Elation, confusion and guilt: Reflecting on L.A.’s last big sports weekend before COVID

Janette Cardona and her husband, Louie, hold signs along Hollywood Blvd. as runners compete during L.A. Marathon.
Janette Cardona and her husband, Louie, hold signs along Hollywood Boulevard as runners compete during L.A. Marathon on March 8.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Along the 26.2-mile journey from Dodger Stadium to the Santa Monica Pier, signs hinted at a coming menace.

One L.A. Marathon spectator donned a hazmat suit. Another, in a Grim Reaper costume, handed out candy. Runners traded sneaker taps instead of high-fives, and race volunteers wore latex gloves when offering water.

But plenty about that Sunday morning seemed quite ordinary. Marathoners young and old — 23,000 of them — still jostled shoulder-to-shoulder, while groups gathered on sidewalks to cheer for them. Former NHL star Luc Robitaille and his wife strolled with their dogs down a Santa Monica street to San Vicente Boulevard, soaking up the scene.

“It felt like it was any other marathon Sunday,” recalled Robitaille, now the L.A. Kings’ president. “It was normal, almost.”

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The local sports scene on the weekend of March 6 represented an inflection point between the life we always knew and the fast-approaching realities of a pandemic.

That Friday night, the Lakers hosted the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center. Saturday, the USC and UCLA men’s basketball teams squared off at Galen Center, Mexican soccer star Chicharito made his debut with the Galaxy and the Kings took on the Minnesota Wild. Sunday offered a titanic tilt between the Lakers and Clippers and, of course, the marathon.

Lakers' LeBron James attempts to block a shot by Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo on March 6 at Staples Center.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Southern Californians still had decisions to make about how to spend their leisure time — and with whom to spend it. After completing her 10th marathon, Loren Piretra faced a choice: Go straight home or meet a friend at a beer garden?

She had been feeling an “eerie energy” all day, but decided to have the celebratory beer anyway. Months later, she would think back on that moment and chide herself for being irresponsible.

An uneasy lead-up

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This week, the Lakers are playing for the NBA championship in a fan-less arena in Orlando, Fla., and the Dodgers are gunning for their first World Series title since 1988 in a buzz-less ballpark in Texas. These coronavirus oddities have become, as Robitaille put it, “normal, almost.” Six months ago, they would have been unimaginable.

The running world had felt some impact from the virus in late winter. The Paris Half Marathon had been canceled and the Seoul Marathon indefinitely postponed. The Tokyo Marathon had gone off a few weeks earlier with only elite runners participating.

But on March 4, the Wednesday before the L.A. race, coronavirus cases nationwide stood around 100, and the state had only seven cases and one death. Public health officials said testing showed no indication of community spread. Practically nobody was wearing masks.

Lakers guard Danny Green is playing through a sore hip in the NBA Finals. He’s also staying on point with his message about social justice and voting.

California declared a state of emergency that day, if only to ensure that federal resources would be available. Minutes after it was announced, Dan Cruz — who handles media relations for the L.A. Marathon — received a call from a television show posing a question he would hear all week: Is the race still on?

“When you’re working running events, very rarely do you get calls from ‘Inside Edition,’” Cruz said. “We were so naive at the time about just how far-reaching the pandemic would be. It was something that was on our radar, but it always kind of felt like it was on the other side of the world.”

Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Public Health Department, issued a statement: “We are not currently recommending the suspension of any large public events, including the L.A. Marathon. The public can continue to enjoy all that L.A. County has to offer, including this historic event.”

Runners jog along Hollywood Boulevard during the March 8 L.A. Marathon.
Runners jog along Hollywood Boulevard during the March 8 L.A. Marathon.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Over the weekend, tens of thousands would congregate at Staples Center. Factor in the marathon weaving its way through L.A.‘s streets, and there was potential for a public health nightmare.

“It’s a big enough lift every year to ensure safety for the marathon on its own, without COVID,” said Erik Scott, a Los Angeles Fire Department public information officer. “The No. 1 objective is to maintain safety for everyone involved, so we normally would prepare for anything from a small trash can fire to a suspicious package to a sniper on rooftops to a coordinated bombing. Now we had to throw COVID into the mix.”

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Officials developed contingency plans for quick evacuation if runners or spectators, say, had coughing fits on the course. They hatched plans to issue a public alert if there were signs of an outbreak during the race.

“Having been watching the other races get canceled one by one, I was skeptical of it actually happening, up until the day I picked up my bib,” Piretra said.

As cases grew to 240 nationally by Friday March 6, the rest of the sports world proceeded with minimal caution.

The NBA sent a memo urging teams to prepare for the possibility of playing games without fans. After the Lakers beat the Bucks before 18,997 fans, LeBron James spoke at his locker with dozens of reporters crowded around. He was asked about playing in empty arenas.

