NEW YORK — Conor Crean saw the alerts coming in hot on his phone. The St. John’s senior saxophone player admits band members aren’t supposed to look at their phones during games, but he couldn’t avoid the incessant notifications.
Just before noon Eastern Time on Thursday, conference after conference began abruptly cancelling its respective basketball tournaments. The SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12—everyone, it seemed, across the country was doing it. Everyone except the Big East, whose quarterfinal matchup between St. John’s and Creighton at Madison Square Garden was still inexplicably underway on FS1 as the news started breaking.
“We just continued jamming,” says Crean. But in the back of his mind he knew it was only a matter of time before they would also be told to go home.
At halftime, they were. The Big East eventually fell in line with its league peers and threw in the towel, calling the tournament with one more half to play. A few hours later, the NCAA made the unprecedented and historic decision to cancel next week’s men’s and women’s tournaments, in addition to all remaining winter and spring championships due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’ll never forget this,” Crean says. “I’m a senior. This is my last game. We were nervous coming into the game. A bunch of [band members] didn’t come because of the coronavirus. They were afraid. Then to be here at the tournament when they cancelled it is something you’re never going to see again.”
As word trickled around the arena, fans looked at each other like “Now what?” The Garden PA system blared Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York,” followed by the Billy Joel classic, ‘New York State of Mind.’ Young students and older fans alike took selfies with the scoreboard while MSG officials tried to escort them out quickly. Arena workers, wearing gloves, piled up chairs and wiped down press conference microphones with Lysol wipes. As everyone filed out onto Seventh Avenue, figuring out where to go, New Yorkers walked by wearing masks over their faces.
“This is a crusher,” says John Paquette, who was attending his 30th Big East tournament as the league’s head of media relations.
The Big East was criticized for playing a half of basketball on Thursday instead of cancelling earlier in the day, especially since the Atlantic 10 made the call to cancel its tournament minutes before tipoff in Brooklyn at Barclays Center. Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman told reporters that she found out about the various tournament cancellations in real time following a previously scheduled meeting at 10 a.m., which included university presidents, athletic directors and an executive NCAA member. After the meeting, Ackerman saw news trickling out that league tournaments were getting cancelled from coast to coast. Before pulling the plug at MSG, however, she made some calls, conferring with a contact she had recently made in the Office of Emergency Management with the City of New York.
Without going into too much detail, Ackerman said she was told that New York City was planning to bring directives related to large gatherings as other cities and states have already done due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once she obtained that information, St. John's and Creighton had already tipped off. Instead of stopping play mid-half, she quickly mobilized a conference call with league presidents and athletic directors and made the decision to cancel the rest of the tournament beginning at halftime.
“It was our view that we didn’t feel like we needed a dramatic, pull-the-players-off-the-court-in-the-middle-of-the-game gesture,” Ackerman said. “We just literally didn’t think that another 15 or 20 minutes of game time was going to make that much a difference.”
At a news briefing Thursday evening, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state is banning gatherings of at least 500 people. Events at facilities that hold fewer than 500 people will have to reduce their capacities by half. Currently, New York has the second-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Cuomo sent the National Guard to New Rochelle, N.Y., about 17 miles north of Manhattan, to help with the nation’s biggest cluster of coronavirus cases.
While players from both teams were unavailable for comment after likely playing their last half of basketball this year, Creighton coach Greg McDermott spoke to a handful of reporters in a small room on the third floor of the Stewart Hotel across the street from the Garden. McDermott acknowledged he was “a little surprised we started the game” since there was some discussion of cancelling before tip. One of his kids even mouthed to him from his seat that the Big Ten and SEC had called it. Big East associate commissioner Stu Jackson delivered the official news to McDermott in the locker room at halftime.
“I would have felt better if they’d have pulled [the game] when we were up 24-17,” McDermott said, trying to keep the mood light. “Those are tough, hard decisions to make. I respect the way they handled it and am confident that they got all information they needed [to do so].”
It doesn’t matter now, but the latest bracketology had Creighton as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament after winning the Big East regular season title. The Blue Jays were projected to win their conference tournament as the top overall seed, but St. John's fans are claiming the win.
“The score at halftime was 38-35, St. John's so that means St. John's won,” says junior trumpet player Kendall Pierre. “I’m going to let the record know that right now.”
Before the conference and NCAA tournaments were officially canceled Thursday, the NCAA on Wednesday announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played in front of only essential staff and families. Conferences followed suit. Big East officials limited schools to 200 tickets per institution. In order to even get into Madison Square Garden, names had to be checked off a list at the entrance. This forced fans to flock to nearby bars and hotels to drink and watch instead. And it meant that 11-year-old Griffin Cripe, a diehard Blue Jays fan from Omaha, wouldn’t be able to attend his first Big East Tournament at MSG.
“I was really bummed out,” says Cripe, who ended up watching the half with his parents and older brother at a bar instead. “We came all the way here to do a lot of stuff in New York, but we also came here for Creighton.”
K.J. Ross, who flew in from Charlotte, N.C. to watch his nephew, Creighton star Ty-Shon Alexander, play, described how strange it was to sit behind the team bench and see nobody in the stands across the court.
“It was like an 8 a.m. AAU game,” Ross says.
This certainly beats the 1993 New York City blizzard that nearly canceled the Big East championship game, Paquette says. They played in half-full arenas and it was nearly impossible to get in the city if you weren’t already there.
“There were limos outside of the Garden picking people up on Seventh Avenue,” Paquette says. “You could give the guy a $20 and go 10 blocks and get off. You’re sharing a ride with like 10 other random people. It was pretty bizarre.”
But definitely not as bizarre as what’s transpiring across the world now.