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Rubado column: The most bizarre 48 hours of my life at the state girls basketball tournament

The following is an opinion piece by Jared Rubado. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Detroit Lakes Tribune. To submit a response email jrubado@dlnewspapers.com.

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Jared Rubado
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DETROIT LAKES – I had the privilege of covering five state basketball games this year, and each one of them presented the same eerie feeling. Three of those games were at the Gangelhoff Center on the Campus of Concordia-St. Paul. The last time I was there before this year, the world shut down.

It's almost silly at this point to ask what people remember from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because the general reaction is typically the same: disbelief and uncertainty. Like many of you, I was at work when it all started. But, as you know, my job is a little bit different from a 9-to-5. The start of the pandemic was the most bizarre 48 hours of my life.

I was headed to my first-ever state girls basketball tournament. Alexandria won the Section 8-3A tournament and drew a tough Becker team in the first round. The Cardinals lost a hard-fought battle at the Matrui Pavillion on the campus of the University of Minnesota and slipped into the consolation bracket at the Gangelhoff Center.

My dad travels a lot for his job. He was in the metro area for a work conference or something during the same week as state girls basketball. After the Alexandria game, I met up with him at a Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. It was conference tournament week in college basketball.

I distinctly remember sitting at that table and seeing the news about Rudy Gobert, a forward on the Utah Jazz. He was the first known active athlete in the U.S. to test positive for COVID-19. Social media was in flames after he poked fun at the virus by purposefully touching each reporter's recording device.

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Shortly after the Gobert news came out, Tom Hanks tested positive. We were relatively uninformed about the virus at the time and paid the hoopla no heed. We finished our wings, paid the bill and went our separate ways for the evening.

When I got back to my car, I got a phone call from my mom. We talked about everything going on and whatnot before she told me an NBA game was postponed due to COVID-19. That's the first time it felt real. From there, professional sports lost games one by one before the hammer dropped.

I got off the phone with my mom and called my friend who I planned to stay with for the weekend. We chatted while I sat in my car in the Buffalo Wild Wings parking lot for another 20 minutes. I can't remember the reason, but I decided it would be better to crash at a hotel.

Before I went to bed, I got a call from another friend. He's a big-time Kansas basketball fan. At the time, they were the odds on favorites to win the national championship. However, conference tournaments started getting the boot, which meant the NCAA tournament was in jeopardy.

The only thing I was concerned with at the time was March Madness. "There's no way they would cancel the big dance, right? Just play it without fans," is along the lines of things we said to each other on that call.

Lost in all of the commotion, I still had a state basketball tournament to cover. The following morning the Minnesota State High School League announced there would only be one more consolation game for each team due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, section boys basketball tournaments were getting canceled left and right.

The new plan was for me to cover the first half of the Alexandria girls basketball game before darting up to Melrose to catch the boys' section championship against St. Cloud Apollo in Melrose. My boss, Eric Morken, was in Fargo at a different section championship game.

We came up with that plan once we knew the tentative schedule for the day was final. That was at about 11 a.m. By that point, almost every college basketball tournament was nixed. Most NBA and NHL games were postponed and the MSHSL was making changes to its state tournament on the fly.

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On my way to CSP, I got a message from the Alexandria activities director saying there would be a limit on the number of fans allowed at the boys' section title game.

About 10 minutes later, I walked into a nearly empty Gangelhoff Center for the girls' consolation game. I can't remember if there was a fan capacity in place, but the building was dead. The fans who were there hardly clapped. I can still hear the echoed squeaking of the shoes on the floor. It makes me sick. That's when I knew this would be so much bigger than I initially thought.

I shot some photos before heading up to Melrose. Once I got to the gym, the players were warming up in complete silence; No bands, little fans and minimal energy. If you've ever been to a section championship game in any sport, you can feel the buzz in the building. It's so addicting because you can physically feel how big the moment is for the kids and their fans. But that wasn't the case that night.

Alexandria lost in a heartbreaker, effectively ending their season. After the game, I went to the locker rooms for my interviews. I spoke with a kid on each team before catching the Apollo coach. He was emotional, but in a different way than most coaches are after winning a championship.

He knew his team wasn't going to state that year even after winning the section championship. The writing was on the wall even before the game started. He was so happy that Apollo basketball finally got over the hump, but he was completely gutted for his kids. It's the kind of conversation that leaves you feeling so empty despite so many positive things being said.

I felt paralyzed on my drive home. I knew this would be the end of sports for a while. I thought I was going to lose my job. That 50-minute ride home felt like forever.

In the coming weeks, spring sports were canceled. I basically became a full-time news reporter, which I can be thankful for because it helped me grow as a writer. I think about the times in this business when there weren't sports and all of the things I did just out of the fear of losing my job. There wasn't a story tip I didn't pursue. I just told myself that I had to fake it until I made it, or I was getting cut loose. Looking back, I was probably safe all along.

Fast forward two years later, and I was back at the Maturi Pavillion and the Gangelhoff Center. It was far different from the first time, but for all right reasons. It felt right, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to take some fantastic memories away with me this time.

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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