The day sports shut down: Revisiting the unthinkable one year later

State Farm Arena, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and other sports venues went quiet when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world in March 2020. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

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State Farm Arena, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and other sports venues went quiet when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world in March 2020. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

Carl Adkins’ phone rang shortly before 4 p.m. Instantly, he knew what was about to happen.

“You could hear it in her voice,” recalled Adkins, who was the executive director of the Atlanta Basketball Host Committee. “She was obviously crushed.”

The caller on the afternoon of March 12, 2020, was JoAn Scott, the NCAA managing director of men’s basketball championships. She had devastating news for Adkins and others who long had been preparing for the 2020 Final Four at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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“She said the NCAA was going to put out a press release in 15 or 20 minutes and just wanted us to hear it from them instead of hearing it on the news,” Adkins said. “The plug was pulled.”

One year ago, the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The NBA was the first to act, suspending its season late on the night of March 11, 2020. The next day, college conferences abruptly called off their basketball tournaments that were in progress, MLB shut down spring training, the MLS and NHL seasons were halted, and the NCAA canceled March Madness, including the men’s Final Four in Atlanta.

“It was a very surreal moment,” Atlanta Sports Council president Dan Corso said. “We had been kind of following the pandemic through the news and discussions with the NCAA, but we were planning as if everything was going to proceed as normal. And then it just came out of the blue.”

The stage was set for the widespread shutdown of sports when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, causing the NBA to suddenly suspend its season.

“To me, that was the catalytic moment when this (pandemic) got kind of real for America,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said. “It was so serious that sports, who usually find a way to exist, as we ended up doing (months later), went away.”

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The Hawks were in the fourth quarter of a game against the New York Knicks at State Farm Arena when the NBA announced the season would stop at night’s end.

“It was a crazy night,” Koonin recalled. “At 6:30, we had an NBA Board of Governors call to poll the owners of the teams on whether they wanted to pause the season or play without fans. It was pretty unanimous that we would be playing without fans.”

On the call, Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler cast the first vote and told his fellow owners that, whatever happened, he would pay all Hawks employees during the pandemic. “And he has,” Koonin said this week, with no layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts.

Three hours after that call, at 9:37 p.m., the vote to play without fans was superseded by Gobert’s test result and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s abrupt decision to put the season on hiatus “until further notice.”

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Hawks owner Tony Ressler walks off the court in the final minute of a 136-131 loss to the New York Knicks on March 11, 2020, at State Farm Arena. In the fourth quarter of that game, the NBA announced the suspension of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Hawks owner Tony Ressler walks off the court in the final minute of a 136-131 loss to the New York Knicks on March 11, 2020, at State Farm Arena. In the fourth quarter of that game, the NBA announced the suspension of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Hawks owner Tony Ressler walks off the court in the final minute of a 136-131 loss to the New York Knicks on March 11, 2020, at State Farm Arena. In the fourth quarter of that game, the NBA announced the suspension of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Ressler and his wife, Jami Gertz, along with Koonin and Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, learned of that decision while keeping up with the fast-moving developments on several TVs in a private office area at State Farm Arena during the Hawks-Knicks game. The Hawks finished that game, losing 136-131 in overtime, and didn’t play again for nine months.

As the NBA decision reverberated, the sports industry — and seemingly everyone else, too — awoke to a different world March 12, 2020.

The University of Georgia men’s basketball team had beaten Ole Miss in an SEC tournament first-round game in Nashville, Tenn., the night before. Immediately after that game, the SEC announced it would play the rest of the tournament without fans in attendance. But by morning, the plan changed again.

“We knew everything was different that day,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said. “But we didn’t know to what level.

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“We were preparing to get ready for (second-round opponent) Florida. (The players) had just had breakfast. We were getting ready to watch film and then go through our walk-through. And then things all changed, and life has never been the same.”

At 11:45 a.m., the SEC called off the tournament. The ACC and other college conferences did likewise that day.

The Braves played the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game in Lakeland, Fla., that afternoon. By game time, there was a sense that the pandemic would close baseball, too, at any minute.

“Going out to the dugout … at that point we weren’t sure that we were even going to start that game, let alone finish it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And when we finished, they announced (the closing of spring training) over the loudspeakers. That’s how I knew.”

Credit: Atlanta Braves

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Braves manager Brian Snitker recalls how the 2020 spring training was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Players soon dispersed from the Braves’ camp in North Port, Fla., not to reconvene, as it turned out, until July in Atlanta.

“I think everybody, to a man, thought when we left that it’d just be a couple of weeks before we’d be back,” Snitker said.

Nineteen weeks later, an abbreviated MLB season began without fans in the stands.

