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Padding the Stats: A World Without Basketball

March 18, 2020

For a basketball junkie like me, March is the best month of the year. From conference tournaments to high school state basketball to the NCAA Tournament and more, this month is typically basketball overload.

But not this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a sudden halt to all the basketball that would typically consume our thoughts and fill our TV screens for the next few weeks. No conference tournaments, no Selection Sunday, no NCAA Tournament. Even the NBA, which extends into the summer, has been put on hold.

Nebraska’s season ended on Wednesday night before the cancellations began in earnest. But I was planning to cover the NCAA Tournament games in Omaha this week. It would have been the first tournament I’ve attended since the 2015 games in Omaha my senior year of college.

Perhaps even closer to home, I should have spent the last few days in a gym evaluating youth tryouts at Omaha Sports Academy. I’ve been coaching basketball for a decade now. I started when my brother, Jordan, was in third grade and coached him all the way through grade school. Once he got to high school, I found my way to OSA, and I’ve been coaching there in the spring and summer the last five years. The last two years, Jordan’s been helping me on the bench.

Last summer I coached a group of seniors-to-be, and I was supposed to start over again with a group of freshmen. Perhaps we’ll find a way to get back close to normal in time to save at least the July events, but I fear that might not be the case.

Every year I go from state basketball to OSA tryouts to OSA practices and tournaments which happen most weekends until mid-May. In June, I’m at high school summer leagues and tournaments all month. In July, I’m right back in the gym for AAU practices and tournaments. I gave up coaching in the fall and winter last year because I didn’t have the time, so coaching at OSA is a big deal for me. 

It’s an even bigger deal for the kids who rely on summer basketball to put themselves on college coaches’ radars. Currently, Hunter Sallis, Chucky Hepburn and Frankie Fidler are the the only players in Nebraska with Division I offers. Sallis has every offer he could want, and Hepburn is already committed to Wisconsin, so they’ll be fine. But what about everybody else in the 2021 class?

And what about the college players who were preparing to hear their schools called on Selection Sunday? What about teams like Rutgers and Penn State in the Big Ten who were poised to end long tournament droughts? What about teams like Dayton and San Diego State that had put together the kind of season we’re not likely to see again from those schools any time soon? What about seniors everywhere who saw their seasons end prematurely?

My heart breaks for all of them.

Obviously, this pandemic is much bigger than basketball. People are dying and many others are getting sick. The economic fallout could be devastating for a lot of people. This has also impacted pretty much every sport everywhere in the world. Shutting it all down was absolutely the right move.

But this is the part — besides worrying about my family and all the at-risk people that I know — that hits closest to home for me at this moment. As a sports writer covering the Huskers, spring football falls into that category as well. There are a lot of stories my colleagues and I were looking forward to exploring and telling this spring. 

All the bigger picture stuff will start to crystallize even further as time goes in, but right now, it’s all shock for me.

What are we going to do? What are we going to write about? How am I going to spend my free time?

I’ve pretty much been at home since Sunday. The only reason I’ve left my apartment is to take the trash out. I was planning to head over to Holy Ghost’s gym — one of my favorite places in the world — to kill some time and get some exercise by getting some shots up. I grew up in the Holy Ghost parish and have had a key to the gym for years. It’s always been a place I can go when I have nowhere else to be.

But I got a text on Tuesday afternoon letting me know that the gym was closed because of COVID-19. My Sunday night pick-up runs have already been canceled for the next couple weeks a a minimum. And the weather hasn’t exactly been nice enough recently to go outside and shoot at a nearby park. So basketball’s been taken from me pretty much anyway possible.

That’s why I’m so grateful that the NSAA was able to hold the boys state tournament last week, despite the mass of cancellations elsewhere in the country. Was it the right choice, even with limited crowds? I have no idea. I really, really hope we don’t hear about any serious health issues the come as a result of the tournament. But all I know is for those three days, I fully immersed myself in the last bit of live basketball I’m going to see in some time.

I’m thankful all of the high school players I’ve followed over the past four years who worked so hard all season long to qualify for state got the opportunity to finish things off on the court. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to be there court side to see them do it.

In the grand scheme of things, the loss of basketball is pretty insignificant compared to the rest of the fallout of this terrible pandemic that’s only just begun. Still, for my sports-obsessed and basketball-centric life, these necessary changes are leaving me with just one question.

What now?

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