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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / People walk across a mostly empty plaza at the entrance to Bridgestone Arena after the remainder of the SEC men's basketball tournament was canceled on March 12, 2020, shortly before Alabama and Tennessee were to tip off the second day of the event. The night before, league commissioner Greg Sankey had announced fans would not be permitted to attend due to COVID-19.

"Bizarre."

That was longtime "Voice of the Vols" broadcaster Bob Kesling's word of choice to describe the events of the morning of Thursday, March 12, 2020, inside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena at the moment the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament — and most everything else in the world — ground to a screeching, shocking halt.

"We were about to open the afternoon session against Alabama," recalled Kesling, the lead announcer for University of Tennessee football and men's basketball since 1999.

"The night before they'd called off the Utah-Oklahoma City NBA game because of COVID and suspended play until further notice. That same night, (SEC) Commissioner (Greg) Sankey announced we'd have no fans in the stands for the remainder of the tournament. I think a lot of the (Alabama and Tennessee) players were already thinking, 'If the NBA's not playing, what are we doing out here?'"

As he always does on game days, Kesling had arrived at the arena early, at least three hours before tipoff. When he got there, Auburn was getting in a quick workout.

"Bruce Pearl comes by to say hi, and I asked if he thought the league would go ahead and play," said Kesling, referring to the former UT and current Auburn coach. "He said, 'We've just got to make sure they take care of the athletes.'"

Before long, Kesling spied Volunteers coach Rick Barnes and asked if he thought the game against Alabama would happen. Barnes said he and Crimson Tide coach Nate Oates were "still having discussions."

But it was the Tennessee coach's demeanor that most caught Kesling's eye.

"Normally, an hour or so before the game, Rick's joking around with the players, trying to keep everything loose," he said. "Not that morning. Rick was all business, very serious. I went back in the locker room. There was a different feeling. No clapping, no rah-rah stuff. The players and coaches had obviously thought about this a lot."

A little later, game time now a bit more than an hour away, Kesling was sitting down with Barnes inside the locker room for a final pregame interview when someone handed the coach his cellphone.

"Almost immediately, Rick shouted to the players, 'Let's go,'" recalled Kesling. "'Let's get back to the hotel, pack and head home to Knoxville.' That was it. The tournament was canceled. Weirdest morning I've ever had in this job."

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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Members of the media mill about the court at a mostly empty Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2020, after the SEC men's basketball tournament was canceled.

At roughly the same moment Barnes was taking that call, Times Free Press colleague Gene Henley and I were boarding a shuttle from Nissan Stadium to Bridgestone. Less than a minute after we'd taken our seats, another writer on the shuttle glanced at his iPhone and saw a news flash that the tournament was canceled.

A couple of guys got off the bus and returned to their cars. Gene and I headed to the arena, hoping to hear a word or two from Sankey.

Reflecting back on his words from that day this past Thursday, the commish said: "Many of you will recall around this same time last year a press conference where likely the most uttered phrase by me was 'I don't know,' and that was simply an honest assessment of our situation."

What we still don't know might fill the Pacific Ocean. More than a year since that awful Thursday, we still don't have a cure for COVID-19, though we do, perhaps somewhat remarkably, already have a vaccine. We also don't know how many variants are out there or how deadly these mutations could prove to be, especially if they take hold faster than the vaccines can thwart them.

We've learned to Zoom and mask (at least some of us) and wish we'd all invested in hand sanitizer companies in 2019.

Within the narrow prism of sports, we watched the Masters played in November instead of April and the Kentucky Derby run in September rather than the first Saturday in May, and both without fans. We saw the British Open and Wimbledon scratched altogether and the remainder of the NBA's 2019-20 season played in a bubble inside a Disney World property.

We lost Football Championship Subdivision competition this past fall for the University of Tennessee at Chattanoogas of the world, and a lot of folks everywhere lost a chance to watch their heroes in person, regardless of the sport.

Somehow, Sankey found a way to not only have a 10-game, SEC-only football season in 2020 but have Alabama emerge from that gruesome gauntlet as an undefeated national champion. Basketball season hasn't gone quite as smoothly for the SEC when it comes to avoiding coronavirus stoppages, but there will be a tournament title game Sunday at Bridgestone between regular-season champion Alabama and LSU, and there will be some 3,000 fans in the stands.

Yet for all that is slowly being regained, so much more has been lost the past 12 months. Jobs. Businesses. A sense of security. Fellowship. Normalcy, whatever your normal was prior to March 12, 2020.

None of those losses is remotely as significant or important as the 532,000-plus lives in this country lost to date to COVID-19. It's both staggering and stupefying that our own stubbornness and stupidity regarding the wearing of masks and social distancing has led to so much tragedy in so short a period of time.

We should have been better people than that. We must be a better people in the future if we're to avoid another such calamity somewhere down the road.

Still, a little more than a year after all this started, the 12 months ahead appear to have a chance to be far brighter than the 12 just past. Then again, as Dr. Anthony Fauci noted this past week, "Things are going much better in the right direction, but we're not out of the woods yet."

In other words, keep wearing those masks, washing those hands, avoiding crowds whenever possible and get your vaccine, or this time next year we might be reflecting on two years without stands full of fans instead of one.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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