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Practice was scheduled for 11 a.m.
On Tuesday morning, four days before the final postseason of their college careers, five Penn men’s basketball seniors arrived at the Palestra. They gathered in their team room for what they thought was a film session. Then their coach, Steve Donahue, stepped to the front of the room and turned the gathering into something very, very different. The tone of his voice hinted at bad news. “But in a million years, I never would’ve thought this is what he was leading up to,” senior forward AJ Brodeur told Yahoo Sports.
Minutes earlier, Donahue had heard from administrators that the Ivy League men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were being canceled as a coronavirus-related precaution. That regular-season champion Yale would be going to the NCAA tournament. That Penn, Princeton and Harvard, who felt they had a shot at the league’s auto-bid, no longer did.
And just like that, careers ended.
There was no need to practice.
No way for senior guard Devon Goodman, stuck on 998 career points, to get 999 and 1,000.
No way, for a few of those seniors, to ever play organized basketball again.
“It almost didn’t even seem real,” Brodeur said.
Donahue spoke to the team. Assistant coaches did as well, fighting through emotions. “I think we were in there for 30, 45 minutes,” Brodeur said. “There were such long pauses between people talking. A lot of it was just silence, disbelief. No one really knew what to say. No one really knew what to do. No one wanted to leave. People still don’t want to leave.”
They milled about the gym for hours. Some got in a quick lift as a distraction. Others tried to process the decision. They’re still trying.
“It wasn’t supposed to end like this,” Brodeur said. “We worked hard enough that we knew this wasn’t how it was going to end. At least another game.
“It’s so clear that there’s a disconnect between the actual athletes and the administration, the people running [the Ivy League],” he continued. “Not that they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t understand the repercussions of how this affects the athletes, what they were working for, what they would do for one more game.”
A few hundred miles away, when Harvard guard Bryce Aiken heard the news, he tweeted: “Horrible, horrible, horrible decision and total disregard for the players and teams that have put their hearts into this season. This is wrong on so many levels.”
Meanwhile, members of the Penn women’s team, which had also qualified for its four-team Ivy League tournament, were trying to process everything too. Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun met with both Donahue and head women’s coach Mike McLaughlin around 10:15 on Tuesday morning, before the decision was made public. McLaughlin, who had scheduled practice for noon, scrambled to gather his players. He met with his four seniors first, then told the group. They were devastated. Confused. “In a state of shock,” senior Kendall Grasela told Yahoo Sports. Then shock became anger. “Like, why?” she wondered.
“To say it’s disappointing would be a massive understatement,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin was aware there had been discussions at top levels about contingency plans. Some Ivy League schools have shut down campuses. But, he said, “I would’ve thought we were heading toward having the tournament with a limited number of spectators. That’s what I was expecting to hear.” It’s the scenario he relayed to his players on Monday. “We felt like, at most, the tournament would still go on, and nobody from the outside would be able to come,” Grasela told Yahoo Sports.
And that’s their main source of frustration, confusion, distress. Other Ivy League sporting events will go on this month. Perhaps the two biggest won’t. "We certainly understand protecting the student athletes at all costs. That is not our issue," McLaughlin said. "It’s more of the inconsistency. That’s what we’re struggling with."
The Ivy League's cancellations are inconsistent with the rest of college basketball as well. So far neither the NCAA tournament nor any other conference tournament has been canceled, though the Big West and MAC did announce Tuesday that theirs will be spectator-free.
Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, met resistance when she told Big East officials it would be irresponsible to hold their annual conference tournament in front of thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden this week. The Big East released a statement Tuesday that it is barring media from team locker rooms but will otherwise conduct its tournament as scheduled beginning Wednesday night.
“It's a hard situation,” Katz said. “I understand I'm on one end of the spectrum. There's a middle ground where the athletes are able to play but do it in an empty or emptyish stadium.
“If you're talking about a situation where people are piled on top of each other, that's a different level of risk than having 1,000 or even 5,000 inside a venue that normally holds 20,000.”
So Ivy League athletes wonder why their tournaments couldn’t have been played in front of 1,000 people, or even without spectators at all. Because for them, it’s not about the spectacle.
“It’s more about the will to want to compete. And the will to play a game,” Grasela said. “It’s not even for the fans, it’s not for our families, it’s for ourselves, and for our team, and the hard work.” Four years of it. Spring workouts. Summer scrimmages. Fall conditioning. The day-to-day grind. So many moments together, practice reps against one another, defeats and victories shared arm in arm. They wanted one more shot at a league title.
“And you’re going to tell me that a virus that isn’t even affecting any of the athletes ... is going to take that away from us?” Grasela said. “It just doesn’t seem fair.
“Like, why? Are they withholding knowledge about why the actually canceled it?”
Ivy League communications director Matt Panto, in an email to Yahoo Sports, said that “all options, including playing the games in empty arenas, were thoroughly considered. Costs were absolutely not a factor in this decision.” A follow-up question, about why, then, the tournaments could not be held in empty arenas, went unanswered.
The women’s players, in response, have started a petition to reinstate the tournaments, calling “the hypocrisy of our Ivy League presidents baffling and alarming.” They’ve communicated with players at Columbia and Yale, the two other women’s teams affected, who have also signed. Princeton, the regular-season champion who received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as a result, will not sign, according to Grasela. But captains from other schools will. Men’s players will.
They just want to play. Anywhere. Fans or no fans. “The pride to be able to put on a Penn uniform, and play for our teammates, and be in a competitive atmosphere, at that time, you start to black out all the noises, and all the fans,” Grasela said. “You’re really playing for the four people that are standing beside you, and everyone on the bench.
“I’d play outside,” Grasela said. “Put on some Converse, find a hoop. Doesn’t even have to have a net.”
“It would’ve even been a cooler to go through an empty gym,” Brodeur said. “For the love of the game. It’s more than just the cameras, the money, the TV. It’s more than basketball. It’s about being there with your teammates. That’s your second family. Being in an empty gym, that’s all you need. That’s all we could ever ask for. It may seem like the bare minimum. But we would’ve been more than happy to experience it together.”
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