested for it. Don’t get me wrong, I did get the sense when I left the Rock for the final time on the 10th to head off to trivia that I might not be back for a while, with teams like the Sharks and NBA’s Warriors already announcing they wouldn’t have fans in the building for their upcoming games. I thought we were headed for a imminent future where we’d have to play sports in empty buildings. I didn’t fully comprehend the possibility there might not BE sports at all, or a lot of other things we take for granted in daily life such as hanging out and being social, or going for rides on crowded subways. I love going to NYC but I can’t rightly remember the last time I was there, perhaps it was for a Met game in July or August of 2019, or a random trip to the city soon after.
On March 11 itself I was at home when all this news came down the pike, learning about it mostly through seeing stuff on Twitter through the prism of the NBA game in Oklahoma City that got postponed, and would instantaneously lead to the pause of the entire NBA season. It was a surreal atmosphere considering other NBA and NHL games were being played that night. Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban’s visceral on-camera reaction in real time was fitting for a whole nation in shock.
With the NBA season on pause, the NHL followed suit the next afternoon – today is that dubious anniversary, in fact. So did March Madness and other major sports although I have to give a tip of the cap to Wimbledon which actually insured itself against a global pandemic so they didn’t feel the pinch like the rest of sports did having games canceled and fans barred from buildings. Over the last year we’ve learned more than we ever wanted to about mask wearing, social distancing and the differences between indoor transmission and outdoor transmission. Not to mention the merits of Zoom.
We also learned about bubbles in large part because of the NBA and NHL, which both returned to empty buildings in secure locations to hold its respective 2020 postseasons. Many NBA and NHL teams returned last summer to muted anticipation and champions were crowned, but for the also rans like us who didn’t have bubble basketball or hockey it would be a much longer wait. We all learned to make do in different ways. One of my unexpected favorite things about having no live sports is when sports shows, which had nothing other than the NFL offseason to cover figured out they could use memory lane (discussing old games with guests) as a way to both fill airtime and provide entertainment to the fans. As someone who likes sports history this was right down my alley.
This isn’t to minimize all we’ve gone without since that day. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones like me who haven’t gotten the virus or lost any loved ones to the disease yet, there is going to be an incalculable mental and emotional toll to account for once this is all over, to varying degrees for everyone. At least it does feel like there’s an end coming in the not too distant future with the president’s announcement yesterday that all states are being instructed to make vaccines available to the population at large by May 1. That’s not to say we’ll all be vaccinated then or soon after, I’m sure the line’ll be long and annoying even with a (too high) number of anti-vaxxers who won’t bother to get it, but it’ll be worth the hassle of trying to get the vaccine to get past this so that in 2022 we won’t still be talking about restrictions and social distancing.