This article is by Alan Blinder and Joe Drape. Additional reporting by Gillian R. Brassil, Karen Crouse, Kevin Draper, Andrew Keh, Jeré Longman, Juliet Macur, Carol Schram, Ben Shpigel, Marc Stein and David Waldstein. Illustrations by Madison Ketcham. Produced by Michael Beswetherick and Jonathan Ellis.
It took just three days last March for nearly every sport to shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Beyond the headlines about silenced arenas and canceled tournaments, there were athletes, coaches and executives confronting a perilous reality with no precedent in modern sports. A biathlete hurried to a Finnish airport as border closings loomed. The N.B.A. commissioner deliberated in a car outside his apartment building. A runner considered her options — and the Boston Marathon’s fate — over a late-night drink in Arizona. A NASCAR star suddenly without a race drove instead to a beach house.
In recent weeks, dozens of people have reflected on March 11-13, the days when much of the athletic world came to a halt. Their interviews have been edited and condensed.
ADAM SILVER, N.B.A. commissioner. We were tracking it closely because of our business in China and because we have offices in Shanghai and Beijing, which we closed on Jan. 23. On Jan. 29, the Brooklyn Nets had a Chinese New Year celebration. I ran into Dr. David Ho, a virologist.
I remember him saying to me, “It’s a very bad sign that Chinatown in New York is empty because you at least have a portion of the population who knows how bad this is, even if other people aren’t talking about it.”
MEGAN BOZEK, a defender for the KRS Vanke Rays (of the Zhenskaya Hockey League, based in Russia and China) and a member of the United States national team. We had an article sent to us, just saying that they had found something. The picture on the article is someone being pushed out on a gurney in a white bag.
SERENA WILLIAMS, winner of 23 Grand Slam tennis singles titles. I didn’t think I knew the name of it. I didn’t think it would spread.
SUSAN DUNKLEE, American biathlete. We were in Italy for the world championships in February. You’re starting to see stories in Venice, in Milan. Things haven’t really shut down yet, and we’re still having events with 30,000 spectators. It hadn’t affected us yet, but it was building.
I went to Germany. We hear that the World Cup event we were going to do next, which was in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, was going to be without spectators. They have this huge stadium, big, horseshoe-shaped grandstands, and they were just totally empty. It was so eerie. The stadium didn’t even play music or anything.
JOEY LOGANO, NASCAR Cup Series driver. We were in California racing. I didn’t think much of it. I don’t watch the news much, so someone would tell me about it, and I’d go, “OK, I can go drive my racecar right now.” That was my mind-set. It’s not a good one. That’s where it was at the moment.
JIM GIUNTA, executive director, National Collegiate Wrestling Association, which was preparing to hold a tournament March 12-14 in Allen, Texas. We knew Covid was out there. Nobody had called the events yet. These kids came in from all over the country. We had sanitizing stations. We always do. Our guys have to weigh in, and their skin is always checked for infections. We are an infection sport.
CHUCK AOKI, U.S. Paralympian in wheelchair rugby. There was one girl I remember on my flight who had goggles, she had a mask, she had gloves, she wiped down her seat. I remember looking at her like: “What are you doing? Really? This seems excessive.”
WILLIAMS I actually went into quarantine really early, like the second Indian Wells [a tournament in Southern California] was canceled [on March 8]. I just went home and stayed.
Wednesday, March 11
BOZEK, who was in Ufa, Russia, for the league championship series. We learned that every two hours something was changing, so it didn’t really make sense for us to follow that closely until we knew we were going home. We could look at flights before the game, but if we had lost, we wouldn’t be going home. We’d still be staying and playing another game. So we were aware of things but just trying to stay focused.
We had a good time and brought out some champagne, took some pictures with the trophy, then had a nice celebration with our team at the hotel. We ended up staying another day so we could take a team photo on the ice.
TODD DUBOEF, president, Top Rank Boxing, which was planning fights in New York for March 14 and 17. My team was in direct conversations with Disney and ESPN folks from when we got on the ground. Do we cancel? I think everybody at that point, the week of the event, went in with a guarded respect, meaning this is something you don’t ignore.
SILVER I had a meeting with Michele Roberts [the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association]. We discussed the possibility that we may need to play games with reduced numbers of fans.
We had a full N.B.A. owners meeting by conference call just to discuss the situation. We wanted to hear from every single team. We made no decisions at the time.
KEVIN DEMOFF, chief operating officer for the N.F.L.’s Los Angeles Rams. We had a suite-holder event. It was a wine tasting, and throughout the day we’re like: “Do we cancel this? Do we keep it? What do you think?” And we’re like: “Let’s just keep it. But if people don’t want to go, we certainly understand that.”
