At 5:37 p.m. on March 11, 2020, a game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz was postponed after Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19.
Nearly three hours later, and 1,100 miles away, Washington State defeated Colorado 82-68 in the opening round of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
It was the final college basketball game of the 2019-20 season — though WSU coach Kyle Smith didn’t know it at the time.
When it came to the novel coronavirus, no one knew enough.
“Somewhere in there Rudy Gobert contracted it, and that was shocking,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if someone like that can get it … ’ I just remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope he doesn’t die.’ We just didn’t know enough about it.”
In the pandemic’s infancy, information was elusive — so much so, in fact, that COVID-19 had been officially labeled a pandemic only hours before the Cougars took the court. That morning, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee restricted gatherings of more than 250 people (coincidentally, one year to the day before he announced Wednesday that fan attendance will be permitted at up to 25% capacity). At 6:02 p.m., then-President Donald Trump instituted a travel ban from Europe during an Oval Office address. At 6:08 p.m., Tom Hanks unveiled on Instagram that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for COVID-19.
At 6:31 p.m., the NBA suspended its season.
Two hours later, the Cougs and Buffs tipped off.
Smith went to bed that night preparing to play Arizona State in the Pac-12 quarterfinals the following evening, after his Cougs had dropped an 83-74 decision to the Sun Devils five days before. C.J. Elleby, Washington State’s former wing and now a Portland Trail Blazers rookie, said, “We thought we were going to have a chance at (beating) Arizona State.”
Instead, the Pac-12 tournament — and Elleby’s college career — ended abruptly at 9 a.m.
“We met in the morning (on March 12), and the players kind of already knew because of Twitter,” Smith said of the tournament’s cancellation. “It’s hard to keep any secrets. You can’t meet quick enough.
“We just said, ‘Hey, we’ll try to get our flights set. Just lay low. Stay in your rooms.’ There were still a lot of people in the hotel and most of them seemed kind of immune to the idea (of an ongoing pandemic). By the end of the day it was pretty telling, just seeing people start to thin out in the hotel and the casino.”
Still, Smith was in Las Vegas, and he suddenly had six hours to kill.
Only this time, he decided to ignore his initial instinct.
“At first it was like, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of (the free time).’ But then I was like, ‘You know what, maybe it’s not a good idea to be doing any casino activities,’ ” Smith said. “There weren’t masks. We didn’t know how you get it. I was like, ‘Should I touch the elevator button? No, I’ll use my card to touch the elevator buttons.’ You start freaking out a little bit.
“For me to use my key card to not touch the buttons was weird. I grew up kind of old-school in Texas, like ‘A little bit of dirt never hurt ya.’ That’s just how we were raised. We didn’t know what was coming.”
No one did — not the Sounders or the Mariners or the XFL’s Dragons, or the No. 2 Washington softball team. One year later, The Times spoke with members of five local teams about a day that steamrolled entire sports seasons and left a trail of uncomfortable questions behind.
“Now that it’s crept up on a year I just remember how poignant that day was,” Smith said. “It’s not 9/11, but it was one of those days where it was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ The world stopped for a second.”
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Seattle Mariners — MLB — Peoria, Arizona
The Grapefruit League games were the first to go.
On the morning of March 12, the Mariners were preparing for a Cactus League game — while rumors circulated that spring training in Florida had already been scrapped. According to utility man Dylan Moore, “We were hitting in the cage and everyone was talking about it. The rumor mill started going.”
And then everything stopped.
At 12:10 p.m., Major League Baseball announced that spring training had been suspended and opening day would be delayed by at least two weeks. In a team meeting, the Mariners watched Trump’s speech from the night before, and were told — at least, initially — that practices would continue.
“Every meeting that we had, there wasn’t a whole lot of information,” Moore said. “I remember (general manager) Jerry (Dipoto) standing in front of us and saying, ‘Hey, listen guys: I know what we can’t do, but I don’t have much information beyond that.’ ”
In a media session at the team facility, while pitchers continued throwing bullpen sessions in the background, Mariners chairman John Stanton said: “We are ultimately all people and we love the game of baseball. But this is a far bigger issue for all of us right now, and we are trying to work our way through it together. I believe this is going to be something that will have a lot more twists and turns to it.”
More than anyone could imagine.
On March 13, MLB suspended all spring training activities and announced that future workouts would be strictly voluntary. The Mariners prepared for informal, limited workouts with a skeletal staff.
