By Jason Maholy
For the first time in the history of the Illinois high school boys basketball postseason tournament, no champion will be crowned.
Baseball and softball – the annual harbingers of spring – won’t be played on high school fields in the state until at least March 31.
Neither will any other spring sports, which are on hold in Illinois and across America as part of the sweeping societal response aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak.
The unprecedented action is being undertaken to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus, which can cause a respiratory illness known as covid-19.
Illinois high schools are closed through March 30 and their athletic facilities are off-limits to students, who will not be allowed on school property during the shutdown. Student-athletes who have been in physical therapy for injuries or in the concussion protocol will be unable to receive treatment from school-contracted trainers.
High school athletes can gather for workouts, so long as they’re not on school grounds, but they are not allowed to so much as practice with their travel and club teams. The latter could result in the IHSA declaring them ineligible when athletics resume.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) canceled its 2020 winter sports championships and doesn’t know if or when its spring championships will be held. Saint Xavier has shut down its athletics programs indefinitely. Trinity Christian in Palos Heights will not hold any activities – athletics or otherwise – on campus through April.
This all happened so fast, and it was through sports the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and the collective response to it came to a head.
The virus has been on people’s minds for more than a month, but until mid-last week it was business pretty much as usual here and elsewhere, save for a few places where the virus had infected comparatively elevated numbers of people. Here, businesses and schools were still open, people were for the most part going about their regular routines, and the remaining boys high school basketball teams in Class 3A and 4A were looking forward to their sectional title games.
Then came the night of March 12. Fantasy sports participants with members of the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings in their fantasy lineups checked in to see the teams’ game in Sac-Town had been postponed. Then canceled.
Minutes later, the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season.
Utah center Rudy Gobert had moments before tipoff of the Jazz-Kings game tested positive for coronavirus. And the dominoes began to fall. The NHL suspended its season. Major League Baseball suspended operations and pushed back Opening Day. NCAA conferences aborted their basketball tournaments and the NCAA – after a slow and clumsy response – announced its men’s and women’s basketball championships were cancelled and spring athletics were on hold until further notice. The NAIA and NJCAA followed suit.
With that, college senior basketball players who had prepared all season for the opportunity to play one final postseason were finished. All the hard work on the court, sacrificing of personal time, balancing athletics and academics – it had to at that moment feel kind of empty.
The Saint Xavier women’s basketball team was 29-4 – 22-0 in conference play -- and had won 18 games in a row before a conference title game loss, and was preparing to open the NAIA National Tournament as a No. 2 seed against Avila in Sioux City, Iowa. The Cougars are one of the premier programs in the NAIA and are often a threat to make a deep postseason run, and this team had the pieces to do something special.
Just like that, though, there was no tourney. Maddie Welter and Chanel Fanter, two of the finest players to ever wear a Cougars uniform, were no longer college basketball players. Neither were Janie McCloughan and Cora Graffeo, SXU’s other seniors, their careers ended not by a loss but by an organism that can make humans ill.
The NAIA had on March 10 said all athletic events would move forward as planned, and that while people should take extra precautions such as washing and sanitizing hands and not shaking hands with other players and coaches, it at the time saw no reason at that time for social distancing.
How quickly things changed. Gobert’s positive test was the catalyst that altered the entire coronavirus narrative in America moving forward, but the fallout wasn’t limited to athletics. It seems odd that it would take a professional sports league shutting down for the powers that be to come to the realization we’re all susceptible to infection, but that’s what happened. Within two days all schools in Illinois announced they’d be closing. By March 14, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker had mandated the closings of bars and dine-in restaurants through March 30.
The sudden and rapid developments caught many people off-guard. Swine flu (H1N1) infected 59 million Americans, hospitalized 265,000 and killed 12,000, and nothing shut down. Only twenty-some people in Illinois had been infected by coronavirus to that point, and none had died.
Surely all this wasn’t necessary.
It was all necessary, of course. Smart science dictates as much. The protocol for preventing the further spread of a highly contagious pathogen involved “flattening the curve” – spreading out the number of infections over time, rather than causing a spike in infections and overwhelming the health care system with people who need lifesaving treatment. The wide-scale shutdown isn’t being to prevent people from getting the virus – most people will at some point be exposed to the virus, and most of those people will fully recover or even be asymptomatic – it’s being done to prevent a large segment of the population from contracting the virus all at once.
It’s a shame the high school and college athletes – the seniors, in particular – who worked so hard toward their goals won’t get the chance to determine their own fates. The disappointment, frustration and anger they must feel is understandable.
But there are lessons to be taken and more enlightened perspectives to be gained from these strange and unprecedented times. Lessons about accepting and being at peace with what you can’t control, and persevering in the face of misfortune. Lessons about how no matter how hard you work, how much you sacrifice and how much blood, sweat and tears you put into something, nothing is guaranteed. Perhaps most importantly, the lesson that life is a lot bigger than sports.
“As a teenager playing sports, so much of your world and identity is as a ‘basketball player’ or as a ‘baseball player,’ etc., and so when that gets taken away there is going to be anger and frustration,” said Brother Rice basketball coach Bobby Frasor.
Frasor, who played for Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith at North Carolina, said within the experience is a teachable moment about how much more there is to life than a high school game or season.
“I always heard stories about Coach Smith telling his players after a loss to Duke or big rival, that there were a billion people in China that didn't care about the game,” Frasor recalled. “It's hard in the moment to think that way, but shutting down competitions and large gatherings for the health of our society is the right call.”
Athletics – particularly at the amateur level – have unquestioned value. They provide participants with goals to work toward and can help them establish a strong work ethic. They provide lessons about winning and losing, and how to appropriately handle both. The help build lifelong relationships between the players themselves and players and coaches, the latter who serve the roles of mentors and parental figures to many of these young men and women.
Those are greatest gifts athletics will provide to the athletes who missed out on their chance to finish their high school or college careers on their terms, or win a state or national championship. Those experiences have their own value – but they’re frosting on the cake, not an essential component of the amateur athletic experience.
Frasor emphasizes in his program a “next play” mentality – moving on from misfortune without dwelling on it.
“Maybe a kid just turned it over or missed a layup that would have given us the lead, or a team went on a big run against us,” Frasor said. “How we respond is much more important than what happened.”
The outcomes of sporting events – wins and losses, records and personal accolades – are almost always trivial. There are special moments when wins mean something more than what shows up in the box score, but outside the insulated cocoon of the arena they more frequently carry no practical value. They don’t provide any lasting happiness or fulfillment and they have a short shelf life – you can’t define yourself through achievements.
As we downshift in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, we will hopefully take the opportunity to thoughtfully observe ourselves and what is going on around us. Perhaps if we process it all with an open mind we can emerge a bit sobered and humbled. The athletes whose careers and opportunities were upended by this unfortunate turn of events will one day look back on this and be thankful they experienced it. They may not have attained exactly what they sought, but maybe they’ll find something they need, and which will be far more valuable and enduring.