DONALD REMY, chief operating officer for the N.C.A.A., which was preparing for the men’s and women’s national basketball tournaments. We gathered all of the data available. We understood all of the potential implications of a decision to not have fans, and the board made a choice that was glaringly clear.
When the board made its decision that afternoon, we also scheduled a board meeting for the following day. The information and data was not just developing by the day or by the hour, but sometimes by the minute.
SILVER I had just left the office, and our general counsel called me. I was on my way home, and he called and said that we’ve just gotten this positive test of Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz. I didn’t say in that sentence, “Shut everything down.” I wanted to hear what the recommendation was of the Oklahoma state health commissioner. I also spoke to Sam Presti, the Thunder president, and Clay Bennett, the Thunder owner, in the next 10 minutes because we all knew the players were taking the floor for the game in Oklahoma City.
I sat in the car in front of my apartment building for about another 10 minutes, and I made the decision that we were going to cancel that game. One of the officials that was working the New Orleans-Sacramento game had worked one of the Jazz games earlier. As soon as I had a few more minutes to think about what was happening, it then became obvious we needed to cancel that game.
Then we put out a notice that we were putting the season on pause until we had additional information.
Until that moment, it felt like there would have been an opportunity to deal with a single case on an isolated basis.
SCOTT TOMLIN, Dallas Mavericks vice president for basketball communications, who was at the Mavericks’ game against the Denver Nuggets in Dallas. I was just staying vigilant on my phone when the memo came across that there was going to be a 30-day hiatus. I jumped up from press row — it was a timeout, actually — and I went and sat next to Mark Cuban [the Mavericks’ franchise owner] and showed him. I didn’t know if somebody had tried to give him a heads up on this or anything like that. So I just tried to be that person.
DEMOFF of the Rams. I was giving a talk to the suite holders and made a joke like, “This could be the last supper.” While I was talking, the N.B.A. basically had the shutdown. Everybody got on their phones afterward, and we’re like: “Oh my gosh. This really could be the last supper.”
DUBOEF of Top Rank Boxing. The big shoe that drops for everybody was when Adam Silver stopped the N.B.A. You look at different sports, and you look at properties that resemble your property as much as possible. They deal with live television. They deal with live gates. Largely, we’re playing in the same size arenas, and we have common media partners. So we’re all part of a fraternity, let’s say, of seeing what other people are doing.
JETT CANFIELD, a basketball player for Creighton University who was in New York for a Big East tournament game against St. John’s. I think I saw it on Twitter first.
TYASHA HARRIS, now a basketball player for the Dallas Wings, then at the University of South Carolina, which had the top-ranked women’s team. I was like, “Whoa, what if they cancel the N.C.A.A. [tournament]?”
At first, I thought that we were kind of rushing it. Just because the N.B.A. was shut down, did we have to shut down, too?
That’s when my team started texting to our group chat, and we were all just like, “Are they going to cancel?” I said: “They can’t cancel. It’s March Madness — it’s March!”
BRANDON SUTTER, Vancouver Canucks center. We started hearing that the N.B.A. was getting canceled, and guys started texting each other. None of us really knew what Covid was.
ISIAH THOMAS, TNT analyst and Hall of Fame point guard. I had been traveling and got back and was really focused on my daughter [who had tested positive a day earlier], and then I started seeing the news reports that they had canceled the [Thunder-Jazz] game.
CANFIELD of Creighton. Before our games, they take our phones the night before. They probably took our phones at about 10. So we didn’t have any communication with anybody until we woke up in the morning.
DES LINDEN, the winner of the women’s division at the 2018 Boston Marathon, who was training in Arizona. I was getting ready for Boston at that point, and the conversation over a late night of drinks after the N.B.A. canceled was, “Should I even train tomorrow because they’re going to cancel it, right?”
This is an international event. It’s essentially a parade and people coughing and spitting and popping on the side of the road to use the bathroom — it’s not the most sanitary thing. So it was like: “How is this going to happen? And do I need to train tomorrow or should I just continue to drink?”
SILVER The night went on very late because the issue became: What now happens to the Utah Jazz? Given that Rudy clearly had direct contact with his teammates, it was unclear what should happen. At one point, Sam Presti [of the Thunder] was arranging for cots for them to sleep in the arena, because it was not clear whether it was appropriate for them to go to a hotel. It wasn’t until roughly around midnight that we had secured a hotel for them.
Thursday, March 12
DUNKLEE, the biathlete, who was in Finland. I’m in deep sleep, and there’s this frantic knocking at my door. It’s our team physio, Jani.
