On Friday morning, a few long 3-pointers from the Ryan Center, where I go for dozens of games and media scrums every year, I sat in my car and stared at the bag hooked under my windshield wipers, biohazard symbol emblazoned on it.
I was there for a drive-thru COVID-19 test, which thankfully came back negative. I was a little under the weather, but knew it was likely due to underlying lung issues. I have a relatively mild form of cystic fibrosis and actually wasn’t diagnosed until a few years ago, but it causes damage to my lungs and puts me in the vulnerable population these days. My doctor wanted to be sure. Fortunately, my low-grade fever and cough was just a poorly-timed exacerbation and not COVID-19.
Since I wasn’t too worried as I sat in line for the testing, I was struck mostly by how surreal it all was. The Rhode Island National Guard runs the test site, so there’s a distinct military feel. Everything is tightly controlled, signs directing you not to roll down your windows when speaking to soldiers. You show your driver’s license, they check for your referral in the system and then you line up for the testing tent. I noticed drivers in other cars wearing masks.
On top of everything, it was happening in the Plains Road parking lot. Just a month earlier, I walked to my car in that lot after midnight, following URI’s last men’s basketball home game of the season. It wasn’t that long ago, but on Friday morning, it felt worlds away.
I knew of the coronavirus on March 4, when I watched the Rams play against Dayton. I had been reading about it since January, when it also felt worlds away. In the 10 days after that URI-Dayton game, it hit closer and closer to everybody’s home, particularly as news cascaded in from the sports world. I drove the back roads to URI on March 10, the same route I took Friday, amid word of the Ivy League’s basketball tournament cancellation. At media availability, the Rams were asked hypothetical questions about playing with no fans. I was finalizing plans to cover the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn. The next day, the hypothetical became reality – and then reality was blown up.
Impacts have been so far-reaching, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. Health, obviously. Job losses. Social distancing. Online learning for students. Sports sit far down the list, but their absence, for a lot of people, hammers home the strange trip it’s been.
I don’t watch nearly as much sports as I used to – when you cover six or seven games a week, you kind of want to do something different when you get home. And a 10-month-old baby provides endless entertainment in our house. But the past month has made me realize how much of an undertow sports remain for me. Scores, stories, a random college basketball game, fantasy baseball, late-night MLB audio from the West Coast – it’s all there, always, whenever I’m ready. Nevermind big events like the NCAA Tournament and its three weekends that rank as some of the year’s best.
I feel for those involved in sports, for whom the games are far more than an undercurrent. No, sports don’t matter in the big picture, but they matter a lot to the people who play them. I can’t imagine the feeling of canceled seasons, called off tournaments and suddenly halted careers. The uncertainty so many high school athletes are facing. Everybody understands. Nobody feels good about it.
I’ve been writing a lot about reactions to cancellations and plans for what’s to come. The sports section goes on, even when the games don’t, but there’s a certain detachment without the drumbeat of the sports calendar.
Sports remained far away as I sat there in the parking lot. Thoughts and emotions raced through my mind. I wanted the people in the cars around me to be OK. I hoped this would all be over as quickly as possible. I felt gratitude for the National Guard soldiers, huddled against a cold rain, that familiar Kingston wind cranking around them. I worried about those who are seriously ill.
And I hoped to be back in that parking lot for the usual reason.
When the 3-pointers are falling again, it’ll mean we’re back, changed by this maybe, impacted by it, but hopefully OK.