By March 15, the league banned all group workouts, and the Mariners opted to close their complex altogether. Opening day was indefinitely delayed.
The players headed home — which was more difficult for Moore than most.
“My wife was pregnant at the time with our son, and I just didn’t want her getting on a plane, because I didn’t know anything about COVID,” said Moore, who was renting an Airbnb in Peoria with his wife and daughter. “But the first things we were figuring out were, we need to wear masks, and then also we needed to get away from (other people). So I was like, ‘Let’s just drive.’ ”
The only problem was the Moores live in Orlando — roughly 2,100 miles east of Peoria. They rented a U-Haul and drove for three days, stopping at hotels in Texas and Mississippi. Moore laughed and said he “wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Of course, the same can be said about most of 2020 — a marathon with myriad twists and turns. Still, in 38 games last summer, the 28-year-old Mariner hit .255 with eight home runs and 17 RBI — establishing himself as a possible fixture in the franchise’s future.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all U-Hauls (or elevator buttons).
“But it was just stressful,” Moore said of a memorable March and a three-day drive. “Because you asked the questions, and nobody knew the answers.”
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Seattle Sounders — MLS — Tukwila
Brian Schmetzer didn’t know the answers, either.
Before the Sounders’ 1-1 draw against Columbus on March 7, 2020, Schmetzer — Seattle’s sixth-year coach — exchanged text messages with Crew assistant and former colleague Ezra Hendrickson.
“(The Crew) were a little apprehensive, because Seattle was seen as this launching point for COVID,” Schmetzer said. “So Ezra was texting me a couple days before the game, saying, ‘Hey man, what’s going on in Seattle? Is it safe?’ I was texting him back like, ‘Well, yeah. It seems safe now.’ But things were moving in real time.”
In a dizzying five days, things didn’t stop moving.
On March 7, the Sounders drew against Columbus in front of 33,080 fans at then-CenturyLink Field.
On March 11, the Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes each postponed their next home match — originally scheduled for March 21.
On March 12, the Sounders practiced in the morning at their facility in Tukwila, with a flight to Houston tentatively scheduled for a few hours later.
“I think (Sounders senior vice president of communications Alex Caulfield) was there (at practice), and we were talking about canceling our flight to Houston, anyway,” Schmetzer said. “We were talking about, what if we’re in Houston and the country shuts down?”
But, minutes later, their discussion was made moot.
“I just remember you’re walking off the field, ready to do some press interviews,” Schmetzer said, “and all of a sudden your PR guy comes up and says, ‘Hey, you know what? You don’t have to do PR today, because the league shut down.’ ”
Initially, MLS suspended matches for 30 days … before finally restarting in an Orlando bubble nearly four months later. The Sounders ultimately fell one win short of defending their title.
They lost, perhaps fittingly, to the same Columbus Crew … in a match exactly nine months after the sports world stopped.
“It certainly was scary in many, many ways, as a 58-year-old guy,” Schmetzer said, recounting his emotions on March 12, 2020. “On a personal level, I don’t want to say you were apprehensive, but there were certainly some fears and questions. What’s going on? How’s this going to affect me? How’s this going to affect the Sounders? What about the players? It was a lot of mixed emotions on that day.”
He asked the questions, and nobody knew the answers.
“It was like, ‘Holy blank, this is really serious. This is happening. People are dying,’” Schmetzer said. “It was surreal. Because, look, there’s movies out there about pandemics. But you never really think it’s going to happen.”
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Washington Huskies softball — Pac-12 Conference — Seattle
Especially not when you’re 23-2.
On March 10, the Washington Huskies were the No. 2 team in the nation — with a home opener against Team USA scheduled for two days later. Heather Tarr’s team had national championship aspirations, multiple All-Americans and a Pac-12 season squarely in their sights. That day, UW and Team USA practiced in the Dempsey Center.
Barely 24 hours later, their season began to disintegrate.
“We found out that the USA team was gone,” UW senior utility player Noelle Hee said. “Our game had gotten canceled. They weren’t even in Seattle anymore.”
The cancellation was announced on March 11 at 9:05 p.m. Soon, their conference-opening series against Utah that weekend was canceled as well. At 1:16 p.m. on March 12, UW suspended all athletic activities through the end of spring break 17 days later.
The season, too, was suspended — though the Huskies held out hope.