On the same day that MLB closed down spring training, Georgia Tech’s baseball team was getting ready to board a bus to Tallahassee, Fla., for a weekend series against Florida State when it learned college baseball season was suspended, too.

“Me personally, I kind of thought it’d be a weekend deal and we’d be back at it the next week,” Tech coach Danny Hall said. “But we all know that didn’t happen.” The Yellow Jackets’ 2020 season never resumed.

Atlanta United also learned March 12, 2020, that its season was on hold. The night before, the team had lost to Club America in a Champions League game in Mexico City.

“When we flew home, we were expecting things to get shut down,” former Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “Our expectations were a much shorter timeline than what we got ourselves into. … It became more of a reality, from ‘when are we going to get back onto the field?’ to ‘we need to keep ourselves safe here.’ I think the most important thing was acknowledging the seriousness of it all.”

Atlanta United next played four months later. The balance of the season unfolded with few or no fans in attendance.

“The impact is still rippling through the league,” said Larentowicz, who became a free agent after last season. “… Day to day, game to game, it stripped away a lot of what you are normally doing and raised some existential questions.

“We still got to play. We still got to be out there. The league found a way to test us and travel safely. It was good in that year to (resume) doing what you love and trying to do it safely.”

But even now, a year later, sports remain different in countless ways. Limited attendance at games. Extensive safety protocols for players and fans alike. Considerable financial losses. Games sometimes postponed by coronavirus outbreaks. Media interviews via Zoom. An NBA All-Star game last weekend without ticket sales. An altered sports calendar.

“We’re so driven by the calendar in the NBA,” said Schlenk, the Hawks’ general manager. “We’re so used to, ‘this is when the draft is, this is when summer league is, this is when the season starts, this is when you take your family on vacation.’ Now, all of a sudden, you talk about the last year where nothing has been the same.”

“It definitely feels a lot longer than a year ago,” Braves pitcher Max Fried said of the 2020 spring-training closure, “but to come full circle one year (later), I’m really excited that we’re able to get back to playing baseball this time of year.”

Koonin, the Hawks’ CEO, recalled that a few weeks after the NBA suspended play, he was “so jealous” of the NFL because he presumed “everything would be fine” by the start of football season last fall. Everything wasn’t fine by then, of course. Now, he hopes sports might return to normalcy, or thereabouts, by fall 2021.

“Thank goodness vaccines are taking hold and numbers (of COVID-19 cases) are going down and conversations are happening to accelerate the rate of vaccines,” Koonin said. “With some kind of hope and luck and good fortune, maybe, maybe, maybe, we’ll see the fall — I don’t know if it’s football or (next NBA) season — get back to some semblance of normalcy.

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Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

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Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

“I never really understood (until long after the NBA suspended its season) the magnitude of that night -- that more than a half million Americans would have lost their lives, the economic distress, the social distress. The consequences of this have just unfolded over such a long period of time that I don’t think any of us ever contemplated what we were dealing with.”

The cancellation of Atlanta’s Final Four underscored locally the suddenness and scale of the sports shutdown.

“I just hated it for the city,” Adkins, the executive director of the Atlanta host committee, said of the cancellation. “The city was going to shine. Everything was lining up for a great event. And then it was what it was.”

After planning for years for a Final Four with 75,000-plus fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and tens of thousands more at ancillary activities, the NCAA and the Atlanta host committee briefly pursued other options when the threat of COVID-19 became clear. One fleeting idea was to move to a smaller venue and hold the event with limited or no fans.

“About 36 or 48 hours before (the cancellation), we got calls from the NCAA wanting us to explore the possibility of doing the Final Four in State Farm Arena,” Adkins said. Even as the NBA owners were voting by conference call in the early evening of March 11, 2020, on how to deal with their season, “my phone was ringing with people from March Madness considering if they could move the Final Four from Mercedes-Benz to our building,” Koonin said. The juxtaposition of the two calls was “fascinating,” he said.

Adkins said State Farm Arena “was great to work with,” but “I started getting that kind of sneaky feeling in my gut it just probably wasn’t meant to be.” That feeling grew stronger when word of the canceled SEC tournament reached the Final Four offices in the Georgia World Congress Center. “Everybody was trying to remain optimistic, but I had that sinking feeling,” Adkins said.

Then his phone rang with the dreaded news from the NCAA and the realization that Atlanta would have to wait until 2027 or later for another chance to host the booked-far-in-advance Final Four.

“You’re disappointed, but you certainly understand,” said Corso, the Atlanta Sports Council president, recalling one year later his reaction to the NCAA decision. “No one really knew at the time what is this pandemic.

“I think reality hit because of everything coming in a wave of cancellations. It hit home that this was something real and something unprecedented.”

Staff writers Doug Roberson, Sarah K. Spencer, Ken Sugiura and Chip Towers contributed to this article.