He’s like: “Susan! Susan! You have to wake up! Mr. Trump is closing the borders! You have a flight home in one hour!”
Jani’s running around the hallway trying to wake up my teammates, and then he comes back and starts helping me, just shoving clothes, shoving ski boots, everything into my duffel bag willy-nilly. And my rifle, which I usually pack with super care — these things are $4,000 — was just kind of thrown into its case. The venue was in the opposite direction of the airport, so we couldn’t go back to pick up our skis.
BOZEK, the hockey player. I’m on Google Flights, and I’m looking and I’m like: “OK, great. Big exclamation point. Canceled.”
Go to the next one. Canceled. There’s one flight the next morning that goes through Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Toronto. Perfect. Click it, and then I had maybe like two or three other people that wanted to be on the same ticket. So we go down. We say: “OK, we found our flight. Perfect.” We click, go to push “buy ticket.” Canceled.
I’m like: “All right, this is actually happening. We might not be able to get home.”
LINDEN, the marathoner. I had a really lackluster run.
AOKI, the Paralympic rugby player. The conversations throughout the day were becoming a little less focused on rugby and a little more focused on: What is that Covid thing?
CANFIELD We started to warm up [for the game against St. John’s] at like 9:30. We’re in Madison Square Garden, like the Mecca of the game. To walk in there and see it just so empty, it was kind of an eerie feeling.
We are just focused on playing the Big East tournament. I wasn’t scared or anything like that.
DEMOFF of the Rams. We closed the office. I was one of those people: “This makes sense. If we shut everything down for a few weeks to make the world a better place, that’s great.”
JON JACKSON, deputy athletic director, Duke University, who was in Greensboro, N.C., for the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament. There was no decision yet by the A.C.C., and Kevin [White, Duke’s athletic director] wasn’t with us because he was running the N.C.A.A. tournament committee. We were supposed to play in a couple of hours. My job was to get everyone on the phone, Kevin and our president. We had a ballroom, and Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski of Duke] was out on the balcony, which looked over a golf course, on the phone. When he came back in, he said that Duke was canceling all spring sports.
CANFIELD, whose Creighton team started playing. I had a good, good look to start, and I hit a 3 from the corner. Once you’re playing, you’re kind of not focused on all that other stuff — just locked in on our assignments and what we have to do to get the W.
I think we were down by like 2 or 3 at half. We’re sitting in the locker room just having a discussion as a team of what we have to do. All of a sudden, Coach walked in and said that the game was — he didn’t even say postponed. He just said our tournament was not going to happen.
I was definitely — I wouldn’t say mad — but just kind of defeated by it, just kind of upset.
I went out to eat with my dad. There was nobody on the streets. It was like something from a movie, like an apocalypse-type movie. We’re in New York City, and you could count the number of people we saw on one hand.
In my heart, I kind of just figured we would still do March Madness and just do it without the fans. I was thinking the N.C.A.A. probably can’t afford us not playing in it, so we figured they would find some way for us to play at some level.
JACKSON of Duke. We wanted to hear from our kids. This was the end of basketball for some of them. They knew what was going on, but understood. Still, they were disappointed and we all had an empty feeling. When we were finished, we brought in lunch for them and their parents and whoever else from their families came to town. Being together helped.
SUTTER, who was in Phoenix for a game against the Coyotes. Everyone was kind of “What’s going on?” and trying to prepare for a game day. Then we were told that there’s really no point in going to the rink and doing much. We’re kind of just going back to Vancouver. So that day in Phoenix, some guys went golfing.
RICH HILL, Minnesota Twins pitcher (now with the Tampa Bay Rays), who was in Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training. We had a big meeting with doctors and medical staff, and they explained to us everything about viruses and how they are spread. The first big, different thing I remember is they told us not to sign autographs, and that was really weird.
DUBOEF of Top Rank Boxing. We decided we would go without fans, just to be safe.
HILL We voted to go home. We didn’t know if it was for a few days or a few weeks, but they told us to take a bunch of baseballs with us.
BOZEK We see a flight that goes from Ufa to Moscow that night. So we took the flight, rented a hotel, slept for 35 minutes, it seemed, and got back to the airport.
From Vienna to Toronto, it felt like it was a whole sports plane because Vienna hosts hockey and basketball. They had their seasons canceled as well, so they’re trying to get home.
REMY of the N.C.A.A. By the time we got to 4 o’clock in the afternoon, there was so much momentum along that path that when the board considered what the next step should be, a determination to cancel the event was unanimous.
There was no sigh of relief.