“Time to fight for our students’ opportunities,” Tarr tweeted at 4:32 p.m. “Not right now — let the curve flatten — but I’ll be damned if Sis Bates, Morganne Flores, Kaija Gibson, and Taryn Atlee played their last softball game this past Sunday …
“This is not the end.”
So the Huskies headed home — they hoped, temporarily. And two-and-a-half weeks turned into multiple months.
“Things were really normal one day and we were all together in Seattle, and then it felt like the next day we were all scattered across the world,” Hee said. “I think a lot of us only packed for two weeks, like we were planning on coming back. Then we realized that we wouldn’t be coming back.”
At least, not in time to finish the 2020 season. The Huskies finally reconvened this winter — and, after being granted an extra season of eligibility, Bates, Flores, Gibson and Atlee returned to the team. The No. 8 Huskies are 16-2, with national championship aspirations and multiple All-Americans.
With a new perspective, they’ve arrived at a familiar place.
“It was just a very surreal time,” Tarr said. “To have time away from the sport, it really brought a lot of perspective to everybody — a lot of perspective to me, personally, just about what’s most important in life. We all love sports and we love this industry, but it’s just a game. It’s not life.
“It was really hard at the time. It was potentially our seniors’ last weekend, in San Jose. (It was like), ‘What? No way. No way that can happen.’ Working through that was a challenge, and finding a way financially to make all these things work as an athletic department, that was a challenge. But we’re just really grateful that we get to play.”
One team in Seattle cannot say the same.
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Seattle Dragons — XFL — Seattle
Jim Zorn didn’t know it was the end while he was in it.
That day, after all, started off like any other. At 7:30 a.m. on March 12, 2020, the Dragons completed a pair of game-planning meetings at the Westin Seattle — a hotel that housed the players and doubled as the organization’s unofficial home base. Zorn’s team was 1-4 in its inaugural XFL season, with five more games on the schedule.
The Dragons were preparing to host the Los Angeles Wildcats that weekend — though, to satisfy Inslee’s gathering restriction, the game would not be played in front of fans.
Which is when the team received its first positive test.
“Because Seattle was one of the hot spots, some of (the L.A.) players were already opting out of traveling to Seattle. Then, when our defensive lineman tested positive for COVID (on the morning of March 12) we informed the league and we were going to cancel that game,” said Zorn, who declined to name the player.
“We had to put him in quarantine, and we did it the right way. Already, not knowing what exactly (COVID-19) was all about, we delivered food but did not go into his room. He was isolated, so that no one else would catch it. Nobody did. He was there for a week.”
The Dragons held another meeting — informing the players of the positive test. They still planned to practice that afternoon.
The second half of the season was scrapped instead.
“For me, it was disappointing for our players, for our staff, for the fans,” said Zorn, who held yet another meeting to break the news to his team. “What was fun about the XFL, it was new and each week we were building and we were solidifying a unique spring league.
“I think it was on its way to having success. There were issues, but that was the thought: we were building something from the ground up.”
On March 12, the league they were building was effectively waylaid.
That day — which started with game-planning and ended in the abyss — “felt like it was either 10 minutes or 10 years,” then-Dragons president Ryan Gustafson said.
“I was up really late, just trying to figure out what was next. Ultimately I think I maybe slept an hour that night, because you just have so many thoughts in your mind about what it means to so many people you care about. There were so many bigger things going on in the world at that time. Is my family safe? Are my friends safe?”
He asked the questions, and nobody knew the answers.
But Zorn, for one, thought he knew what was next.
“I had no thought that the league was going to fold,” said the former Seahawks quarterback, who is no longer affiliated with the XFL. “For me, that (next) month was … I wrote a lot at that time, because I wanted to remember things that I thought were really good about our league, things I thought we could do better. I wanted to make sure when we had league meetings getting ready for our next season that I had that ready.”
On March 12, the XFL stated its commitment “to playing a full season in 2021 and future years.”
On April 10, it suspended operations and laid off nearly all of its staff.
A year later, COVID-19 has claimed more than 2.6 million lives worldwide — including 526,000 in the U.S. Its scope has transcended sports, and cultures, and countries. It has robbed us of our distractions and our daily routines.
But the development and distribution of vaccines have also allowed us to look ahead, to hope — to imagine a future Dragons game on a sunny spring day in Seattle.
Under new ownership, the XFL initially eyed a return in 2022, and announced this week it’s exploring a partnership with the Canadian Football League “to collaborate, innovate, and grow the game of football.”
“This league might return,” Zorn said. “You never know.”
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