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A year later, early pandemic memories persist


One year ago today, March 12, 2020, our world began changing.

For me, it was a slow-motion change. The edges of the world were melting, as if we were trapped in a Salvador Dali painting.

Unsurprisingly, since the sport has been part of my life since second grade, I first felt the changes through the lens of basketball.

It was tournament time and, at The Bulletin, we were monitoring the progress of our local high school basketball teams in Albuquerque for the state tournament, as well as New Mexico State University, whose stellar men’s team was in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

The afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, I listened to Jeff Matthews’ radio broadcast of the Las Cruces High School boys’ 51-46 quarterfinal victory over Clovis. You could hear the excitement of The Pit in Albuquerque. Cheerleaders cheering, fans screaming, bands playing and the telltale sneaker squeaks of players on the court. The Bulldawgs were the only local team still alive.

Then came Thursday, March 12.

We were hearing things nationally about events going on without fans, or being canceled altogether, due to this mysterious pandemic.

The Aggies were scheduled to play a Thursday game in the WAC’s first round, and I was tuning the radio to hear Jack Nixon call the action. Soon we learned the entire WAC tournament was canceled. The Aggie players were all dressed up with no place to go, having arrived in Las Vegas for the WAC, then standing around waiting to come back home. The league declared NMSU as its representative in the NCAA tournament -- fitting, since the Aggies went 16-0 in the conference. But another question was brewing: Would there even BE an NCAA tournament?

So, what about the New Mexico high school tournament? It would continue, but in front of no fans at The Pit.

For the Thursday evening semifinal pitting the LCHS Bulldawgs against Albuquerque’s Volcano Vista, I again tuned in to Jeff Matthews on the radio. But something wasn’t quite right.

I knew there were no fans, so I didn’t expect to hear the cheering and the bands. But where were the sneaker squeaks? Where were the referee whistles?

Soon enough, Matthews explained: In addition to fans, media had also been largely excluded from the arena, meaning he was calling the game from his hotel room, viewing a live feed on his computer.

The whole thing seemed unnatural, compounded by eerily overcast skies in Las Cruces.

The Bulldawgs beat Volcano Vista 47-31, earning a berth in the final on Saturday, March 14, when they defeated Santa Fe Capitol, 65-53, to win the 5A state championship. I believe it was the last high school title game played in America in 2020. LCHS Coach William Benjamin said it was weird and a little spooky, but he believed the lack of distractions helped his team.

Friday the 13th, we got word Las Cruces Public Schools would have a two-week spring break, to give the administration time to chart a direction.

That first week, Las Cruces was like a ghost town. No one knew if it was safe to even grab a door handle or pump gas.

Over time, we each found our own ways to adjust to this strange new world. But the surreal, haunting nature of those first several days, living in a sci-fi movie, is something I won’t soon forget.

Richard Coltharp