While nothing compares to the chaos surrounding the sports world because of the coronavirus, this isn’t the first time in recent history that drastic measures impacted a league as it scrambled to protect public health.
On a much smaller scale, 31 years ago, the NCAA found itself facing a situation that forced a cutback in activity, leading to a handful of basketball games being played in front of empty seats. As much as players take to sports for the athleticism and competition, there is also another element that draws them to their game, and playing in front of silence just isn’t the same as listening to the roar of the crowd in the background.
In 1989, the Siena Saints out of upstate New York were having a good run on the basketball court. However, that February, a student at the school came back from a trip to Puerto Rico and was diagnosed with the measles. However, the disease wasn’t discovered until after it had already started to spread on campus – over 24 cases were reported at the school.
That led to the campus being shut down, which also spilled over to the University of Hartford in nearby Connecticut. Although Hartford is over 100 miles away, a student at the school – a basketball player – had contacted the disease, and that was enough for the university to take drastic measures. Sophomore guard Nate Gainey had become infected, apparently having received the disease from a Siena player.
There was now a difficult decision to be made, especially since Hartford was set to host the North Atlantic League Tournament (now America East) at the 15,500-seat Civic Center.
There were only two choices that were on the table, and one would be out of the question. The games could go on in front of a fan-less arena or the tournament could be canceled. Canceling was not something that would have ever been seriously considered at the time, and Hartford’s athletic director, C. Donald Cook, told the Associated Press, ″You have to put it into the act-of-God category. We have to do the best we can, so we’ll go ahead and play behind closed doors.″
Siena had been on a roll that season, but would end up playing nine games in front of empty stands. It didn’t seem to impact the team’s performance too much, though, as it went on to record 13 wins and just one loss in regular season conference action as part of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in the NAC. However, some players still found it a little odd.
Marc Brown, a sophomore guard at the time, told The New York Times, “At first it was different, new. But now, it’s starting to wear on me. I’m a little flashy; I like to make a nice pass and hear the crowd cheer. But no one cheers.”
Brown reportedly didn’t contract the disease, which was good news for the Saints. He had already become a star player for the team and would finish the 1989 season as the North Atlantic Tournament MVP, as Siena defeated Boston University inside the empty Hartford Civic Center, but before a worldwide ESPN audience, to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the first in school history.
Brown then led Siena to one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history, as the 14th-seeded Saints knocked off No. 3-seed Stanford in the first round. Days later, Siena left the NAC and became members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The Saints have done fairly well in the MAAC ever since, becoming conference champs eight more times, as well as the six conference tournament championships. The team’s most recent tournament championship came this year, after a ten-year hiatus. It was an important victory and paved the way for a March Madness appearance, but the basketball community will never know how the team would have played, thanks to COVID-19.