Under normal circumstances, this story would be published a day or two before the NCAA basketball tournament’s Sweet 16. We would have just wrapped up the first four days, the best four days, of March Madness, and still be talking about the amazing games and upsets.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. There was no selection Sunday. No filling out brackets. No first round, no second round. No Sweet 16. No Elite Eight. No Final Four. No champion. Not even a single shining moment. With the sports world effectively shutting down due to public health and safety concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps the most tragic casualty was the cancelation of the 2020 NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Basketball fans across Haywood County are finding ways to cope with the loss of the beloved event.

“I’m going to miss the heck out of March Madness,” said Pisgah athletic director Casey Kruk. “I look forward to that every year. We keep up with it here. When I get home, we’ve got three or four different screens going at the house, we’re cheering and screaming for everybody. We don’t really care. … I think one of the interesting things is people understand that when things like this happen, sports are a huge part of people’s lives, not just because they like sports, they like the community that’s involved with sports. It’s hugely important. … It’ll be tough not having any sports around, but we’ll make do, we’ll figure it out and we’ll throw the frisbee in the backyard until we get to play again.”

March Madness was always something that would bring everyone together, from the basketball diehards to those who don’t watch a second of action until the third month of the year.

The games and bracket pools would dominate conversations at schools and workplaces. Now, with no tournament, and schools and most workplaces closed, that sense of community the tournament brings is missing.

“March Madness is one of those things where everybody in the school gets together,” said Tuscola boys basketball coach Nathan Messer. “We all make teams and see who’s going to win, do things like that. It’s a fun time for the whole community. It’s a community event. Everybody watches it; it’s unbelievable. It’s very sad that it’s not here, but unfortunately things happen and we have to make decisions that are more for our livelihood than anything else. That’s what’s happened. We just have to move on from there.”

While sports fans have plenty to miss these days, from high school games, to the NBA, MLS, MLB and NHL, many agreed that the NCAA Tournament was what they’d miss most.

So much about the tournament brings out the best in sports, from the sense of community of bracket pools, to rooting for the underdog, historic upsets and seeing seniors giving their all in their last run.

“As a basketball fan and as a sports fan, this is the best time of the year,” said Tuscola baseball head coach and boys basketball assistant coach Zack Shepherd. “You’ve got March Madness, college baseball’s starting college play, Major League Baseball is right around the corner. This is a very exciting time to be a sports fan. I love watching conference tournaments, because the kids take it to a whole other level. Their effort and intensity is through the roof. It’s enjoyable to watch. … It hits home to a lot of people, because March Madness, if you asked the general public what their favorite tournament was, there’s a lot of people that aren’t even basketball fans that like March Madness. The thrill of upsets, what player is going to emerge. It’s exciting times and now everybody’s kind of left in the dark.”

The loss of the tournament and other sporting events means more in these times than just a lack of entertainment.

Throughout many national tragedies and disasters, sports were the escape, the means of restoring a sense of normalcy to life. Now, with the dangers presented by crowds and close contact between athletes during a global pandemic, that escape is lost.

“That hurts,” Kruk said. “I remember walking through the 911 memorial in New York City and there’s a huge section of it dedicated to what sports meant to the city of New York and to the country after that event and how sports healed it. Sports will come back. This is just a temporary thing. It’s going to be weird not having any games on.

“It’s going to be weird not hearing anything that has to do with a sporting event being played. It’s going to be strange for kids not to be watching highlights of their sports heroes at night. That’s going to be odd, but it is what it is. Maybe in retrospect it will give us some time with our families and we can turn off the TV and enjoy being around each other instead of getting zoned in on everything else that’s happening.”

That attitude of taking time to enjoy time with family and other things that sports might draw them away from is one that several of the coaches echoed.

“What it’s done for me is taken the distraction out of my life and say ‘OK, what’s really important to me?” said Haywood Chrisitian Academy boys basketball coach Mark Page. “What if sports were stripped away? What if basketball were stripped away? What if all the things that I enjoy and watch on TV were stripped away? Who would I be then?’”

Others are trying to take the optimistic view, and see if the forced break from constant sports action leads them to discover other hobbies and activities they enjoy.

“As a basketball coach and player, even as a fan, that’s the best time, sportswise, of the year,”said Pisgah boys basketball coach Jonathan Whitson. “...You’re going to miss it, and you’re going to have to find different things that you’ve got to do to occupy your time. But again, you just go back to, you might find something you enjoy equally. But it’s hard, just because it’s one of the best sports times of the year.”

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