BALTIMORE, Md. – In what was believed to be the first U.S. sports event held without fans because of the new coronavirus, Yeshiva University beat Worcester Polytechnic Institute in a Division III men's basketball NCAA Tournament game Friday in an empty gym at Johns Hopkins University.
Players on each bench cheered and chanted “De-fense!” to make up for the lack of fans. The squeaking sound of sneakers and bouncing of the ball reverberated off the walls of the 1,100-seat Goldfarb Gymnasium that was otherwise so quiet that the in-game chatter could be heard several rows back.
“It was definitely a weird experience,” WPI forward Jake Wisniewski said. “All the emotions that are going on the court, everyone was able to hear it, which was weird. Usually, the crowd can kind of mask a lot of things that are being said on the court.”
As students walked by the athletics facility, there were police officers outside and signs on doors reading, “No spectators.” Music blared over the speakers inside and some pre-planned fan announcements, including one promoting social media sharing — “Tell the world you’re here” — went on with no fans to hear them.
Only players, coaches, referees, employees and media members were present, so the official attendance was 0.
“It was definitely different, but our guys on the bench really made up for it,” Yeshiva coach Elliott Steinmetz said after the 102-78 win. “The energy on the bench was absolutely awesome, and I think it really carried the guys on the court in a big way.”
An NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel said Friday it is “not recommending cancellation or public spacing of athletic and related events scheduled to occur in public spaces across the United States.” Johns Hopkins senior scholar Amesh Adalja is on the panel.
The NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball tournament begin in less than in two weeks. Those games will be played in large arenas in front of crowds of thousands across the country, from Spokane, Washington, to Albany, New York. The men's semifinals and championship game are scheduled for April 4 and April 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which seats 75,000.
Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, said in an interview with the AP on Friday night that contingency plans are being discussed and include playing games with only essential personal at the site — as was done at Johns Hopkins.
“That probably is the ultimate scenario that we're ready for,” Hainline said.
Johns Hopkins University said it was “prudent to hold this tournament without spectators” after Maryland's recently confirmed COVID-19 cases and CDC guidelines for large gatherings. Maryland announced there were three cases of the virus.
A student at Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish university in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, tested positive for the virus.
The game was delayed by more than an hour after a Yeshiva rabbi tested positive and the school needed to provide documentation to ensure it was safe to play. WPI waited at its hotel while that was completed, and three players decided not to to take the court because of fears about the virus.
“Once we got the OK from Johns Hopkins University and the NCAA that they felt comfortable, we had most of our team and student-athletes and parents comfortable about playing. We didn't have everybody, though," WPI coach Chris Bartley said. “We left it up to the individual student and their parents to make that decision and we tried to provide as much information as possible. The difficulty in this situation is there was not much information for us to disseminate to our parents and students.”
When things got under way, the national anthem and starting lineups went on as normal with players giving each other fist pounds instead of handshakes. The two coaches shook hands before tip-off and shared some disappointment the game wasn't played in a normal environment.
"Fans are part of the experience," Bartley said. “It's too bad that given the importance of reaching the NCAA Tournament that not only the Yeshiva team but our student-athletes didn't get the full experience."
It didn't affect Yeshiva, which won its first NCAA Tournament game in program history and extended its winning streak this season to 28. Sophomore Ryan Turell, who scored a career-high 41 points in the empty arena, said players were focused on basketball and not the strange circusmtances.
Host Johns Hopkins was set to face Penn State Harrisburg on Friday night, with the winner playing Yeshiva in the second round Saturday night The gym was heavily disinfected Thursday night and then again between games Friday.
“We did that specific to make sure that there were no questions that we were doing our due diligence, that everything was clean and ready to go,” Johns Hopkins director of athletic communications Ernie Larossa said. “We’re just doing our due diligence to make sure that everybody has a safe environment to compete in.”
Johns Hopkins offered refunds to fans who bought tickets. Larossa said more than 400 tickets had been sold for the two sessions Friday.
Sports events in Italy and Japan have been held without fans in recent weeks, and Meydan Racecourse in Dubai announced it would hold its Super Saturday horse racing this weekend at an empty track. Santa Clara County in California on Thursday recommended the cancellation of large gatherings, including San Jose Sharks hockey games, but the NHL went ahead with the team's game against Minnesota on Thursday night and the team said weekend games would go on as scheduled.
This game is the second in Baltimore to be held without fans, albeit under different circumstances. A 2015 Major League Baseball game between the Orioles and Chicago White Sox went on at an empty Camden Yards because of civil unrest in the city after the death of Freddie Gray.
Yeshiva's team had its hotel reservation in suburban Baltimore canceled over coronavirus fears, forcing the team to book rooms at a different place. A PR firm representing the hotel said in a statement sent to The Associated Press “the management of the property followed the precautionary measures set by Yeshiva University, that has recently cancelled classes, as well as scheduled events, through Tuesday, March 10th" and did not discriminate against the team.
The Maccabees, named after the rebel Jewish warriors, are used to legions of faithful fans who sing in Hebrew, chant out their names from the stands and often them follow them on the road. Players on the bench, some wearing Jewish skullcaps, instead chanted “Let's go, Macs!” while their parents watched back at the hotel.
“Our bench (players), they did a concerted effort to really be loud and energetic and try to fill it with as much noise as possible,” Yeshiva’s Simcha Halpert said.
The virus has sickened more than 100,000 people worldwide with over 3,400 deaths. The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 climbed to 14, with all but one victim in Washington state, while the number of infections increased to over 200 across 18 states.
AP writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.