NEW YORK — At three minutes until tipoff, Aaron Evans settled into his lower-bowl seat at the Barclays Center in anticipation of seeing his son, Virginia Commonwealth guard Marcus Evans, attempt to extend his college basketball career against UMass in the first of four scheduled Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal games on Thursday.
The atmosphere was surreal: The league had closed the venue to the public because of the coronavirus scare, limiting access to team-affiliated fans and guests. Yet as the players began to line up to prepare for pregame introductions, the elder Evans began to get excited to see his son perform. “He missed six games because he was hurt, but he was finally feeling healthy,” Evans said. “He’s a senior, and I was looking forward to seeing him go out with a bang.”
The season, instead, ended with a whimper. Just as the teams were ready to be introduced, the public address announcer filled the arena with a shocking announcement instead: The Atlantic 10 conference tournament had been canceled.
Players stood motionless on the court in shock. The sounds of the VCU and UMass bands fell, briefly, silent. The fans in the stands looked toward the floor in disbelief.
March had become, truly, Madness.
“It was an emotional moment, and it was disappointing,” said the elder Evans afterward. “The A-10 could have made this decision a lot quicker. The boys were here, the fans were here, and you cancel while they’re on the court? To me, that’s just poor timing.”
The previous day it was announced that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and the NBA suspended its season. That sent officials from leagues across the country scrambling for more information to make the best decisions for their student-athletes.
“You don’t sleep much the night before a game anyway,” said UMass head coach Matt McCall. “Every 30 minutes, it seemed like I was checking my phone and checking Twitter to see if this game was going to be played.”
Those doubts extended into Thursday morning as a scheduled meeting among athletic directors to discuss other league business was, instead, dominated by the coronavirus epidemic.
“[Wednesday night] we all thought it could happen. We were preparing for it,” said Thorr Bjorn, the athletic director at the University of Rhode Island and chair of the Atlantic 10 Athletic Directors. “Things were changing so rapidly.”
Former VCU guard Jordan Burgess (2013-17) had no knowledge of those meetings when he jumped into his car in Richmond, Virginia, at 3 a.m. Thursday for the nearly eight-hour drive to New York. He arrived at Barclays Center in Brooklyn less than an hour before tipoff and was looking forward to seeing the Rams vie for an A-10 tournament title just as his team accomplished in 2015.
“We didn’t have the season we wanted this year,” Burgess said. “We were out to get a little redemption.”
While Burgess was driving to New York and league athletic directors were meeting, news broke that a second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, also had been diagnosed with the virus.
“I told our players this morning to stay off the phone and stay focused on the game,” McCall said. “Then the Mitchell news came out, and it was a moving target.”
A moving target that came to a halt with the decision to halt the Atlantic 10 tournament. Ending the season for some players. And the careers of others.
“Our guys are disappointed, because they wanted to play,” said VCU coach Mike Rhoades. “When everyone sat down and some realized they’re not putting that uniform back on there weren’t any dry eyes in our locker room.”
Since the players were denied an opportunity to settle the score in a tournament setting, a few players in the UMass locker room suggested an alternative. “One of our guys said, ‘Let’s play this outside on the blacktop,’ ” McCall said. “Let’s go outside and play.”
Having two Atlantic 10 quarterfinal teams playing for bragging rights on one of New York’s famed basketball courts would have been quite the sight. But in a month that’s usually dominated by memorable basketball moments, the only thing the players will take from this day is a moment in history that put a temporary halt on basketball.
Said McCall: “I told our team that 10 years from now, they’re going to remember exactly where they were when this happened.”