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The Year That Wasn’t: Reflections on the Past Year in Sport

I feel the need to write something for so many reasons, so I’m going to write this.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 06 ACC Women’s Tournament - Wake Forest v Florida State

It started the second week of March, 2020. My family and I came to the decision today would be wise for all of us to isolate ourselves, at least for a couple of months. After all, things would settle down pretty quickly, right? The number of cases wasn’t that large, and for all we knew, people would isolate for a bit, and then things would open back up after a few months. Some of our friends looked at us a little sideways; why were we so worried about it? This whole thing wasn’t going to amount to anything. Our family couldn’t take chances, though. I mean, none of us are super vulnerable or anything, but my parents and I have enough of the “not great” demographic variables that we weren’t going to roll the dice. Then within a month or so, everyone was following our lead. The number of cases was exploding. The world almost felt like something out of a post-apocalyptic novel; no cars were going up and down the road. Birds were more audible than usual. Everything else was oddly quiet, and I had almost no human contact. My parents and our dog were the only other living beings I saw on even a semi-regular basis. Sports were gone or played in front of no fans. Television shows and movies were halting production. People were getting sick and dying, yet it somehow felt like it wasn’t real. Watching numbers go up every day and praying they would flatten out or even go down became a nightly ritual for me.

The first thing that really drove home to me the fact that this was going to be bad for sports was the cancellation of March Madness. They wouldn’t have cancelled that without a darn good reason. It’s a cultural cornerstone with a ton of money attached to it. This was going to be a long six months. At almost the exact same time, the NBA shut down, at least for a while. Again, wow. This was scary. Oh well, my room was basically a bunker, and it’s not like I had anywhere to go. I was going to be alright, and my family probably was, too.

The summer was characterized by me being absolutely glued to my TV screen with the civil rights protests that emerged all across the country, the lead-up and campaigning for the 2020 elections, and literally any news I could find about the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. When I wasn’t in a misery and stress hole, however, I was discovering new podcasts, re-listening to old ones, and starting in late summer, began to talk to some folks about starting one of my own (or, well, at least being part of one, anyway).

The NFL and NCAA football both had relatively normal seasons, other than the fact that there were no fans, of course. It left me in a weird, philosophical space. When did sports as we know them cease to be sports? Did it really have the same spirit if there wasn’t that energy from the crowds? For me personally, the answer was no. I mean, I didn’t HATE watching sports in the COVID era, it just didn’t give me the same joy. I was doing it as a routine, as a habit, to do anything to break the monotony. Basketball was weird; I was glad to see the new era of Wake Forest basketball begin, but it was hard to really evaluate in any significant way. The first year of a new head coach is going to be weird even under normal circumstances, and these were NOT normal circumstances. It could have been worse though, that’s for sure. The NBA Bubble was a thing, and it was quite effective, and actually managed to be extremely entertaining (in my opinion, anyway).

We started the podcast in the fall. It has nothing to do with sports, but if you’re into nerdy stuff, games, and what amounts to improvised drama, I will just encourage people to check out my Twitter feed and leave it at that. The podcast served as something of an escape for me in much the same way sports usually would; I got to socialize albeit virtually, to do something fun, and to escape the harsh reality of everything that’d been going on. Things continued to get half better, half worse. Progress continued to be made on vaccines, and there started to be timetables on when people would be able to start taking them. The new year came. I turned 34. Vaccinations started rolling out. I managed to maintain working from home pretty darn effectively (a blessing that isn’t lost on me, by the way). The entire family got vaccinated, but things still felt not quite right.

The NBA started another season, this time outside of the bubble, though still no fans were in the stands. I couldn’t begin to tell you why, but that felt a little less empty to me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I know people are getting vaccinated and case numbers are going down in the way that I hoped they would towards the beginning of this mess. I started to feel like the sports fan I used to be; like the person I used to be before I spent over a year not going outside.

On May 4, our dog died here at home, suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly, days before her 13th birthday. Other family-adjacent challenges have arisen, though we’re getting through them as best we can. It’ll all be okay, I know that, but this past year and change has put all of us through the fire. Even though I’m starting to feel more like the pre-pandemic version of myself, I know I never will be. I don’t mean that in a negative way, necessarily, it’s just that the world is different. Even if things go back to “normal”, the pandemic is still a thing that happened. The Year That Wasn’t, in fact, was.

I’ve been watching the playoff journey of the Phoenix Suns pretty religiously, almost entirely because of the presence of Wake Forest legend Chris Paul and his possible journey to his first ever NBA Championship. I was watching Game 1 of Phoenix vs. Denver on Monday, and the crowd was ELECTRIC. Every three pointer, every alley-oop, every steal was met with an explosion of energy, of joy, of catharsis. The people of Phoenix were almost like a snapshot to the time before. They lived through the same year that I did, but they weren’t showing it. And as I watched, I found myself feeling like I did before watching sports. There was still a bit of discomfort and unease about the large crowd, still a feeling of melancholy about what’s changed over the past year, but it was buried beneath the excitement and joy of watching the sport. I was in the moment again.

I’ve been lost for a while. I’ve felt loss. I’ve also been blessed. I’ve been through the fire, as we all have. But I’m writing this because I think I’m finally coming out of this, and I think the world is too. Just a bit longer now, everyone. We need to stay safe, stay smart, stay vigilant, but The Year That Wasn’t is ending, and blessedly, is being replaced, gradually but undeniably, by The Future That Is.

Cherish your loved ones, hug your pets, be responsible, do your part to keep your community safe, and never forget The Year That Wasn’t. But, for the first time in months, I’m joyfully going to say thanks for reading, and Go Deacs.

On to the next.

—SF