Walking through the doors of the Adams Center feels like walking through a ghost town. Posters line the walls—posters of players and teams, yes, but also COVID-19 protocols and mask reminders. The park- ing lot might as well have a tumbleweed rolling through it—a Saturday afternoon gameday scene that Griz Nation would have deemed unimaginable only a year ago.
“Any symptoms in the last 48 hours?” the security officials at the front table ask.
Then, a temperature check. If passed, the security monitor hands out a blue wristband, similar to the ones at waterparks or concerts, with “MONTANA” emblazoned in black print.
These wristbands? The passes? They’re essential for entrance. Just a UM student ID won’t cut it this year.
Last semester, all fall sports were postponed because of COVID-19, beginning with the fan favorite (and most lucrative) football, until this spring. Now, UM Athletics has a unique opportunity to work overtime creating an accelerated basketball season: back-to-back games, scheduling knowing there could be cancellations at any moment and risking team-wide quarantines. All of this while pushing for a Big Sky Conference tournament as similar to any other season as possible.
This Saturday was game day, and cardboard cutouts watched as a skeleton crew of fans, mainly family members of players, enjoyed some basketball socially distanced in the stands. No more than 20 fans were present, less than 1% of a normal crowd at Dahlberg Arena.
The men’s team was playing Whitworth, a Division III school, on an early afternoon in January. It was easy to hear echoes in the deafeningly-silent arena. It was even easier to remember an alternate reality, of a time not so long ago when a crowd of fans roared in support. Only squeaking sneakers, basketball dribbles, player conversation and loudspeaker music disrupted the quiet venue.
There is no courtside seating for fans; they must sit in the upper levels of the bleachers. Masks are required for everyone in the arena except for the players on the court and the referees. Each seat on the bench is six feet apart from the others.
In the NCAA’s “Core of Principle of Resocialization of Collegiate Basketball,” its COVID-19 plan, a testing plan where players and staff are tested three times a week during the season is suggested. So far, the protocol seems to be working. Montana is one of only 10 Division I men’s basketball teams that hasn’t canceled a game.
While a lot of work has been put in by UM to make sure no season cancellations happen, UM head coach Travis DeCuire still isn’t ruling out luck playing a role in the seasons success.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” DeCuire said. “There is a lot of safety, we obviously wear masks and we travel in certain ways. But there’s some luck because there’s two teams that can cancel a game at the end of the day right? It only takes one to have it canceled.”
Where there once was the crowd noise, this Saturday heard only the murmuring of the bench, team members discussing plays and joking in huddles.
“That was fun,” a Whitworth player said during a timeout after his team went on a scoring run against the Griz.
“Apparently we’re not allowed to yell ‘travel,’” a Whitworth coach told his players in a different huddle.
Had there been fans in the arena, these conversations may have stayed private. Technical fouls are a lot easier to receive in the quiet arena.
“I kind of said some things [last game] that were a lot louder than expected,” said UM guard Cameron Parker, who received a technical foul in UM’s home game against Northern Colorado. “We definitely have to watch what we say.”
From time to time, coaches or players will shout expletives. Already once this season, a Northern Colorado coach received a language-use warning midgame from the referees.
Foul language isn’t the only result of a silent Dahlberg.
Crowd noise has historically been one of Montana’s biggest advantages in the Big Sky Conference. In 2018-19, the last time the numbers were released, the Griz ranked second in the conference for attendance.
And the noise can play to UM’s advantage. In the last two seasons UM played with a crowd, the team won 12 home games and lost three in each season. But this season, the Griz have won two of six home games.
When a good play happens for either team, the only cheering comes from the team’s own bench.
In place of fans are cardboard cutouts in the stands. Some are kids, some are elderly supporters and one is a Griz fan’s beloved pomeranian. UM fans had the option to buy a cutout with any picture they wanted at the beginning of the season for $35, as long as it came without advertising.
More and more cardboard cutouts of athletes have been added to the gym, including the entire Griz softball team, which was added before a recent Lady Griz game.
When the Griz go to the free throw line, the cutouts remain as silent as the rest of the gym. No sneakers squeak on the gym floor and no chants emanated from the bench.
Every brick off the rim rings out like a gunshot echoing through the stands. Whistles seem more shrill than normal.
In the south wall stands Saturday, there were 15 or so people—family members and partners rocking maroon and gray and masks. If they spread throughout the arena, each party could probably have their own seating section to themselves.
The coaching staff have been adapting to the COVID-19 changes along with their teams. Though, not all the changes are unwelcome.
Both sets of coaches now enjoy wearing leisure wear instead of the usual formal suits and loafers of a season before. This season, they’re sticking with sweatpants and sneakers.