HARRIS, the South Carolina basketball player. My parents were on the edge. They kept asking: “Anything new? Anything new?” I was just on Twitter constantly — refresh, refresh, refresh. And my team and I were on the group chat saying: “Will they cancel? No, they can’t cancel. Please don’t cancel.”
Then I see on Twitter that March Madness is canceled. Then Coach [Dawn] Staley texted.
I got really sad. My team was texting me things like: “I didn’t think it was going to be the last time I saw you.” We weren’t ready to say goodbye.
DUBOEF It was so hard. You didn’t want to make a decision because you felt like you didn’t want to overreact or you didn’t want to be irresponsible. By Thursday night, we decided to [cancel].
GIUNTA of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association. We went into a room in the event center with board members and coaches. I asked, “What are we going to do?” Even if we closed down, 600 coaches and parents would be released into Allen, Texas. We had already wrestled all day. All the athletes that could have been exposed were exposed. We came to a consensus that keeping them there and wrestling was the best outcome.
DUNKLEE By the time I get to Chicago, I’m like, “Huh, I wonder if I should be quarantining.” We have a team doctor who works at a hospital in New York and we were asking him. And finally, about the time I landed in Burlington [in Vermont], they gave us the guidelines: You should quarantine for 14 days. That was a bit of a shock.
Friday, March 13
LOGANO I was in Atlanta. It was changing by the second. It was, OK, trucks aren’t going to race. And Cup cars are just going to race but no qualifying or practice.
It wasn’t a couple of hours later that we’re not racing. I remember sitting there with my wife and kids, and it was like: “What do we do now? Where do we go? Do we go back home? Shoot, we’re not too far from the beach.” I don’t know when we’re going to race again. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be around anyone and what comes next.
THOMAS, the TNT analyst. They kept showing Mark Cuban’s reaction when he got the text. That really stuck with me.
I thought the league did the right thing to shut down, but we were really focused on my daughter. She was alone in her apartment in New York and had to be isolated. She would send up group texts with the thumbs-up emoji and hearts.
SUTTER The team contacted us all and said: “Here’s the regulations. Here’s what you’re supposed to do, and make sure you don’t go to anyone’s houses and all that stuff.”
LINDEN I had an inkling of an announcement coming. We kind of did the run a little bit earlier and got back to hear the Boston Marathon announcement, and it was as expected.
I chatted with my physio. He was kind of breaking down how long vaccines take, the contagion level of this virus, and he was like, “You’re probably not going to race for a year.”
ALEX RODRIGUEZ, ESPN commentator and a 14-time M.L.B. all-star. We’ve all experienced some pretty terrible things, whether it was 9/11 or a hurricane or something like that, and usually after it happens you shut down for a week or two and then get back to normal life. So I was thinking that was what would happen, here, too. I remember talking to a lot of different people, and we all had one thing in common: We were all completely clueless. No one knew what was going on.
I spoke to Jerry Reinsdorf [the owner of baseball’s Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bulls of the N.B.A.] and he said, “This is going to take a while.” That’s when it hit me: This isn’t something that will be over in a week.
HARRIS For the first couple days, I was lost for words. I couldn’t believe it. I still didn’t believe it. It probably didn’t hit until I started talking to W.N.B.A. teams and it was time to get ready for the draft.
But then after a while, I kind of got a sense of peace. I understood that we needed to do what was best for the country. And I got to spend more time with my family.
I had to turn a page so quickly, get over things, stop my feelings, put that on hold. I had to get back to business. I had to get over it. The W.N.B.A. is waiting for me.
HILL of the Twins. You couldn’t play catch with anyone because of the virus, so I filled my backpack with about 50 balls and went to Milton Academy [in Massachusetts] and would throw off a mound into a net. I set up a tripod and would Zoom with the medical staff and coaches.
I’d fire about 20 pitches into the net, take a break and throw another 20. Then I would do it again. Eventually, they would have me throw simulated games. I would go over the lineup of a team like Kansas City and throw while they watched on Zoom.
KATIE HOLLOWAY, a U.S. Paralympian in sitting volleyball. I was the employee fitness and wellness coordinator at the Palo Alto Health Care System [in Northern California]. I had to start working at the front of the hospital doing checks or at the front of the emergency room.
We did not have a mask mandate yet. In my first or second shift of those duties, a woman with a mask on, because she had Covid, presented at the front door. I was probably four feet away, and, at the time, you don’t know what it is. I was very, very distraught about the whole situation. I did not have a mask on.
About five minutes later, I was texting with a woman who supported me at work, and she brought me an N95. But I came home, stripped my clothes in the garage, put them in the wash, took a shower. It was very jarring because you don’t understand what it is and you don’t know how harmful it could be.