LARAMIE – As I left my hotel in Las Vegas last March, I really, truly thought the fun was just beginning. Silly me.
I was in attendance at least year’s men’s and women’s Mountain West Tournaments, which take place annually at UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center. It was not my first time there, but it was my first time there in three years or so, and to be around all the hustle and bustle was exciting. I arrived in Sin City on the last day of February and got my money’s worth.
The University of Wyoming men’s basketball team made a Cinderella run to the tournament semifinals, taking down rival Colorado State and a strong Nevada squad before falling in a tight battle with eventual champion Utah State. The women earned a first round bye, defeated Utah State in the quarterfinals before losing to Boise State in the semifinals.
After all the dust settled, I flew home to California for a quick breather, to gather myself for a few upcoming events: the Cowboys’ football Pro Day, spring football, and to be a fan of March Madness.
Well, one out of three isn’t bad.
I was recharged. After moving from Idaho in October and dropping in head first on whirlwind football and basketball seasons, I saw some of my best college friends back home during my trip. We watched the Lakers beat the Clippers at a Southern California brewery. I saw my parents’ new dog; my parents were there too, of course.
When I came back to Wyoming after my brief weekend getaway, Pro Day happened on March 10. It was great to see linebacker Logan Wilson, eventually drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round, take part in workouts with his teammates one last time. It was cool to see NFL personnel, all wearing their team logos, gathered at the High Altitude Performance and the indoor practice facility.
Quite literally, as in the very next day, the first of seemingly millions of shoes dropped: The Utah Jazz’s matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder was postponed due to COVID-19, a virus we all had heard about but, if we are being honest, weren’t totally sure of. During the Mountain West Tournament, there were rumblings that this thing was a big deal. When I went to try my luck at the poker tables, there was hand sanitizer there for us to use. But it didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Little did I know that the 2020 Mountain West Tournament would be the last actual sporting even I would cover for about six months. And I was one of the lucky ones.
The world shut down in a matter of days. First was the NBA. Then, on March 12, was the NCAA shutting down spring sports and the unfathomable – the NCAA Tournaments, a series of three of the best weekends for sports fans, were canceled for both men and women. There was not going to be an NCAA champion.
Just think about that for a second. When we look back through the record books, and we see all of the NCAA champions, there will, quite literally, be a year left blank. This still gives me goosebumps in the worst sort of way. It’s haunting. It so perfectly symbolizes everything we’ve been through in the last 365 or so days.
As we come up on the one-year mark of when last season’s Mountain West Tournament began, I can’t help but reflect on a few things. How being stuck at home for months changed the way I see life, no longer taking the simplest pleasures for granted. How I watched really, really bad television shows to pass the time when there was nothing for me to cover other than stories about how UW athletics was dealing with having their seasons taken away and how the school would make up impending deficits.
In a lot of ways, I’m looking at the forthcoming Mountain West Tournament and NCAA Tournaments as an anniversary; not necessarily a return to normalcy. Nothing is “normal” yet; we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Arenas (and restaurants, for that matter) are at partial capacity or completely empty. I don’t know what normal will look like in the immediate future. I don’t think it looks like it did before last March, though, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This isn’t an overnight fix, despite the promise of vaccines and infection numbers dropping nationally. Things will have to look different for a bit to ever get back to the way things were.
So I’m not looking at this as a celebration of everything being back to the way it was. I’m looking at it as an anniversary of us winning a fight.
Have we won the war yet? Absolutely not. I don’t think this thing can be “won” in a traditional sense. I think it’s a constant give and take of steps forward and backward, constantly jostling for position.
Make no mistake: we have lost an unbelievable amount over the last year. Half a million Americans are dead. Some families are broken. Lives are forever changed. Our collective psyche is as fragile as ever as progress continues to be made and light shines at the end of the tunnel. I can’t but help but think something is about to shatter the glass overhead. That’s just the reality of where we are and where we’ve been.
But as conference tournaments start up in the coming weeks and hopefully go off without a hitch, you can be sure I’ll be tuned in. And Selection Sunday, when the field is set for March Madness? I’ll be watching that, too. Not because I have a dog in the fight, per se. My alma mater, USC, is a likely tournament team, but I’m realistic enough to know they aren’t making it to the final weekend of gameplay.
I think being able to watch the tournament, regardless of the circumstances regarding fans, capacity, etc., is a victory. Just think where we were about a year ago. At times, it didn’t seem like we’d make it to this point, with the bad news compounding on itself at a pace that didn’t seem possible.
I’ll be watching because it reminds me of life before all of the literal madness began, to be sure. But being able to sit at home watching the NCAA Tournament feels like an accomplishment. It’s not the end all, be all, to be sure. Just because the tournament is scheduled to happen doesn’t mean we’re back to pre-COVID. But it’s certainly a step that, at times, didn’t seem like we’d ever be able to reach.
Here we are, getting ready for conference tournaments and Selection Sunday. We still have a little while before we’re in the clear, and I find myself constantly holding my breath. That being said, sitting on my couch watching a No. 16 seed play a No. 1 seed will feel like a win, even if the 16-seed doesn’t emerge a winner.
It will feel like a win because we made it this far. And I’ll celebrate that.