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Leistikow: Surreal, lasting imagery at a Big Ten Tournament canceled over coronavirus concerns

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Even though there wasn’t a single basketball game to write about today, the now-canceled Big Ten Conference Tournament nonetheless provided surreal, lasting images that won’t be forgotten.

Here are the scenes from downtown Indianapolis that I’ll remember from what we might very well look back on as one of the most historic 24-hour periods in sports.

I’ll remember walking into the media workroom on the floor level of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just a few minutes after going through security and gaining my media credential for what was already scheduled to be an eerie day of basketball without fans.

This was roughly 20 minutes before Michigan and Rutgers were supposed to tip off in the first of four games, with Iowa vs. Minnesota to follow. The first person to greet me in the room was Tom Kakert, another Iowa media member. "Hang tight," he said as I started to remove my backpack and find a seat. "They just pulled both teams off the floor.”

Maybe 30 seconds later, another reporter from the middle of the room shouted, “Tournament’s canceled!”

A stadium worker clears basketballs from the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday morning. The rest of the Big Ten Tournament was canceled.

MOREHawkeyes players and fans shocked when Big Ten Tournament is canceled due to coronavirus

Indeed, a Big Ten statement stamped at 11:44 a.m. (ET), was waiting in my e-mail inbox. A historic cancellation, after just two games of a scheduled 13, due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as coronavirus.

I scurried to the floor, just in case any Iowa coaches or players were available for a quick comment, but quickly found out they were still at the team hotel, about six blocks away. On the court were security personnel, who were pointing media members and other permitted spectators to clear the floor.

Not more than five minutes after arriving, I was asked to leave.

It all happened so quickly, yet it all seemed inevitable.

During the entire seven-hour drive to Indianapolis, my Register colleague, Mark Emmert, and I felt like we were traveling a road to a basketball tournament that would end with no basketball.

That feeling had become stronger Wednesday night.

The most profound image I’ll remember from the tournament's cancellation was from one of the two games that actually took place. It was that of Fred Hoiberg — bent over, his heavy head resting on his arm during Nebraska’s game against Indiana.

When he left the bench prematurely and then word leaked out that he had been hospitalized, it left a nation to wonder. Does Fred Hoiberg have coronavirus?

And if so … why on earth is he out there? And why are they still playing the games?

It turned out that The Mayor only had the flu and had been looked at before the game. But the Big Ten knew it had dodged a bullet.

And that led to another lasting image from the week: The strength of Kevin Warren.

You could argue he waited too long to cancel the tournament. But the Big Ten’s new commissioner provided impressive insight into the thought process of his decision in another surreal scene: A now crowded corner room of, oh, about 100 reporters and the commissioner behind a microphone in an otherwise empty arena, in the first significant press conference since taking over for Jim Delany.

“I’ve found in my career, the more complicated decisions are, the answer is much more simple,” Warren said. “And that is always base your decisions on what is the right thing to do.”

Why not announce this at 8 a.m. instead of 11:44?

“During life, if you take a step back, very rarely do you regret it,” Warren said. “We needed to make sure we had the appropriate time to make the appropriate decision.

“If it comes down to I overreacted … I’m comfortable with that.”

It was a good day for Commissioner Warren. He commanded the room and explained how he prayed over the decision and was reassured "in my spirit this is the right thing to do.” He knows it's a decision that will be unpopular to many fans … and the players who have worked their whole lives toward this.

Warren’s advice he’s shared with the NCAA regarding the basketball and wrestling championships: “Make sure you put the student-athletes at the epicenter of your decision. If you do that, I think you’ll be led to the right decision.”

And only 3 hours later, the NCAA gave its finality: All winter and spring sports championships would be canceled.

And on that note comes one more lasting image, this one Hawkeye-centered.

In downtown Indianapolis, around 1 p.m. — just 30 or so minutes before the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes were supposed to tip off against Minnesota — there was the rangy, athletic 6-foot-6 body of Joe Wieskamp. But he wasn't taking a warmup jump shot. He was waiting to cross the street, with his family, looking for something to do or somewhere to eat.

As in: What now?

I briefly talked to one other Hawkeye player on the street and asked him how we was doing with the news. One word came out of his mouth, as he seemed resigned to his season being over.

“Sad.”

These things are hitting us hard and fast, quicker than we imagined, as we enter still-unknown waters with this coronavirus pandemic. But this week, with Indianapolis (home of the NCAA) as the epicenter, we came face to face a historically new sports reality.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.