Brendan Prunty, Vice President Public Relations
There’s a player’s lounge right off the floor, underneath the stands at Madison Square Garden. Usually during the week of the BIG EAST Tournament, it’s utilized as a green room area. There’s some scattered furniture, standard arena-decor-type stuff. On the one side of the room, the food is always set up in those silver clamshell-looking serving trays with the Sterno warmers underneath, keeping the food just warm enough that you’re enticed to eat far too much of it. Normally, a smattering of people will move in and out — players, officials, conference personnel — during the course of the day. It’s a room where you grab a quick plate, and leave. Despite its size, hardly anyone ever spends much time in there.
Except on the night of March 11, 2020.
Just before 9 p.m. there were more than a dozen people inside. BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman was seated alone on the couch against the wall, wearing a concerned expression only 37 minutes into the crown jewel of her conference’s year. Joel Fisher, the Garden’s main events man, stood to her right. Other officials from the conference and the Garden leaned against the countertop. Ackerman took a long pause, and exhaled loudly.
“I’ll be honest everybody,” she said, tapping her feet on the carpeted floor. “It doesn’t look good.”
Six hours earlier, we had walked into the building ready to begin our normal Spring routine of four days of basketball bliss at MSG. There was a nervous energy. Everyone in the building knew that the Coronavius that was racing around the globe was approaching our shores. It seems silly in retrospect to have thought what we did entering the building that night: We’ll get this whole thing in.
That was before we knew.
Before the world stopped.
It’s been a year of this. Of Zooms and birthday parades. Of virtual happy hours and remote learning. We wear masks all the time now. (Sometimes two.) We wash hands for 20 seconds. (Or more.) We hardly go anywhere, and if we do, it requires a couple of days quarantine and a 6-inch cotton swab tickling your brain for 15 seconds. And even then, it’s still … different.
We haven’t seen relatives or friends or coworkers. No hugs, handshakes or high-fives. We have watched as loved ones, friends, neighbors, strangers have battled this disease, or worse, succumbed to it. We have had that sinking feeling every time you feel “a little off” or have a sniffle or cough more than once in a day. This is the new reality now. The one we have lived with for 365 days. It seems comical that on March 12 — the last time we all saw each other in person — it felt like this would be over in a few weeks. Maybe a month. Definitely by summer. And yet here we are.
Or rather, here we aren’t.
In that room, among the buffalo chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, and stale pasta, I leaned against the side wall digesting Ackerman and the MSG brass huddling on how the BIG EAST Tournament could just … stop. Stop? The Big East? At MSG? I had been coming to this event in one form or another for 14 years, first covering the league, then working with them as a longtime DKC client. Ackerman stressed that the most important thing at that moment was making sure everyone — from the players in uniform all the way to the crews who clean the building after every game — was kept safe.
But it was clear, the end was coming. Putting thousands of people inside an arena was suddenly dangerous. As she talked through contingency plans for the night and the next day, someone interjected.
Um, they just pulled the Thunder and Jazz off the floor in Oklahoma City. They think some players have it.
More murmurs. More long faces. More inevitability.
This was our incubation point. The moment when things shifted. We would soon have a whole new vocabulary: PPE, PPP, PCR, “R naught,” self-isolation, “flatten the curve.” Work immediately transitioned online the next day or shortly thereafter for most of us. Walking down the street to the supermarket was an exercise in caution. (Cleaning groceries was an exercise, period.) As the days and weeks and months began to move on, there was a new normal.
Suddenly, kids and pets would make cameos on virtual meetings. Spouses or significant others would wander through our backgrounds. Our offices became the kitchen table or a kids bedroom, or, yes, even the basement. We learned to adapt to the new reality. We taught ourselves new things, jumped on new projects, expanded our comfort zones. In the hours spent to ourselves not drowning in the terribleness of the news or updates from our towns and cities about how many positives were discovered that day, we found solace in the things we had always put aside. The things we never had time for.
Riding that dusty old bike in the garage daily or learning how to bake sourdough bread or pick up that way-too-long book wasn’t supposed to happen like this. And yet, it did. The little treasures of this global chaos. The things that helped pass Spring into Summer into Fall into Winter, and now back into Spring.
All of that seems so, so far removed from a year ago on March 11.
As the meeting in the green room turned to what the options on the table were — options that dwindled seemingly by the minute, as everyone received more updates via their phones — the first game of the night lumbered toward its finish on the muted TVs Ackerman faced on the wall across the room from her.
St. John’s would beat Georgetown by 13, with a couple of thousand fans cheering them on. Once the meeting broke, with the agreement that things would be assessed in the morning, the first game had just concluded. St. John’s was coming off the floor, their only stop before the locker room being quick pumps of the hand sanitizer station, and Van Macon — one of the team’s assistant coaches — stopped me because he had overheard fans behind their bench saying something had happened in one of the NBA games. We talked briefly, and his lasting question would be one repeated often over the coming 12 months:
What do you think they’re going to do?
No one knew. Who could? How could we wrap our brains around full-time mask use, businesses and industries shut down or shuttered all together, weeks or months without person-to-person interaction? None of it seemed real. A few of us looked at Macon and shrugged. He chuckled, headed back into the locker room to pack up. After all, there was still a game scheduled for noon the next day. Like everyone else, it was business as usual until someone said otherwise.
We know what happened next.
Once the 9 o’clock hour hit, the news rush became a deluge. It was non-stop. Two Jazz players have it … Tom Hanks has it! … Trump is going to give an address from the Oval … The Iowa State coach was rushed to the hospital with a fever after his game … Trump just announced a travel ban … The NBA just canceled its season!
Less than 20 hours later, it would all be over.
A new reality was about to begin.