1 year later: Bankers Life Fieldhouse was a surreal place when the pandemic began

Normalcy ended during a night of basketball
B10 Northwestern Minnesota Basketball
Posted at 1:42 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 13:59:42-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Going to a basketball game as a confused world slid into the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a bad idea, but the ticket was cheap.

One year ago tonight, on March 11, 2020, the last major event in Downtown Indianapolis before the city shut down began with the tip-off of the Big Ten men's basketball tournament.

Signs on the walls warned fans to wash their hands to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, but things generally seemed normal enough until the crowd began booing.

The target of their anger was a message that appeared on the video board just before 7 p.m. saying the rest of the tournament would be held without fans.

"The main priority of the Big Ten Conference is to ensure the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, fans and media as we continue to monitor all relevant information on the COVID-19 virus on a daily basis," a statement from the Big Ten said.

B10 Northwestern Minnesota Basketball
A sign is posted outside of a restroom during NCAA college basketball game between Northwestern and Minnesota at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Hours earlier, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Previously, the coronavirus had been more a vague concept than a reality for most Americans, but now began the longest and shortest and fastest and slowest year many of us ever lived.

Minnesota defeated Northwestern and the stands in the lower and middle levels filled in with red-shirted Indiana Hoosiers fans, but there was an uneasy tension in the arena.

People nervously joked in the restroom about washing their hands for 30 seconds. "This is so weird," someone said. I moved to the emptiness of the balcony level after one person near me coughed several times in a row. Germs were everywhere and no place suddenly felt safe.

By the second half, my attention drifted from the action on the court to Twitter where an avalanche of COVID-19 news suddenly poured in from around the country.

B10 Nebraska Indiana Basketball
Indiana's Rob Phinisee (10) shoots over Nebraska's Akol Arop (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder game never tipped off because Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. By 9:30 p.m., the NBA suspended its season. And then Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive.

"What am I doing here?" I said to no one in particular as I social distanced before social distancing became a recommended method of survival.

And then on Twitter, I saw that down below me, right over there, on the Nebraska bench, Cornhuskers coach Fred Hoiberg was ill.

Hoiberg later learned he had a bad case of the flu, but that was enough for me. I left and wondered how long it would be until I returned.

B10 Nebraska Indiana Basketball
Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg calls a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Over the ensuing days, sports and nearly everything else in the United States shut down. First, the rallying cry was to give "two weeks to flatten the curve," but for months the horror grew.

More than a half-million people in the United States died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported life expectancy in the United States fell by a year in the first half of 2020.

Millions of others lost their livelihoods as businesses shut down. Children missed a year of in-person education, the damages of which will become clear in the years ahead.

People went months without seeing family and friends and lost an entire year of experiences.

Americans fought viciously over topics such as face masks as the pandemic became politicized during a fraught election season. The full scope of what we experienced over the past 365 days is hard to comprehend.

However, on a new March 11, there are glimmers of hope.

While we are not clear of the virus, infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are down while millions receive one of three vaccines with a chance for a wonderful summer.

And, yes, basketball is back in Indianapolis.

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