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From empty stands to canceled seasons, COVID-19 affected Indiana sports in 2020

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-24 06:52:05-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Sports typically serve as a diversion, but in 2020 they seemed to magnify everything that was off about a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canceled games and tournaments. Cardboard cutouts in place of fans. Leagues playing in bubbles. They were all reminders something was terribly wrong.

It was no different in Indiana, and these are our top sports stories of 2020.

Indy 500 moves to August in front of empty stands

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Joe Malia watched the 2020 Indianapolis 500 from a tree above Turn 3 on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020.

The Month of May became the Month of August, and the only sounds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 23 were the roar of the engines.

For the first time in the 109-year history of the Indianapolis 500, the race was held in front of empty stands at the 2.5-mile oval track.

In late March, IMS leaders rescheduled the race from May 24 to Aug. 23. Officials said on June 26 that Indy 500 attendance would be limited to no more than 50% capacity.

That number was further decreased on July 22 when plans were scaled back to host the race at 25% capacity. Face coverings would be required, and the Speedway released an 88-page health and safety plan that provided guidelines and protocols for how the race would be run in 2020.

Finally, on Aug. 4 came word the race would happen without fans in attendance as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in Marion County.

First held in 1911, the Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world with approximately 350,000 people annually packing the track's grandstands and infield to watch "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Running the race without fans prevented the seventh cancellation in Indy 500 history. The race was not held in 1917-18 during World War I, and from 1942-45 during World War II.

Die-hard fans adjusted as some followed the race from outside the IMS gates. One man even paid a homeowner to let him watch the race and cheer for Ed Carpenter from a tree beyond Turn 3.

Ultimately, Takuma Sato won his second Indy 500 on the race's most unusual day.

PREVIOUS | Indianapolis 500 to be held without fans as coronavirus cases rise in Marion County | Takuma Sato wins 2020 Indianapolis 500

Everything changes in an instant

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Indianapolis Colts fans were allowed into the stands on limited numbers during an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Indianapolis.(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

On March 11, the NBA paused its regular season after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, the NCAA canceled the men's and women's basketball tournaments, along with all other winter and spring sports championships.

Cancellations and adjustments continue to be the norm more than nine months later.

During that time:

  • The Indiana State High School Athletic Association canceled the 2020 boys basketball tournament and all spring sports.
  • The Indy Fuel's season ended March 15 when the ECHL canceled the rest of the regular season.
  • The Indianapolis Indians missed a season for the first time since the franchise was founded in 1902.
  • NASCAR's Brickyard 400 and IndyCar's GMR Grand Prix raced without fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the July 4 weekend.
  • The Indiana Pacers resumed their season Aug. 1 in a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. The 2020-21 season is beginning back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with no fans in attendance.
  • The Indianapolis Colts opened their home season in front of 2,500 fans. Capacity limits have since increased to as many as 12,500 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The sparse crowds not affected the Colts too badly as they have a 10-4 record through Week 15 and are in position for a playoff spot.
  • The Big Ten played an abbreviated football season after originally canceling play in 2020, which was fortunate for IU as the Hoosiers finished the regular season ranked seventh in the final Associated Press poll with a 6-1 record. IU will play Mississippi Jan. 2 in the Outback Bowl.

PREVIOUS | NBA's season suspended after player tested positive for coronavirus | Strike three for Indians: Minor League Baseball canceled for this year | Indianapolis Colts to host up to 2,500 fans for home opener

Bob Knight finally returns to Assembly Hall

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BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 08: Former Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bob Knight and former Indiana Hoosiers player Isaiah Thomas on the court at half time during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 08, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Yes, there actually was a memorable sports moment this year in the "before times."

A 20-year wait finally came to an end on Feb. 8 when legendary IU basketball coach Bob Knight returned to Assembly Hall for the Hoosiers' game against Purdue.

The scars of the past seemed to wash away at halftime when Knight walked to center court with dozens of his former players while fans chanted "Bob-by, Bob-by!"

During his 29 years in Bloomington, Knight led the Hoosiers to three NCAA championships, a school-record 662 victories, 11 Big Ten titles and five Final Four appearances. However, his firing on Sept. 10, 2000, led to a long absence and bad feelings.

Bob Knight receives ovation at Assembly Hall

Knight moved back to Bloomington in the spring of 2019, and speculation intensified he might finally step foot in Assembly Hall after he attended an IU baseball game.

Unfortunately, for Knight and Hoosiers fans, Purdue spoiled his return by beating IU, 74-62.

PREVIOUS | After 20 years, Bob Knight returns to cheers at Assembly Hall | Bob Knight gives pre-game talk to Bloomington High School South basketball team | Bob Knight on IU campus