Earlier this season, Florida point guard Andrew Nembhard was diagnosed with the flu. He was quarantined, and his roommates were given separate hotel rooms. Team managers disinfected their apartment on a level that would rival an operating room’s sterilization.
The team likely thought the brief scare on Jan. 17 would be the last run-in it would have with a virus. It had no idea what was coming.
On Thursday, the NCAA announced that all spring and winter championships were canceled.
It’s the first time a men’s basketball champion would not be announced since 1939, and the first since the NCAA took over the women’s tournament since 1982.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.
The news broke the sports world.
After witnessing the Gators’ collapse against Kentucky on March 7, Kathleen Klimek, the president of the Rowdy Reptiles, an organization that serves as the official student section of the men’s basketball team, shook off the loss and set her sights toward Nashville.
For a year, she, her family and her three roommates, all Rowdies, planned to attend the SEC Tournament in the Music City to see Florida play. It was a proposed birthday celebration—one that would have been sweetened by strong performances from the Gators.
On Wednesday night, the international studies junior and her roommates went to The Social at Midtown to celebrate her 21st birthday. The next day, she would be on a plane to Nashville to join her family and fellow Gator fanatics.
Her world shattered when she found out fans couldn’t attend the tournament to limit exposure to COVID-19. They stared at their phones in silence as Twitter exploded.
She still planned to travel, as they could easily watch the games from a nearby bar — but she couldn’t imagine what would follow over the next day.
“We're getting our suitcases together when my phone blows up with tweets and texts about the cancellation of the [SEC] Tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” she said.
They canceled their trip.
At that same moment, David Steinfeldt, vice president of the Rowdies, and his roommate were on their way to Nashville where they were expected to also meet up with Klimek later in the day.
They were 15 minutes away when he saw the news on Twitter.
“I started laughing, honestly,” said the senior business administration major.
The SEC wasn’t the first to cancel its tournament. Moments before, the Big Ten Conference announced it would cancel its tournaments in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Steinfeldt read the tea leaves and anticipated that the rest of the college basketball world would follow suit.
Steinfeldt and Klimek joined the rest of the sporting world as they struggled with filling the void left by the absence of March Madness.
On Twitter, fans were split in their reactions.
Some called it the right decision, saying public health is more important than tournaments.
Others were uproarious with their disapproval of spring sports’ cancellations, including baseball and softball whose seasons extend into the spring.
Caroline Gibbs, 22, a UF alumna and a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, agrees with the decision but is disappointed with the seasons’ untimely conclusions.
Sports were always a fixture in her life growing up. Her siblings were athletes and she played soccer growing up.
Her family swore allegiance to orange and blue. Raised in Orlando, Gibbs and her family often visited Gainesville to see relatives and watch games.
But March held a special place in her family’s hearts. It brought with it the NCAA Tournament and its bracket challenge.
Since Gibbs could remember, she and her family participated in filling out separate brackets to compete against each other each year. It was a tradition unlike any other for her family, so much so that her parents expressed concern over missing games during her brother Eric’s wedding later this month.
“They thought that people would be upset if they were missing games,” she said.
With the cancellations, a family tradition and a talking point were stolen from them.
“When my brothers went away to college, it was another way to keep in contact,” Gibbs said.
“There were always games that we could talk about, and when the Gators are in a game, we’re texting each other in the group chat the whole time.”
The sporting world is not deaf to the severity of the virus, but it can’t help but grieve the cancellation of NCAA-sanctioned sports and the XFL’s season, and suspension of the NHL, NFL and MLB.
“I’ve been joking with my friends for the last couple of days, saying, ‘What are we going to do with our lives now?’,” Steinfeldt said. “If I can’t talk to my dad about football and basketball, we’re going to have to find something new.”
Klimek is more despondent as she comes to terms with the sporting world’s hiatus.
She wasn’t born a Gators fan. She chose UF because she wanted something different from her hometown of Middletown, New Jersey. When she arrived on campus, she fell in love with the academics, weather and athletics, especially basketball. She also grew to love the football and baseball teams, and they served as transitions between basketball seasons.
“To not have that sporting aspect is really making me and other Rowdies feel pretty lost as to what to do in our spare time,” Klimek said. “To have basketball cut at the best time of the year and to have nothing to transition to, as a sports fan, is very difficult and definitely alters my college experience.”
Follow Christian Ortega on Twitter @unofficialchris. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gators fans -- and sports fans everywhere -- will be without sports for the foreseeable future.