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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Puncturing the bubble: My experience at a socially-distant March Madness

A weekend inside college basketball’s premier competition

<p>Florida warms up at the hallowed Hinkle Fieldhouse before it’s first-round game against Virginia Tech Mar. 19</p>

Florida warms up at the hallowed Hinkle Fieldhouse before it’s first-round game against Virginia Tech Mar. 19

I didn’t think much of the mask on my face as I sat in the back of an Uber in downtown Indianapolis, on my way to cover Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game.

But my girlfriend gestured toward the March Madness logo printed on my platinum-grey mask and said, “Imagine trying to explain that to someone decades from now.”

She wasn’t wrong. It would take a couple pots of coffee to explain to my grandkids why the NCAA gave out complimentary face masks, let alone the chain of worldly events that led to that moment.

Last March, the Big Dance fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts and government officials promised our dystopian lockdown would only last a few weeks, and college basketball fanatics clung to the pipe dream that March Madness would resume in the coming months. 

The polyester face covering is an everyday sight today. But years from now, my branded mask will serve as a bitter symbol for COVID-19’s devastating longevity in college sports and society.

It symbolizes a fulfilled dream — to cover an NCAA Tournament — and my role in the first socially distanced March Madness.

Florida’s characteristic collapse against Oral Roberts signals an end to my time covering the NCAA Tournament. This year’s rendition featured a few obvious drawbacks and several bizarre circumstances that I couldn’t envision just a year ago. 

The sterilized atmosphere. Marion County limited attendance to 25% capacity, and the atmosphere contrasted from the raucous crowds that underscored my favorite March Madness memories. 

The tournament’s first weekend produced numerous buzzer-beating finishes and abusive dunks. But the luster of these highlights suffered from the sea of empty seats behind every shot. 

After Tre Mann stepped back and swished his way into the Round of 32, I collected my live tweets and game notes and worked to finalize my article for the afternoon. Soon, noxious chemicals wafted from the court and interrupted my writing trance, and a surly gentleman escorted me out of the arena. 

It wasn’t all bad though. COVID’s footprint afforded me opportunities and experiences I’d never enjoy during a normal NCAA Tournament.

College basketball enjoys many of American sports’ most breathtaking venues, but its biggest spectacle historically flocks to vacuous arenas and stadiums. This season, the entire tournament was confined to the greater Indianapolis area, and the basketball-crazed Hoosier state displayed its incredible tradition. 

Hinkle Fieldhouse hosted Florida’s first game, and the century-old arena revealed incredible architecture and palpable history behind every turn. Its barn-like exterior, beautiful paneling, famous glare and antiquated steel catwalks create a palace, fitting for March Madness.

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Even out into the streets, Indy teemed with basketball hoopla. With one centralized location, the Indiana capital gained rainbow canals filled with Syracuse orange, Abilene Christian purple and Purdue gold.

Much like the Olympics, this year’s March Madness welcomed people of all backgrounds into a beautiful celebration of sport. Fans packed into bars and ignored  COVID-19 precautions, but I admired the atmosphere from afar.

 I can’t exactly say that I look forward to next time because I don’t want there to be a next time. In a perfect scenario, COVID-19 wouldn’t exist and an event like this wouldn’t either. 

But my platinum gray mask will remain a hard-to-explain souvenir of a hard-to-explain period in our lives.

Contact Declan Walsh at and follow him on Twitter @declanaw

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