BALTIMORE — 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 team’s 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 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 his team’s 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.
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 Washington Heights, has 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 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.”