Kansas coach Bill Self: ‘It’s sad’ as nation’s No. 1 team prepares for a March Madness without fans


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A disease is staring down the planet. The most important news of the moment comes in breathless bulletins. 

Meanwhile, the fragility of human life is also measured by the loudest noise in the basketball world these days. The game has been reduced to its essence – the sound of a ball bouncing on hardwood. 

The NCAA Tournament will be played without fans, but not without empathy, not without sympathy. Certainly not without context. That much was for sure here Wednesday at what has simply become the best conference tournament in the country.  

“It’s sad. Sad for players,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said from the Big 12 Tournament. “You dream of playing for the highest stakes on the brightest stage. 

“Certainly it’s hard to imagine that if nobody is there in person to see it but I told our guys, ‘Why did we all start loving this game? Why did we all start playing it? Did we do it because we wanted other people to watch us or did we do it because we actually loved it?’ “

The answer will be written over the next 3 ½ weeks as the Division I basketball will select a champion with fans in absentia. 

A withering day of depressing news started with more coronavirus deaths. It ended with college basketball taking a stand by stripping down to its bare essentials – two teams, three officials, scorer’s table. 

Let’s run one, boys.   

“I told them it sucks,” Self continued. “But it doesn’t just stink for us. It stinks everybody that wants to be entertained at a concert or anywhere. It stinks for the [stock] market … It’s far bigger than men’s basketball.”

In the moment, that was the sane, measured reaction on an insane day.

In this city that loves its college basketball it is a new normal. Beginning Thursday the Big 12 is going to “limited access,” allowing only 125 fans from each participating team through Saturday’s championship game. No bands. No cheerleaders. Media will be allowed. 

Over the course of Wednesday, the Big Ten, NCAA Pac-12 and ACC all announced something similar. The Ivy League cancelled its tournament. 

It hurts here like it hurts everywhere. This is a city that still is the home of most Final Fours in history (10). This is still the home of oldest continuous college tournament in existence. The NAIA started here in 1937.

This is where a lot of that love for the game germinated, even if some of us weren’t yet born.

“This situation is definitely bigger than basketball,” Kansas senior forward David McCormack said. “It’s more about health and well-being.”

“This situation is definitely bigger than basketball.”Kansas senior forward David McCormack    

Let’s hope the decision to play without fans is as effective as it was shocking: If folks don’t congregate in large numbers it will be harder for the disease to spread. Strategic questions about shooting against the backdrop of an empty arena seemed almost … stupid.

Are we supposed to be mad at these developments? Depressed? Anxious? The participants are merely playing a game. 

“We don’t play for the fans. We play for the love of basketball,” Kansas senior forward Isaiah Moss said.

So don’t feel sorry for them. Even though a major college tournament in Missouri is anchored by Kansas in most years, thank goodness for folks like Self, coach of the nation’s top-ranked team, likely the overall No. 1 seed.

Self and his players struck the perfect chord. Here’s a blueblood coach whose program is under NCAA investigation. With March Madness suddenly closer to being muted, Self added context, sanity, reassurance, even humor.

Self acknowledged having to watch his mouth with the officials in empty arena where every word can be heard. 

“I actually have [thought about that],”Self joked, “because there is some real bad actors in our league at other schools.” 

Basketball will be OK, everyone seemed to echo, starting with Dr. Naismith’s school. 

“We need to get back to our roots, our child[hood] roots …,” Self said. “You’re playing shirts and skins in the park. I’m sure the games will be highly, highly competitive. But the kids will still play like there’s no tomorrow. 

“We can control our attitudes. We can control whether we view this as a negative or a positive. We can be mature and say, ‘This is life. There’s a bigger reason than us on why this is happening.’ “

The gravity of the situation was written on the face of Bob Bowlsby, the conference’s 68-year old commissioner. 

“How disconcerting it would be not to the play the tournament,” he said. “From that point you get a feeling for how much a part of Americana this is. 

“This is going to be disruptive in ways that nothing else has been, relative to the NCAA Tournament. I care deeply about the tournament.”

Bowlsby has thrown his heart into athletic administration. It matters less his conference will suffer “a very substantial loss of revenue.” 

The former Iowa and Stanford athletic director is on his third Power Five League. For five years (2001-2006) he was a member of the prestigious Division I Men’s Basketball Committee that selects the teams for the bracket. 

Twice he chaired that committee. In contemplating life – not just basketball life – he referred to the stark reality of coronavirus going forward, quoting National Institute of Health official Anthony Fauci.

“It’s going to get much, much worse,” Bowlsby said.

That would be the disease. Basketball already took what many be the first of many, many punches on Wednesday.

You could see it on Bowlsby’s face Wednesday. He wasn’t upset. He looked bewildered. Not only was one of the shining jewels of his conference being altered, the game itself had been bumped off its tracks if only until early April. 

Let’s hope that’s the extent of it. 

In 2003, the Defense Department was in touch with Bowlsby and that selection committee as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq.

“I always thought it was exceedingly strange that we would have anything to do with a military operation,” Bowlsby said.

He later recounted the gravity of the situation. 

“We were contemplating … the possibility of not playing [the tournament].” Bowlsby said. 





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