“I ain’t playing if you don’t have the fans in the crowd,” he said. “That’s who I play for. … So if I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there? I ain’t playing.”

Saturday’s big shot

A crowd of 7,622 passed through the gates of Galen Center on USC’s campus to watch the Trojans play rival UCLA.

“I don’t think people thought of it as that serious,” USC senior guard Jonah Mathews said of the coronavirus. “They heard about it, but they were thinking it’s like the flu. … If they [had] pushed the game back a week, I don’t think it would have been as packed.”

The Bruins, who needed a win to clinch a share of the Pac-12 title, led 52-51 with just seconds to go. Playing in front of the USC faithful for the final time, Mathews got the ball as the clock ticked away and worked off a screen, moving to his left for a step-back three-pointer.

Swish.

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“It just went quiet in my head,” he said. Then, he added, “Pandemonium. Probably the loudest I’ve heard it.”

USC Trojans guard Jonah Mathews celebrates his game winning 3-point shot to beat UCLA on March 7, 2020.
USC Trojans guard Jonah Mathews celebrates his game-winning three-point shot to beat UCLA on March 7.
(Gina Ferazzi/Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

USC had a 54-52 victory, and Mathews’ teammates chased him down the floor. All around, Trojan fans howled and hugged their neighbors.

“I wasn’t thinking about the shot,” Mathews said. “I was thinking we were gonna go to the tournament and do big things. I was thinking two weeks ahead.”

Within days, the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments were canceled, abruptly ending the college season. The UCLA players, in Las Vegas for the conference tournament, enjoyed their last breakfast together at a casino buffet just before the city shut down — it was the Bruins’ own version of a March buzzer-beater.

Sunday elation

Each year, Deena Kastor brings her husband and daughter with her from Mammoth Lakes for the L.A. Marathon.

A bronze medalist in the event at the 2004 Olympics, Kastor said the marathon is “a chance to go dine well in the L.A. area, run in Palisades Park above the Pacific Ocean and really be with the community of runners that we love and adore.”

On Sunday morning, Kastor left her family early to join the KTLA marathon coverage team. She was aware the coronavirus had made landfall in Southern California, but wasn’t sure how much they would discuss it.

As it turned out, she recalled, they mentioned it only once during the six-hour show.

“Then, it was just this weird virus,” she said.

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At Chavez Ravine, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner served as the race’s ceremonial starter. He had come back from spring training to root for his wife, Kourtney, who was running. They had weighed the risk of Turner mingling with fans. After talking it over, the couple decided it was OK.

“It was kind of scary because he has this vibe that he’s pretty approachable and down-to-earth, so there were people that would run up to him and give him these big hugs, and they want selfies,” Kourtney said. “At the time, it was just so different, so he did his best. Obviously knowing what we know now, his behaviors would have been different.”

Former USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele will continue preparing for the NFL draft as his sister, Noreen, continues to recover from a serious case of COVID-19.

Kourtney bypassed volunteer aid stations, running with her own water and taking snacks only from her husband as the race unfolded. But “in terms of the crowd and energy, it’s hard to contain that when you’re in that situation and you worked so hard for that day,” she said. “If it was in people’s minds, it definitely got pushed away in that moment.”

Adam Hawk, a fellow runner, shared the sentiment.

After a previous L.A. marathon, the radio producer had taken a lot of ribbing from his show’s callers for finishing in 6 hours, 18 minutes. His publicly stated goal for this race was five hours.

Arriving at the final stretch on San Vicente Boulevard, he needed to run three miles in 30 minutes. Just barely, he did it.

“The most elation I’ve ever felt in my life,” Hawk said.

Afterward, Hawk said, he was excited to enjoy the end of a memorable L.A. sports weekend: the broadcast of the Lakers-Clippers showdown at Staples Center, where 19,000 people watched James and teammate Anthony Davis face the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Clippers; Kawhi Leonard guards Lakers' Anthony Davis on March 8 at Staples Center.
(Harry How / Getty Images)
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During the Lakers’ win, Davis appeared to lick his hand and give high-fives to James and Avery Bradley. Teammates began calling them “the corona boys.”

Within days, Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and much of the sports world shut down. Much of society soon followed.

Hawk had mixed emotions about the marathon, concerns that stuck with him through the ongoing pandemic.

“There was a little bit of a sense of guilt,” he said. “Because you start reading about how the virus is transmitted, and you see people calling people who ran the marathon selfish idiots who just probably singlehandedly spiked the region of Southern California by participating in it.

“You just feel like, did I contribute to something really bad?”

Tania Ganguli contributed to this report.