SOMEWHERE IN WEST VIRGINIA (WDRB) — The trip from Louisville to North Carolina is one I’ve made at least twice a year in the six seasons since the University of Louisville joined the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Ashland, Kentucky, Huntington, Charleston and Beckley, West Virginia, Wytheville, Virginia and Mount Airy and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And then, usually, on to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.
I’ve made the trip enough times that I have my favorite stops and exits, for coffee, water, food and fuel.
I also know that I’d better bring the essential $12 — $4 for each of the toll booths along Interstate 77, starting roughly 20 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia.
But this trip, the one that WDRB Sports Director Aaron Matas and I made Wednesday to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been different. It had to be different with all the alarming, confusing and riveting news stirred by COVID-19.
It will be different, transforming into a tournament without fans on Thursday, the day U of L will play its opening game around 9:30 p.m.
Even the toll booths delivered mixed messages.
The first attendant was a younger woman. She took my $5 and returned a dollar as well as a receipt. She wore black rubber gloves. Thick ones. Definitely thick ones.
When John Lewis and I drove this route to Raleigh, North Carolina, on Super Bowl weekend for the Louisville-North Carolina State game, I noticed several toll attendants wearing lightweight clear gloves. It was flu season. Just being prudent. Understandable.
These gloves were different. They were thick, the kind of gloves I occasionally wear while doing serious cleaning. They got our attention.
I gave receipt and the dollar to Aaron. He stuck them in an envelope.
We both bathed our hands in Purell Advanced hand sanitizer.
I pulled sanitizer from my travel bag, which also included Clorox disinfectant wipes, Elderberry gummy bears and, yes, several anti-bacterial masks, which my wife, Rhonda, had purchased prior to flu season several years ago.
The second toll stop was about 20 minutes down the interstate. No line. The gentleman who took my four $1 bills was not wearing gloves.
“No gloves?” I asked.
“No, sir,” he said, shaking his head with pride.
As I said earlier, there are three toll stops. Aaron and I decided the third one would be the tiebreaker.
This attendant, a middle-aged woman, was not wearing gloves.
“No gloves?” I asked again.
“I forgot them inside,” she said. “I’m going to go back in (the office) and get them.”
Consider this a news day unlike any other.
When we left Louisville at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, the conference and NCAA basketball tournaments were business as usual. The universities of Louisville and Kentucky were also on regular schedules. The Seattle Mariners were still playing their opener at home. The Ivy League spring sports schedule was on the calendar. Indiana University canceled West Coast trips for two of its teams.
People had yet to start tweeting pictures of empty arenas.
All that changed. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. A surreal, Twilight Zone drive to North Carolina unfolded as Aaron read tweet after tweet after tweet.
The NCAA Tournament moved from center stage to footnote.
When I started writing this column, the Big Ten planned to join the ACC and other leagues in welcoming fans to their marquee basketball events.
By the time I got to this paragraph, the Big Ten changed its stance, choosing to play without fans at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis starting Thursday. The Big 12 fell in line.
It was the prudent and sensible call, one that I expect the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences to also make.
In fact, they did. Less than 15 minutes after I finished this piece, ACC Commissioner John Swofford said the final three days of the tournament would be played without fans.
This trip has already been unlike any other. When Aaron and I stopped to refuel in Princeton, West Virginia, we both noticed the woman in the car next to us furiously cleaning her hands with sanitizer.
Should I be concerned?
A little. Just be prudent. Wash my hands. Keep a safe space once I get to the Greensboro Coliseum. Wash my hands. Nothing more than an elbow bump. Hydrate. Get my rest. Wash my hands.
But … technically, I am a member of an at-risk group. I’m not dismissing the concerns.
Prior to another highway break, I wondered if it was wiser to stop in a smaller town at a fueling plaza that likely handled considerably less traffic.
Better odds during than passing through the mammoth plaza in West Virginia that has a Starbucks and other merchants that attract traffic.
Was that the wise call? Am I overthinking it?
Not sure. I’m a sportswriter on my way to Greensboro, North Carolina, with hand sanitizer, Elderberry gummy bear, Clorox wipes and anti-bacteria masks.
I’d better wash my hands.
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