Even before the end arrived so suddenly, the two winningest players in the history of USC men’s basketball could feel it inching ever closer. Nick Rakocevic had already started pondering his legacy. Jonah Mathews hoped to solidify his with an unforgettable, final run, beginning with his buzzer beater to beat UCLA last Saturday.
Together, the decorated seniors dreamed of finishing their careers with a flourish.
But neither, nor anyone else for that matter, could’ve expected those final, precious moments to play out like this, with the NCAA tournament cancelled amid the threat of global pandemic and the entire sports world halted in a collective quarantine.
By Thursday morning, the end wasn’t just at their doorstep. It had kicked the door in and pulled the rug out from under their feet.
Their collegiate careers were over. In one fell swoop.
“It wasn’t Oregon or Duke or North Carolina — it was the coronavirus that ended my college career,” a stunned Rakocevic said, less than an hour after the NCAA announced it was cancelling the tournament and all other championship events through spring. “I’m still in shock. I don’t even know what’s happening right now.”
As the NCAA and its member universities took drastic steps to stop the spread of coronavirus, collegiate athletes across the nation found themselves coping with the realities of that decision. The college sports calendar would go on without its signature event. Championships of every other kind were cancelled as far out as the College World Series, which was scheduled for June.
Within USC athletics, everything would soon grind to a halt. All classes would remain online until at least April 14, with anyone leaving for spring break expected to stay away until then. All practices, camps, and recruiting efforts were suspended until further notice. That included USC’s spring football practice, which began just one day earlier, as well as the spring showcase, which was slated for April 11 at the Coliseum.
“Our hearts ache for our student-athletes, coaches, alumni, fans, and all those affected throughout the world by the COVID-19 pandemic,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “The health, safety, and well-being of our student-athletes is always at the forefront of everything we do. Therefore, our university and athletics department support the decisions made today by the NCAA and the Pac-12 Conference.
“These are unprecedented days for all of us. I have communicated to our student-athletes that we are here to support them however we can. Our Trojan Family will be stronger for having endured these challenges together.”
But there was no solace in that promise for those whose collegiate careers came to an abrupt close on Thursday. Even as measures to combat coronavirus escalated in the preceding days, Rakocevic never believed that canceling the NCAA tournament was a genuine possibility. It felt unimpeachable.
Then, he woke up to Mathews frantically relaying the first wave of mass cancellation news. The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference had canceled their conference tournaments. USC was scheduled to face Arizona in a few hours at T-Mobile Arena, where fans had already been barred.
Thirty minutes later, the Pac-12 followed suit, canceling its tournament. The team made plans to fly home.
“First and foremost, life is more important than basketball,” Mathews said via the USC athletics Twitter account. “We’re all wishing everybody the best of health and wellness around the country.”
But while other athletes lamented the nationwide cancellations, none were affected quite like those at the close of their collegiate careers. Many would never get the same chance again.
That realization hit Rakocevic all at once, in a bus heading south on Interstate 15. The senior forward opted not to fly with the team, instead riding back with a couple of assistant coaches. When the NCAA made its announcement and the devastation settled in, he called Mathews.
“We had so much invested together, these four years,” Rakocevic said. “We came in together, and this year, we’d told each ourselves we’d put the team on our backs.”
They had helped USC to a 22-9 and a probable spot in the NCAA tournament. Now, they could go no further. For a reason neither could have ever imagined.
But the end had arrived. That much Rakocevic knew. Even if the NCAA were to offer additional eligibility to those impacted like him, the senior forward knew he wouldn’t accept it. It was time to move forward.
“As sad as it is to say, my college career for me ended on this bus ride back to Los Angeles,” Rakocevic said. “I don’t plan on coming back. It wouldn’t feel right. This was my last chance at playing in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s done for me.”