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What positives came from the sports world during the pandemic in 2020?

Team banners and a Black Lives Matter banner are displayed outside of NBA basketball arenas Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The NBA playoffs will resume Saturday after the league and the National Basketball Players Association detailed the commitments that made players comfortable continuing the postseason.
| AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool

The novel coronavirus pandemic brought plenty of change and adjustments to the world of sports this year. At the same time, it opened opportunities for new stories to be told.

We asked a panel of four from the Deseret News sports team to share what positives they saw in sports world this year, with the pandemic causing disruptions on a consistent basis.

Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler (22) goes up for a basket during the second half in Game 6 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Mark J. Terrill, AP

The level of competition inside the NBA bubble

In a Dec. 1 interview with assorted media, new Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers fielded questions about whether or not he believes the NBA can and will pull off the 2020-21 season, amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

Rivers wasn’t optimistic, saying, “If we miss three or four players, we’re in trouble, especially with the amount of games. ... That’s a concern. Guys’ health is a concern. And that’s tough.”

Due in part to his skepticism, a follow-up question was asked, centered on the possibility of another NBA bubble.

Rivers response was immediate, as reported by the Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds.

“No, thank you,” he said.

His answer wasn’t surprising. By all accounts, the bubble was awful for most participants and something that no one really wants to experience again.

As an outside observer, though, I wouldn’t mind another bubble. The 2020 NBA bubble was a blast. I don’t know if it was the lack of distractions, the setup, the location, the lack of travel or the time off that the athletes had prior to Orlando, but the actual basketball play inside the bubble felt better than ever before.

It started with the final games of the regular season, during which the Phoenix Suns did their best impression of the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors, and the Portland Trail Blazers, healthy for the first time in a calendar year, made a successful sprint to the postseason.

Things only got better in the playoffs themselves, whether it be the high-powered duel between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, Luka Dončić’s heroics in a losing effort against the Clippers or the seven-game series’ played between the Jazz-Nuggets and Thunder-Rockets.

And that was all in the first round.

The Miami Heat went on a thrilling run to the Finals, upsetting No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee and media-beloved Boston along the way. In the West, the Nuggets refused to go down, until LeBron and the Lakers put them down.

Some complained about the lack of home court advantage, and the lack of fans and the atmosphere they provide, but for lovers of pure unadulterated basketball the bubble was fantastic.

— Trent Wood

Reminder of the larger role sports play in our society

So much of what makes sports great is the drama that competition provides. Players are driven to want to win and fans become emotionally attached to whether “their team” wins and loses.

Without those things for much of 2020, more of the spotlight was placed the role athletes can have in society off the court and field. As the pandemic began to affect people financially, many athletes stepped up to help their communities even more than they previously had. As protests for racial justice occurred throughout the country, many athletes became leading voices for change. As the election neared, athletes used their voices to encourage people to exercise their right to vote.

Maybe some of these things still would have happened in more normal circumstances, but the fact sports were on hold for much of the year meant more attention could be paid to these more important matters.

Yes, the games are important. They allow people to make a living and they bring entertainment to our lives. But in 2020 when those games weren’t happening, we were reminded that sports and the athletes who play them can have so much more of an impact than just shutting up and dribbling.

— Ryan McDonald

Coastal Carolina’s Maeto Sudipo, back, and Brayden Matts, front, stop BYU’s Dax Milne from scoring in the final seconds during the second half of an NCAA college football game against BYU Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C. Coastal Carolina won 22-17.
Richard Shiro, Associated Press

BYU-Coastal Carolina matchup shows off scheduling potential

Admit it, college football fans, at some point you’ve made jokes about the silly nature of scheduling nonconference matchups years into the future, sometimes even more than a decade in advance. By 2030, how do you have any clue that “big-name” opponent is going to be any good?

That’s what made the BYU-Coastal Carolina game this year, which came together in a short time frame, such a masterful display in how a little scheduling creativity could help the sport. Two teams sitting outside the Power Five needed a marquee game, and when opportunity presented itself with Liberty having to cancel its game with Coastal Carolina due to COVID-19 issues, in steps BYU.

The game lived up to its billing — neither team held more than a one-score lead, and Coastal Carolina put together a brilliant game plan in short order to control the clock, keeping BYU’s explosive offense off the field. The Chanticleers bolstered their case for a New Year’s Six berth with the 22-17 win, and while BYU fans bemoaned the loss, no doubt it was the right call to try and boost the Cougars’ resume.

Then there was the national spotlight: with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town, the game was the talk of college football in the days leading up to the contest, as well as in the immediate aftermath.

