March Sadness: Dan Shulman laments absence of NCAA tournament


Fans react during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament between Texas Tech and Michigan State, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

This time of year Dan Shulman usually turns into a college basketball fan, but this year is different.

Like any hoops fan he relishes the start of the NCAA tournament, which would have been tipping off Thursday after the First Four play-in games earlier this week.

“For me, personally, like me, like you, we’re all missing out,” says the Toronto-based play-by-play voice for ESPN college basketball.

Since ESPN doesn’t broadcast the tournament, he gets to enjoy the month-long festival like so many others do, although with the twist of being on a first-name basis with the sport’s towering figures – from Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, to Roy Williams at North Carolina and John Calipari at Kentucky.

Once the conference tournaments wrap up, Shulman can kick back and soak up the best of college hoops while waiting for baseball season to begin and he gets to work calling Toronto Blue Jays games.

“I do turn into a pure fan and I try to stay out of pools too, because I do terrible in them, like everyone else,” he says. “I just love staying up for the late games that start at 9:40, or something ridiculous like that, and end at midnight and the 15 seed is pushing two right to the wire, and all of that.”

Shulman had a courtside seat as the March Madness turned into “March Sadness” as the tournament followed the lead of the major pro sports and cancelled one of the most anticipated events on the calendar.

He was in Greensboro, N.C., last week getting ready to call the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament when the script flipped in the space of 24 hours.

“What happened between Wednesday, Wednesday night, Thursday was nothing short of stunning,” he says.

Shulman was slated to call the quarterfinals, semis and finals, beginning Thursday at 12:30 p.m., and was at the arena watching the first-round games Wednesday.

“It kind of still felt to me that people there weren’t taking it seriously,” he says. “People were kind of chuckling when they were fist-bumping and there was a sense that it was all kind of overblown. At the time there hadn’t been a COVID-19 case in the area. I was (taking it seriously) because I have a friend who’s an infectious disease doctor (in Toronto) and I had a little more knowledge, so I wasn’t chuckling when I was fist-bumping and didn’t think it was overblown, but a lot of people there were poo-pooing the whole thing.”

The mood changed Wednesday night.

“It was while we were out at dinner that the Rudy Gobert thing (when the Utah Jazz centre tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the suspension of the NBA season) happened, and that that was the tipping point for the whole thing, to me,” says Shulman. “The change in mood from Wednesday morning to Wednesday night, and then Thursday morning, the change in 24 hours was unbelievable.”

Shulman and the ESPN crew went to the arena Thursday prepared to call the 12:30 p.m. game between Florida State and Clemson.

The decision had already been made to close the games to fans, so instead of 23,000 of the most partisan fans in basketball packing Greensboro Coliseum Complex, there were only the school bands, some media and about 150 fans – mostly players’ families.

“The two schools’ bands were playing — talk about an odd scene — the bands were competing, taking turns, the players were warming up and we’re standing around wondering ‘they’re not going to play, are they?’ … they ended up cancelling the game five minutes before the tip.”

For Canadians, it means there is no chance to see one of the schools featuring local talent try to put together a run, be it Andrew Nembhard at Florida, AJ Lawson at South Carolina or Quincy Guerrier at Syracuse.

For Shulman, it meant that instead of calling the ACC championship game Saturday night, hustling back to Toronto on Sunday and then back down to Florida to catch up on spring training and the Blue Jays, he headed straight home and has mostly stayed there under self-quarantine other than ventures out to walk his dog, an energetic two-year-old chocolate lab, Sundae.

Instead of tuning in for one of his favourite events of the year, he’s lamenting what could have been.

“This year – and I’ve been doing this 25 years – this year had more parity than any year I’ve seen,” he says. “There were seven different teams ranked No.1 this season at some point, I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Unranked teams beating top-five teams – it happened all the time. It was nuts.

“It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see that this was the year a Dayton or a Creighton was going to go to toe-to-toe with a Kansas or Duke or Michigan State. It was going to happen and we’d have some incredible Cinderella moments this year, even if they weren’t really Cinderellas.

“It would have been that kind of tournament.”

It would have been another version of the tournament we’ve come to know every year, in some shape or form – full of upsets and buzzer-beaters, benches celebrating and seniors in tears.

At the end, there would have been one shining moment.

Shulman, like millions of others, will miss that.

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