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This Basketball Tournament Had Empty Feeling

The Hartford Courant

The crowd at the Civic Center Thursday was one of the largest for an opening-round game of the ECAC North Atlantic Conference tournament. One observer estimated 1,500 people and others said that was low.

Unfortunately, they were all outside the locked coliseum doors. Not a soul in the crowd was allowed to enter the coliseum because of the measles quarantine.

But it’s OK. There won’t be any complaints. The people weren’t there for basketball. Even if the measles edict had not caused this empty, echoing tournament ambience, few would have paid their way inside to see the top-rated club in the tournament, Siena, beat Colgate, 61-51.

This crowd was here to see up to 50 hopeful owners climb into a jazzed-up, fully loaded new car with the Pepsi logo plastered all over it and try to start it with keys they had received as contest entrants in the past month.

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Former Miss America Vanessa Williams and two radio jockeys stood on a bandstand making with the introductions and small talk in front of a large sign that read 96TIC FM.

Part of the crowd jammed around the bandstand and other parts took up every available space along the railings that line the three balconies looking down on center court of the mall.

Inside, it was basketball of the silent kind. “I like the 16,000 or the 14,000 (fans),” referee Porky Vieira said after working the game. “I miss not being booed. Plus, that’s the type of place this is, a people place. Besides the (Madison Square) Garden, there is no prettier place than this.”

The measles thing has been a drag, all right. Yet, because of it, considerable attention has been paid to the ECAC NAC teams and the tournament. The news is more medical than athletic, but hey, as long as they spell the names right, it’s positive recognition.

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“The Big 10 would cringe if they had to do this because they sell out everything,” said Joe McGann, sports information director at the University of Hartford, who has been up to his hips in the measles mess since it was first ... er ... spotted. “But it seems like something positive has come out of it. Like this morning. I got a call from a radio station in Marion, Ind. (northeast of Indianapolis). They wanted me to go on the air and talk about the tournament that has no spectators. They were making kind of a gag about it, but when else would it matter in Indiana what was going on in Hartford?

“The New York Times has a man here to cover the tournament. The L.A. Times called us about a story they were doing. ‘USA Today,’ the TV Show, interviewed Nate Gainey (a Hartford player who contracted the measles) and did a segment on it. Also, clips of our game against Siena (March 3 in an empty gym) were shown at halftime of the Notre Dame-Louisville game on March 4. National TV.

“Then, today, somebody told me they had heard it this morning on the NBA’s national news show. So we’re getting a lot of exposure. Sports inc., which is a sports business publication, did a story on the financial aspects and ramifications of the situation, too.”

Siena Coach Mike Deane isn’t amused by any of this, however. Deane made it clear that he was not challenging the decision of Connecticut health officials to do what they apparently thought was necessary, in this case put the quarantine in effect.

But he said, “One wonders if UConn or Syracuse had come up with a case of the measles if the Big East tournament would have been played without spectators.

“And you can check this out but I believe they had measles at North Carolina State and nothing happened (to the basketball program).”

I did check it out. Carter Cheves, assistant director of sports information at North Carolina State, said there were cases of measles reported at Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State in December and that a massive immunization was undertaken. “It was about a two-week job,” Cheves said. “They immunized about 15,000 N.C. State students, who were not allowed to go to class if they did not have their immunization cards.”

There were no quarantines, no games without fans.

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Deane says he feels the measles may have cost him two victories, too, and thus made it more difficult. February games against Brooklyn College and Northeastern were canceled. “If we had played those games we wouldn’t have had to worry about the tournament. We would have been 23-4 and it would have been difficult for the NCAA to ignore us.”

He may be right. Siena is a fine team, but now its going to have prove it all over again by winning the tournament that no ticket buyers will be allowed to watch up close and personal.


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