Sports

Bob Hohler

Looking back at one of the most transformative weeks in sports history

AP
Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan met with officials before his team's game against the Utah Jazz was postponed last Wednesday.

At the very moment the lights began to flicker off in the world of American sports, there rose a plaintive wail.

``Why!’’ a spectator shrieked at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, capturing the angst of a nation rendered all but helpless by a potentially deadly contagion.

It was the night of Wednesday, March 11, some four months after the first news images appeared of medical workers in protective gear treating patients dying from the mysterious Covid-19 virus in Wuhan, China: ground zero of the pandemic.

Advertisement

Now the patient was Rudy Gobert, a towering All-Star center for the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Five nights earlier, the Jazz had played the Celtics at TD Garden, and Gobert had signed autographs, including one for a Rhode Island boy who would also contract the dreaded disease.

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The 7-foot-1-inch Frenchman was not present in the Oklahoma City arena. He was nearby, in the care of health professionals, having just tested preliminarily positive for the pathogen.

“You are all safe,” the arena’s public address announcer assured the stunned crowd, after a Jazz executive bolted onto the court seconds before the scheduled tipoff to inform the game officials of the public health crisis.

Suddenly, the game was postponed, and it fell to the PA man to try to calm thousands of agitated customers.

“We are all safe,” he recited in a halting voice, reading from a hastily composed script.

Advertisement

But, really, how could he know everyone was safe? How could anyone know what may have already happened or what would come next?

Never in the nation’s history had anything rivaled the seismic collapse of America’s sporting life that would rapidly ensue. Within a dizzying 24 hours, the devastation would be all but complete, and the country’s multibillion-dollar professional sports industry and its consumers would be left to face a silent spring.

Silence in the arenas would be accompanied by fear on the streets. No sooner were the remaining Jazz and Thunder players quarantined in their locker rooms and subject to medical screening than an unusually solemn President Trump addressed the nation Wednesday night from the Oval Office about the unharnessed pandemic.

There was no turning back. Minutes later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver set dominoes cascading across the sports landscape when he suspended the league’s 30-team schedule. The NBA, like other professional sports leagues, had hoped for days to somehow salvage its season.

Now it was time to act.

Advertisement

“Sports always seems to lead the way,” Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum, who has written and edited numerous books about the history of Boston sports teams, said. “Even before a national emergency was declared [Friday], the NBA declared an emergency.”

There was no playbook for coping with the crisis. Professional sports had briefly paused when life as America knew it changed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Wars had interrupted athletic events since colonial times. And because of medical and technological advances, it was hard to draw wisdom from one of the worst previous global pandemics to strike the nation.

Late in the summer of 1918, the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide, reached Boston. As the death toll rose, Globe sportswriter Eddie Martin reported to Fenway Park Sept. 11 to cover the final game of the major league baseball season. Martin filed his story after the Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series — the club’s last championship until 2004 — and three weeks later he was dead from the flu, at age 34.

As the city shuddered, American League umpire Francis O’Loughlin also died of the virus, on Dec. 20, in his apartment near Fenway Park. He was 46.

Sports events were canceled that winter in Boston, but there was no NBA or NFL, and the NHL played only in Canada. It was a different time.

Now, more than a century later, major professional sports leagues were trying to protect themselves from another insidious germ. On Monday, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and Major League Soccer banned the media from their clubhouses and locker rooms.

To Gobert, it was a joke. After he spoke to reporters that day from a distance in a media room in Salt Lake City, the Jazz giant churlishly mocked concerns about the public health disaster by putting his hands on every journalist’s microphone and recorder.

On Wednesday, karma caught up to the big man; he received his test results. By Thursday, his teammate Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive, and Gobert had summoned a measure of regret.

“I would like to publicly apologize to the people I may have endangered,” Gobert said, his diagnosis having plunged him into “fear, anxiety, and embarrassment.”

By then, the response to the potential catastrophe had begun surging like wildfire. At 11:42 a.m. on Thursday, MLS announced it was suspending games for 30 days, including the New England Revolution’s matches at Gillette Stadium.

The NHL followed less than two hours later, hitting pause on its 31-team schedule and potentially costing the Bruins another shot at capturing the Stanley Cup. Ranked first overall in the league standings, the Bruins had six remaining regular-season home games through April 4.

While the Bruins contemplated their futures in Boston, the Red Sox were scattered about Florida, enjoying a rare day off from spring training. In Milwaukee, the Celtics were scheduled to play Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks that night. But now they had been told to self-quarantine, along with four other NBA teams that had played Gobert, Mitchell, and the Jazz in recent days.

On Thursday afternoon, the Celtics flew home to Hanscom Field, while the toll of shuttered sports leagues, big and small, continued to rise. At 2 p.m., Major League Rugby went dark for 30 days, with its Weymouth-based affiliate, the New England Free Jacks, scratching home games through April 4.

At 2:31 p.m., the NFL canceled its annual meeting, scheduled for March 29 to April 1, in Palm Beach, Fla.

At 3:08 p.m., MLB shut down spring training for all 30 teams and said it would push back Opening Day by at least two weeks. No peanuts. No Cracker Jacks. No imminent chance of baseball kindling hope for a bright summer after a gray winter.

Then came another gut punch to sports commerce. At 4:16 p.m., the NCAA terminated March Madness, both men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. There would be no action in the arenas or the sports books, no office pools, no wall-to-wall television binging.

The LPGA announced at 5:32 p.m. that it was postponing all tour events through at least April 5. The PGA Tour followed at 9:59 p.m., cutting short the Players Championship after the first round and canceling all future tournaments through at least the Valero Texas Open, whose final round was scheduled for April 5.

By sunrise on Friday the 13th, Covid-19 had defeated all but the final survivors of American sports. Then fell the Masters, postponed indefinitely for the first time since World War II, and the 124th Boston Marathon, pushed back until Sept. 14.

Around the planet, from frozen and rutted back roads in northern New England to mountainous red clay trails in Kenya, runners in training, both elite professionals and novices raising money for charity, were jolted.

“It’s OK to be disappointed,” Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specializes in athlete mental health, told Runner’s World.

Hope would endure. Day would follow night. Lucky the Leprechaun might leap again. The Bruins might skate in summer. Chris Sale’s elbow might heal. Tom Brady might return. The virus one day would pass.

Until then, as the doctor might advise, it’s OK to scream, “Why!”

robert.hohler@globe.com