I’m not calling for matchups coming together as quickly as BYU-Coastal Carolina did, but what if two conferences go into a season designating one weekend in November where their schools play those from another conference, with matchups determined off league standings to maximize top-game potential? Yes, I’m inspired by the Mountain West–Missouri Valley Challenge in college basketball.

A tough sell on that, of course, is ticket sales. What if your team is having a rough season, and its matchup ends up a dud? Counterpoint: what if you get that dream matchup that could boost your postseason profile?

Will it happen? Doubtful. But a guy can dream, can’t he? And all we really need is some creativity and a little less, “What are you doing in 10 years?”

— Brandon Judd

FILE: In this May 7, 1995, file photo, Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan (45) and forward Scottie Pippen (33) walk back to the bench during a timeout in the closing seconds of an NBA basketball playoff game in Orlando.
Robert Baker, Associated Press

‘The Last Dance’ provided sports in a sports-less world

If you had asked me in Jan. 2020 about what I was looking forward to in the world of sports this year, a 10-hour documentary series on Michael Jordan — with two episodes dedicated to his two NBA Finals victories over the best Utah Jazz teams ever — probably would not have been near the top of my list.

But in 2020, the world was rocked with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports were put on hold in March, when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID and the NBA shut down. Other sports leagues followed. For the span of nearly five months, there were no live sports on. No NBA. No March Madness. No MLB, no MLS, no NHL. No spring college football camps.

I recognize that not being able to watch sports for five months is a nonissue during a global pandemic that caused over a million deaths worldwide, forced businesses to close, caused millions to be laid off and changed the way we live. But for sports fans, not having any live games to watch for nearly half a year was hard.

For some, watching sports — like all good entertainment — is an escape. After a hard day’s work, tuning into a game provided millions the opportunity to divert from life, to be transported into a reality where the only focus for a couple hours is on the players on the field. Sports bring people together, they provide a shared bond for friends, families and communities.

And then, just like that, sports were gone for a while.

For me, it seemed like my world was turned upside down on March 11 when sports stopped, My life is inextricably linked to sports. It’s what I do for work and what I do for fun. I’ve attended, tuned into and worked thousands of sports games in my life. Going to or watching a game was a part of my daily life almost every night. As silly as it may sound to non sports fans, some of the most memorable moments in my life are related to sports. All of the road trips to games I’ve taken with friends and family to games growing up, being at a game that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, the euphoria I felt when the Kansas City Chiefs overcame years of playoff heartbreak and won their first Super Bowl in 50 years in February. I’ve met some of my closest friends through a shared interest in sports.

Though I picked up other hobbies to fill the time I spent watching sports and got creative with articles during the lull in action, I missed watching live sports a lot. I tried watching replays of past games, but they didn’t hold my attention as much as watching something where you don’t know what’s coming.

Then, at the end of March, the best sports news in weeks popped up on my phone. ESPN was moving “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, up to April from its originally scheduled premier in June. It wasn’t live sports, but I suddenly had something to look forward to every Sunday in a world where there wasn’t much to look forward to.

Since the rise of streaming, there wasn’t been many “appointment television” shows. With a few exceptions such as “Game of Thrones,” as the world has been shifted to streaming and binging TV shows, people aren’t watching the same thing, at the same time, anymore.

“The Last Dance” was a throwback to a bygone era when it seemed that most of America was tuned into a show at the same time. Spread out over five Sundays in April and May with two episodes shown per night, there was no way to binge the whole series. It wasn’t a sports game, but it was the next best thing. My family, along with millions of others, gathered on the couch every Sunday. Social media lit up with millions talking about Jordan’s reaction to videos shown to him on an iPad, or the crazy thing that Dennis Rodman did.

Utahns could be excused if they didn’t want to spend 10 hours watching a documentary that was in part about some of their most painful sports memories. My dad still cringed 22 years later as MJ nailed the shot over Bryon Russell to win his sixth NBA title. (Luckily, I was a baby at the time and have no recollection of the watching the moment live as my parents held me up to watch the TV.)

I don’t have any memories of MJ-mania, so for me, “The Last Dance” was riveting.

I knew the basic outline of Jordan’s career, but the detailed look at it was compelling. Watching highlights of Jordan every week reminded America just how good he was in his prime. He looked like he was playing a different sport than everyone else. Where the documentary really shined was with the interviews with Jordan, Phil Jackson, Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr and others. Director Jason Hehir’s decision to play interviews with other players on an iPad and have Jordan react to them was brilliant.

Having something sports-related to look forward to in the midst of the pandemic was a highlight of my week, and I’m sure others felt the same as well.

— Joe Coles

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