SEATTLE – For some reason, I looked at the small piece of paper one last time despite knowing that it represented $50 lost.
I knew what I had bet. I knew it was a loser with about 8 minutes left in the game.
As the final seconds ticked down on the massive scoreboard of Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, the combination of guilt from earned money lost and the anger at the Colorado Buffaloes for throwing out a stinker of a performance in the first round of the 2019-20 Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament – a 82-68 drubbing by the Washington State Cougars – left me irritated and itching to find a fast way to make that money back.
At least I was in the right place.
Meanwhile, my buddies, Alex and Mike, were high-fiving each other (probably the last high-fives they’ve made), celebrating the fact that they had bet on Washington State – a 10-point underdog.
It was March 11, 2020 – and we had just wagered on and watched the last completed college basketball game of the 2019-2020 season. The running joke later was that the Cougars winning a Pac-12 Tournament game – their first since the Tony Bennett era in 2009 – was so unexpected that it ended the season.
Of course, it was the novel coronavirus that ended the season. But in the moment, we didn’t know we’d watched the last game of the season. The degenerate gambler inside all of us had the group thinking about where we’d watch the fanless college hoops games during the rest of our stay in Vegas.
But we probably should’ve expected ending the season was a real possibility considering what had transpired in the 10 to 12 hours leading up to that last scheduled game and what would follow in the next 12 hours.
The last names aren’t important, but for the past seven or eight years, we have a mini-tradition of where a group of local sports media members and a couple of other friends gather in Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament.
For me, it’s a 3½-day reprieve from the daily grind of spring training and the only back-to-back days off until the All-Star break.
Due to typical procrastination, the first afternoon of the trip is spent writing stories that will be published while I’m gone.
But by midmorning of that Wednesday before leaving Peoria, Arizona, there was breaking Mariners news to write about with Gov. Jay Inslee scheduled to announce a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people due to the spread of COVID-19, which was officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization that morning.
It meant the Mariners’ opening-day game against the Rangers on March 26 would have to be moved or played without fans. The team had spent weeks researching and discussing contingency plans if the games couldn’t be played with fans at T-Mobile Park.
While it was never announced, sources indicated that the Mariners were ready to hold their opening series of the 2020 season in Arizona instead of games at T-Mobile Park without fans.
Team chairman John Stanton met with the media at the team’s Peoria complex to answer questions without having firm answers. By late afternoon, in the isolated den of iniquity that is Vegas, where no one knows what time it is or really cares, COVID still seemed more like an idea than a reality – even for people who were well aware of what was going on in Seattle.
There were plans to be made, bets to be placed, games to be watched, Shake Shack burgers to be consumed and a night of blackjack on the strip looming.
Even the news the Big Ten and Big 12 tournaments would play their remaining games on Thursday through Saturday without fans didn’t provide much more than a shoulder shrug. The games were still being played.
That thinking changed early in the first game of the night session at T-Mobile Arena. During what would eventually be a Cal upset of rival Stanford – causing Mike, a Cal grad, to buy us all beverages – the news that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive in Australia saturated Twitter.
Two major celebrities, well, one major celebrity and his not-quite-as-famous wife, had COVID. About two hours later, Twitter and ESPN alerts flooded phones with the news that just before tipoff between the Jazz and Thunder in Oklahoma City, the teams were pulled off the floor after Utah center Rudy Gobert had tested positive.
You could look around the arena and see people looking at their phones and then discussing the news with people next to them. The people in our group already check Twitter on their phones far too much. But now, we were constantly checking and relaying updates.
Following Cal’s win, the public-address announcer read a statement that was also shown on the scoreboard that starting the next day, the games in the Pac-12 Tournament would be played without fans.
Gobert’s positive test initiated a chain reaction in the sports world that we couldn’t fathom at the time. The Utah-OKC game was canceled. An hour later, there was a report the NBA would suspend the season immediately “until further notice.”
It led to a discussion among us if spring training would shut down or if the NCAA tourney would be delayed or even canceled. Of course, it also meant texting sources in baseball and the Mariners about the escalating situation.
There definitely was a subdued feeling later that night. We still held out hope of watching games without fans the next day, but it seemed like a less-than-stellar replacement. Also, several of us knew we’d be working and the nature of the subject we’d be covering.
The next morning we watched as the Big East foolishly let Creighton and St. John’s play the first half of a game that was wisely canceled at halftime.
In the span of the next four hours, MLS suspended its season, every conference basketball tournament was canceled, conferences began suspending all athletic activities, MLB announced the cancellation of all spring training games and would push back the start of the 2020 season by two weeks, Minor League Baseball announced the start to its season would be delayed and the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports championships.
It made for a somber and work-filled morning with a flight change to that evening to get back to Arizona and cover the Mariners’ situation on that Friday morning.
From a friend standpoint, the most frustrating aspect of the trip being diminished was its effect on our baseball-writing buddy Dan, who made the trip just months after his mother unexpectedly died following complications of a relatively routine surgery.
The hope was that friends and the Vegas trip could provide Dan, an annual attendee, a brief respite amid the pain and sadness. It hadn’t thus far, and now his professional life was thrown into COVID chaos with the similar need to get back to cover the situation.
To our group’s credit, it was mentioned that we needed to try and make what was left of that Thursday enjoyable for Dan, which we did. We all had fun, but it still wasn’t the same as in typical years.
Looking back after the months of social distancing and shutdown phases, I cherish that day and the unmasked and unburdened time spent with friends. And hey, we can all say we witnessed the final college basketball game of the 2019-2020 season.
Some people actually won money on it, too.
And I probably should have kept that losing betting slip.
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