ALBUQUERQUE — Senior guard T.J. Sanchez sat on the bench to bury his sweaty face in his palms while a referee retrieved the basketball, which had bounced into the hands of the Capital High School student section at the end of the first quarter.
As Sanchez and his teammates huddled close during the intermission, fans of all ages rubbed shoulders and shared popcorn at The Pit, where some 10,000 New Mexicans passed through Wednesday during the quarterfinals of the state basketball tournament.
After Santa Fe High lost to Rio Rancho Cleveland in the final game of the evening, the New Mexico Activities Association announced the rest of the tournament would not admit fans, citing concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez said each team will be allowed to bring a total of 20 players, coaches and administrators to the semifinals and finals after the Governor’s Office ordered no more than 100 people in the building at the same time.
Before that announcement though, basketball in the time of coronavirus tipped off like normal in Albuquerque.
“I have hand sanitizer in my purse, especially for the hand rails going down,” said 73-year-old Mary Domina, who was in attendance to watch her grandson play for Albuquerque Eldorado against Capital. “I came to support my family. I come to nearly every game. There was no way I would have missed this.”
A few hours before the start of Capital’s win, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham advised residents, especially those over the age of 60, to avoid public gatherings.
“Don’t unnecessarily expose yourself,” Lujan Grisham said at a news conference where she declared a public health emergency after the first three cases of the virus were confirmed in the state. “That just makes our job to contain this virus much harder.”
Later in the day, state officials announced that a fourth person — a Santa Fe County woman in her 60s — had tested positive for COVID-19.
Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA announced that attendance at championship events, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and this weekend’s track and field national championships at the Albuquerque Convention Center, will be played in front of essential staff and limited family attendance. Wednesday evening, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely after a player tested positive for coronavirus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is thought to spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes and may spread when someone touches a surface or object that has the virus on it before touching their own mouth or nose. Experts say the virus isn’t transmissible through sweat.
Wednesday at The Pit, a makeshift hand sanitizer dispenser nailed to a wooden post buried in a bucket of sand awaited players and cheerleaders at their entrance. A visual survey of the crowd found no masks.
The NMAA only had enough credentials for two sets of coaches at a time, so outside the locker rooms between each game, an NMAA official gathered on-court passes off the necks of coaches leaving the court and passed them onto those walking on. While bathrooms were stocked with soap and hand sanitizer, they frequently ran out of paper towels.
Still, fans in attendance weren’t thinking twice about their decision to attend.
“Some people are super conscious about the virus, but the way I see it, you keep washing your hands and staying clean, you’ll be all right,” said David Baker, a 1995 Capital High graduate. “It’s not every day we make it to the state finals. Go Jaguars.”
After Capital High’s victory, coach Ben Gomez said his team was staying in a nearby hotel Wednesday night.
“It’s a good thing this is a basketball game and not a public gathering,” Gomez quipped. “The governor is trying to protect everyone in New Mexico. I can appreciate that, but it just wouldn’t be the same without the fans. That’s what makes March Madness March Madness.”
After the game, Sanchez and his Capital teammates surfaced from the depths of The Pit to high-five and hug a few hundred fans waiting for them in the concourse. While sober-minded politicians and public health officials were deciding to severely alter the state tournament experience in the name of safety, the emotions of high school basketball in New Mexico still had their day at The Pit.
“Playing at a college arena in front of our fans, it’s the best feeling ever,” Sanchez said.