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Sports still trying to heal a year later from COVID pause

Little did we know.

A year has nearly passed since Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. It only seems like 10.

There are different shades of darkness and the blackout that halted sports across America because of the coronavirus produced heartache for so many.

That’s what happens when you’re temporarily deprived of something that so universally connects people. Something that had been in place since World War II.

Gobert was the first known sports figure to test positive last March 11. Then came Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell.

Then, the following day, came that darkness.

“When you go through some tough times, I think those tough times make you grow,” Gobert recently told reporters.

Mostly, in this case, we all grew in our understanding of the bigger picture.

Sports matter

As major events like the NCAA Tournament were canceled and professional leagues hit the pause button, the importance of sports in our lives became even more clear.

It’s all relative. Fun and games aren’t a speck of dust compared to the storm that has been the loss of life that has resulted from COVID-19. Or the financial hardships suffered by so many.

Sports matter in a way that is minuscule to the level of despair felt the past 12 months. But they matter. Speck of dust or not.

“Human nature doesn’t thrive in isolation without those types of events where people can come together and celebrate,” said Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer. “Even a small thing like a birthday party. Or a hockey game at T-Mobile Arena with a packed crowd and a night out.

“The fact we have taken a huge step in getting people back in that environment is incredible. Hopefully, it’s a small taste of what is to come here in the near future.”

No sport or league was spared the virus. Billions of dollars were lost. When various bubbles and pods were formed and games resumed, everything and nothing was different.

What didn’t change: An athlete’s hunger for competition will never lessen, no matter how long safety protocols and COVID-19 testing are part of sports. You can’t put a mask over one’s perseverance and expect it to disappear.

(Although the fact that jackets and ties have vanished from NBA and college basketball coaches and replaced with pullovers is a great thing).

What did: Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the imagery of sports and COVID-19. The level of intimacy lost.

Dressing up vacant is a tough sell. Debuting an NFL team to its new Allegiant Stadium home in front of, well, nobody, is hardly the most ideal option.

“I’ll tell you it’s been tough,” said Raiders general manager Mike Mayock. “Playing in empty stadiums, I couldn’t believe the lack of energy in the buildings. You have to bring your own energy into these empty stadiums. I hope we never have to deal with that one again.”

Sports has always been a source of healing in terrible times. An escape from the sadness of terrorists attacks or natural disasters. It’s the same now. Football, baseball, hockey and basketball all crowned world champions this last year. It just took different ways to get there.

DeBoer is correct in that as more and more fans return to arenas and stadiums, so too will a sense of routine. And the more ordinary things seem, the faster what we knew as the experience of sports will be restored.

Flicker of hope

There is still a massive amount of revenue loss to overcome for teams. And socially distanced seating and temperature checks might be part of your sports experience for some time to come.

But if that’s not a light at the end of the tunnel as more and more folks are vaccinated, it’s at least a flicker of hope. A flash of optimism.

“It’s not just sports,” said Aviators president Don Logan. “People have to get used to going back to work around co-workers, no matter what you do. It’s everybody. I think it will take some time for people to get comfortable. This thing affected the entire world.

“I think sports will be the same in time. People have started going back to some games. It’s gradually ramping up to be normal. Just remember social distancing and don’t get in peoples’ faces to talk.”

The best thing about this whole ordeal? According to Logan, “the man hug is going to go the way of the Conestoga wagon.”

Nearly a year later, it would take more than some Lysol and hand sanitizer to clean one of those babies.

That, and who’s Roger Goodell going to embrace during the NFL draft?

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.