UM and Whitworth had just finished warming up, and it was time for the national anthem. A band recording with no vocals echoed throughout Dahlberg.
Then, a hype video—set in a somehow more-empty Dahlberg than this one— played on the jumbotron. Claps from the bench accompanied starting lineups.
As both teams huddled up before tip-off and the TV broadcasts went to commercial break, UM employees walked onto the court and wiped down the padding on the bottom of the basketball hoops.
When the game started, all of the—admittedly few—eyes in the arena focused on the court. UM’s bench began its chants of “DE-FENCE, DE-FENCE, DE-FENCE.” The Griz are now in charge of cheering for themselves, since the UM spirit squad is no longer allowed at games.
On this Saturday afternoon, the bench could be heard loud and clear.
Each bench took up around a third of the west sideline; the middle third dedicated to the scorer’s table, which is surrounded by a glass wall on every side except the back.
Every stoppage of play was followed by three seconds of feet shuffling on hardwood for everyone to hear. Official timeouts took the 10 players who were currently on the floor to a circle of six chairs in the middle of the floor 10 feet away from the socially distanced bench where the coach can be indistinctly heard drawing up plays.
The second the mini huddle broke, cleaners ran over with rags and sanitizer and wiped down all six chairs. All of the water cups used during the timeout are thrown away, no refills.
At halftime, while TV and radio broadcasts are recapping the first period, a halftime show isn’t happening in Dahlberg Arena. No cheerleaders, no dance team and definitely not UM’s favorite backflipping mascot Monte. The few spectators enjoy only the (sometimes wildly inconsistent) music playing over the loudspeaker for entertainment.
When the music stops and the second half begins in the early afternoon quiet, the arena noise continues to amplify the dueling teams.
The fact that the game is even being played on an early Saturday afternoon is reason for pause.
Last season, 14 of UM’s 15 home games tipped off at 6 p.m. or later, to help accommodate fans who worked during the weekday.
This season, all five of UM’s home games have started before 6 p.m.
One of these early tipoffs, a men’s game against Northern Colorado on Jan. 2, even began at 9 a.m. It was the earliest game start in school history.
“Felt like practice,” said DeCuire after the early game. UM senior guard Micheal Steadman said the morning game felt like one of the club basketball tournaments he attended in high school.
The early games are part of the coronavirus strategy. In the NCAA’s COVID-19 testing plan, teams are able to decide whether they will provide testing and quarantine options for visiting teams. Most of the Big Sky Conference teams, including UM, have decided to start games early and allow for the visiting team to return home and test there. DeCuire mentioned in a press conference that it just isn’t feasible to create a plan for a visiting player who has tested positive.
The fact that UM is playing a Division III team like Whitworth mid-way through the season is also abnormal. This season, nearly half of UM’s non-conference games are scheduled against lower division opponents, compared to last season, where only one-fifth of the non-conference games saw lower division teams.
Montana is using this lower division team to gain important practice. Normally, the Griz would’ve had a Maroon and Silver scrimmage as well as 11 other games before it started conference play. This season, the Griz played just one game before conference play started.
The practice is important for the Griz teams. The Lady Griz were scheduled to play Whitworth the same day as the men, but Whitworth canceled, becoming the fourth game this season the Lady Griz had to miss.
If a team doesn’t play 13 games in the 2020-21 season, it won’t be eligible to play in the NCAA tournament, so the Lady Griz scheduled to play a different non-Division I team the day after.
Not only do these games allow the Griz teams to meet their mandatory minimum playing time, they help boost the record of Montana in the event the teams make the NCAA tournament. UM’s men’s team has won six games this year, but without these lower division matchups it would only have three wins on record. If the Griz win the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a bad regular season record, it is likely they would have to play a top ranked team in the NCAA tournament.
When Saturday’s game ended in a 84-67 victory for the Griz, Whitworth’s coach congratulated his players, audible in the quiet.
“Awesome job,” he said. “We just got so much better.”
Both teams shuffled off the court in relative silence and the cleaning process began again. A UM Athletics employee sanitized the court with a backpack canister and a spray gun, like a pest control officer preparing to wipe out a wasp nest.
Normal post-games at UM include masses of children playing basketball on the court, but this Saturday the only basketball players were a few Whitworth team members who emerged from the locker room.
“Good game,” one of UM’s custodian said to the players.
DeCuire emerged from the locker room and began a post-game interview with UM’s radio announcer. Inside the locker room, a few UM players hopped onto a Zoom call for some post-game questions with the media.
When both interviews finished up, DeCuire headed back to the locker room to join the Zoom call.
After answering a few more questions, DeCuire left the Zoom. The media followed, leaving only one custodian in the arena, dragging a mop around by his waist.