NBA suspends season, ACC & SEC join NCAA in playing in empty arenas

NBA suspends season, ACC & SEC join NCAA in playing in empty arenas
Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight (20) passes the ball against Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) and center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson) (Source: Duane Burleson)

The NBA became the first major American sports league to suspend play because of the coronavirus pandemic, raising questions Wednesday night about the future of college basketball’s March Madness and other pro sports.

It looked as if the NBA might be moving toward playing in empty arenas before it announced that a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus and it had decided to pause its season after Wednesday’s games.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the Jazz player who tested positive was center Rudy Gobert. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither the league nor the team confirmed the presumptive positive test.

“The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league said in a statement.

The test result, the NBA said, was reported shortly before the Utah at Oklahoma City game was called off. New Orleans at Sacramento also was postponed after the announcement.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said earlier in the day that only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the upcoming NCAA basketball tournaments, draining the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

But the organization could reassess its plans in the wake of the NBA’s decision.

Upcoming NHL games scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and San Jose, California, and college basketball tournaments for the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic conferences will be played without fans.

The National Hockey League said it’s aware of the NBA’s decision and is continuing to consult with medical experts and evaluate options. It expects to have another update Thursday.

The pinnacle of the college basketball season, the NCAA Tournament is a month-long festival of pep bands and face-painting and a cash cow that, along with football, helps fund non-revenue sports at schools throughout the country. The decision to play in fanless arenas will cost millions in ticket sales but preserve billions in TV rights fees.

The 68-team men’s tournament is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has announced plans to ban “mass gatherings” to combat the spread of COVID-19, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

“It will have a different feel but it will still be highly competitive, and the kids will still play like there’s no tomorrow,” said Bill Self, the coach of the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. “They’ll make the most of it. We’ll make the most of it.”

Elsewhere, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports, as many American schools told students not to return from spring break and prepare for classes to be taught online. The conference had already canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Other college basketball leagues went ahead with their postseason tournaments Wednesday with fans in attendance, although the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, SEC, A-10 and ACC announced there would be no fans starting Thursday. The group that owns the Capitals said their games will go on — with fans — despite a D.C. Department of Health recommendation that “non-essential mass gatherings” be postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.

The Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament joined the Big 12 and Big Ten in playing without fans starting with Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

The league announced the decision in a statement Wednesday evening. That came late on the second day of the five-day event, after fans had attended four full games and half of the Boston College-Notre Dame game at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The league cited the “rapidly changing landscape regarding COVID-19,” saying games would be played only with teams, player guests, limited school administrators and credentialed media present.

Thursday’s games are the first to feature the top seeds in No. 4 Florida State, No. 10 Duke, No. 15 Louisville and No. 17 Virginia.

The NCAA announced that only family and essential personnel would attend the “March Madness” tournament games that begin next week around the country, including in Greensboro. After the NCAA’s announcement, the Big 12 and Big Ten -- which were opening play in their league tournaments Wednesday -- made similar calls to keep out fans with Thursday’s games.

The Southeastern Conference has joined the rest of the Power Five leagues in closing off its men’s basketball tournament to fans.

The SEC opened its tourney in Nashville on Wednesday night after the NCAA announced that only family and essential personnel would attend its men’s and women’s tournament games that begin around the country next week. The league said then it was evaluating plans for the remainder of its tournament.

About 15 minutes after Georgia beat Ole Miss to open the tournament, the SEC announced it was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 in keeping the general public out of the final four days of its tournament.

“We regret the inconvenience and disappointment this decision has caused our fans, especially those who have already traveled to Nashville for the tournament,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement.

The SEC also says fans will be kept out of all regular-season events on its campuses and other league championships through at least March 30.

Also bucking the trend toward caution: The major auto racing circuits also said they plan to race as scheduled this weekend, including a season-opening IndyCar event that is the centerpiece of a three-day street festival expected to draw about 130,000 people to St. Petersburg, Florida. There will be additional hand-washing and sanitizing stations.

NASCAR will race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as scheduled. Reporters will observe a six-foot buffer when interviewing drivers.

More than 1,000 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the United States, with 32 deaths; those rates are expected to continue to rise.

Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

According to WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.