Going on pause has become a part of life in college basketball. On any given day, a handful of schools will announce a positive COVID-19 test in their program and “pause” activities for anywhere from seven to 14 days before getting back on the floor.
UC Davis’s pause, however, was anything but ordinary. Instead of the typical two weeks, it lasted more than a month and a half. It also wasn’t triggered by a positive test or contact tracing: Both the Aggies’ men’s and women’s basketball programs haven’t had a single case since returning to campus last summer.
But just 10 days into the new season, amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across California, a new Yolo County health order forced UC Davis to shut down athletic competition indefinitely. The order was stronger than the more well-known one issued in Santa Clara County because it prohibited competition by UC Davis both inside and outside the county. So while schools like Stanford and San Jose State relocated athletic teams and continued their schedules, the Aggies were stuck in limbo.
“It was a considerable blow, obviously, to the players,” men’s head coach Jim Les says. “They had been extraordinarily disciplined in their behavior, on and off the floor, to put themselves in that position [to play].”
When Les’s team first shut down following a Dec. 4 matchup with William Jessup, players weren’t even allowed in the gym. The rims at the outdoor courts on campus had been taken down. The only permitted workouts on campus were outdoor strength training exercises with masks on. But that wasn’t enough to fulfill the team’s basketball fix, so players scoured the surrounding community for anywhere they could get shots up.
“Guys were dropping messages in our group chat like ‘just found a court, it’s over at the elementary school,’ ” junior guard Caleb Fuller says. “It was literally like a discovery if you found a nice hoop with a level surface.”
On Dec. 15, the team was allowed to restart practice—but only if it wore masks at all times and took daily antigen tests. Some players went home for a few days before the holidays, while those from further away stuck around the area. Fuller, who is from England, stayed in town and said he passed the time by playing cards for three or more hours a day against his teammates and keeping score. Sophomore point guard Ezra Manjon headed home, but had to be back on campus by Christmas Eve to begin quarantining because the team hoped to play a game during the first week of January. When that game was canceled, players who had been upbeat throughout the shutdown started to get frustrated.
“That was probably the toughest moment for me, and I know for a couple of the other guys [too],” Manjon says.
“The whole team sacrificed their Christmas with their families so we could play that game,” adds Fuller. “That was a real backbreaker.”
Knowing the toll it took watching the rest of the country play while his team was on indefinite pause, Les set out to find ways to make sure his team was having fun. One day, Les and his staff surprised the team after a sand workout with beach volleyball—and it got competitive.
“What the student-athletes were missing was competing and getting after it,” Les said. “They didn't have that game at the end of the week to prep for, which gives you the motivation to go in the gym and work hard.”
Manjon points out another avenue that allowed the team to compete: ping-pong.
“We got a ping-pong table, so we’ve been playing ping-pong competitively against some of the guys,” Manjon says. “We’re still super competitive.”
After going six weeks without a game and no end in sight, the team finally got the go-ahead from Yolo County officials on Jan. 12 to return to competition the following week. The news came at a critical juncture, because it gave the Aggies enough time to squeeze in the 13 games against Division I competition necessary to qualify for the NCAA tournament, should they win the Big West tourney. Les called a team Zoom meeting that night but didn’t tell the players beforehand what the call was about. When he surprised them with the news, the team was overjoyed.
“We were all just super happy,” Manjon recalls. “We were just really antsy to get back on the court.”
“There was definitely a pep in their step that next day at practice,” says Les.
There was one catch that came with the approval: no flying. UC Davis is the northernmost program in the conference, while the team’s first opponent, UC San Diego, is the farthest south in California (the league also includes Hawaii, whom the Aggies aren’t scheduled to play until March). The only way for them to play the two games was to take a 500-plus mile bus ride each way. They were undeterred.
“I think the majority of our program would have walked to get there and have that opportunity to compete,” says Les.
Two games between the teams were scheduled for back-to-back days on Friday and Saturday. Saturday’s game was moved up to an early afternoon tip to give UC Davis time to bus back home at a reasonable hour postgame. But the return to the court after seven weeks didn’t go as planned: The Aggies were blown out 89–69 in Friday’s game.
“We had a tough team meeting after the game,” Fuller says. “When we came out for the second game, we were all on the same page and knew that what happened in the first game wasn’t acceptable. And if there were any signs of that we knew to to stomp it out.”
Despite tired legs as the team attempted to get back into game shape, the Aggies put together a much better performance in game two and won, 78–71.
“We did not want to ride [home] being 0–2 on that bus ride,” said Les. “I thought the guys really played a high-level game and fought through the fatigue.”
The long trip home was a lot sweeter after a win. Several players teamed up to buy the Conor McGregor–vs.–Dustin Poirier fight that night on pay-per-view and gathered in a circle to watch and pass the time.
“We were debating about who would be able to fight who and would you last 30 seconds in the ring with Conor and stuff like that,” says Fuller. “My competitive self, I was saying that I'd be able to last 60 seconds. That filled up a good chunk of the trip.”
Now, the real work begins. The Aggies are currently scheduled to play two games every weekend except for one for the rest of the season, though schedules are written in pencil rather than pen in this COVID-19-disrupted year. Despite all the missed games, the end goal remains the same: win the Big West tournament.
“We keep telling them the biggest prize is still on the horizon,” Les says. “And that's us going to the conference tournament and playing for an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.”