Last night was an odd one for college basketball. Mother Nature can play a role in the outdoor athletics of football in the fall and winter and baseball in the spring and summer, but rarely does she impede the progress of a basketball tourney.
Tornadoes blowing through Atlanta disrupted the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament and I happened to be watching the game as it was played. It was really crazy and I have to commend the announcers for Raycom, led by Tim Brando, for handling the situation with aplomb.
I was getting my March Madness groove on early for most of the day yesterday. I watched parts of the Tarheels and Florida State tangling early on Friday and saw a few minutes of the Kansas win too. I headed to the office for a while before covering a high school baseball game between two teams in my area.
After coming home from the local diamond and warming my chilled body over a warmed-up plate of leftover spaghetti, I turned the TV to more college basketball conference tourney action. I opted to watch the SEC’s quarterfinal round with Alabama and Mississippi State squaring off in a game that was pretty close most of the way through. I thought the big excitement of the game was going to be a leaning 3-pointer by Mykal Riley at the buzzer to end regulation and force overtime.
While I was watching the announcers and the teams prepare for the OT, I began to notice some static in the video. I thought to myself there must be a storm moving through disrupting the satellite signal. The action began and a whistle for a foul stopped the action with 2:11 left in the extra session. Nothing unusual there.
But then, I heard a rumble and the announcers made note of something happening in the crowd behind them. Cameras panned up and you could see fans streaming up out of the arena.
Not long after the scene went to static. The signal was only completely disrupted for a few seconds but it definitely reminded me of the earthquake in San Francisco that disrupted the Bay Bridge World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants on Oct. 17, 1989.
As players and coaches left the court and headed to the locker rooms, the announcers tried to make sense of what was happening above and around them. The catwalks and light standards above the arena were swaying, cameras pointed out tears in the “skin” of the dome and the surrounding teflon-coated cover flapping in the breeze.
Small bits of debris had fallen on the court and other pieces of what appeared to be paper or insulation were drifting and floating in the wind whipping through the upper areas of the 29-story tall arena.
Brando compared the noise of wind rushing into the arena to a freight train, typical of a tornado. He relayed that he had been in a tornado before and the sound was comparable. At this time, it was not confirmed as tornadic activity, but later reports declared the storm cell a twister.
After a 63-minute delay play was resumed with Mississippi State winning the game. Another quarterfinal contest between Georgia’s Bulldogs and Kentucky’s Wildcats was scheduled to be played after the Mississippi State win, but SEC officials moved that game to Saturday afternoon in a different location. Now the winner of that game must play twice on Saturday – in their quarterfinal game at noon and later on Saturday night in a semifinal contest.
Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, but not a member of the SEC, was to host the remainder of the conference’s tourney games. The arena on Tech’s campus holds less than half of the fans, so only players, cheerleaders, pep band members, families of the players and credentialed media members and conference representatives could attend. That decision was made to keep crowds of SEC fans from coming into the downtown area, eliminating the need for extra security and keeping citizens out of areas that were damaged and disrupted by the storms.
The CNN building and the Omni Hotel were two of the other well-known structures damaged by the high winds. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has reader submitted pics of damage.
The area surrounding the Georgia Dome was littered with pieces of debris and glass.
The shot that forced overtime in the Mississippi State/Alabama game may have saved lives. Should the game have ended in regulation, those crimson-clad fans would have streamed out into the street earlier, coinciding with the arrival of the storm winds. Falling debris could easily have injured fans on the street of Atlanta.
It was really weird to watch as an observer outside the area.
I’ve been covering games before when the power went out. About 20 years ago, storms caused a temporary power outage in Murfreesboro during the state tournaments. That certainly created a sense of unease in the cavernous dark arena mostly filled with strangers. The lights weren’t out long, but it was long enough.
Power never went out in the Georgia Dome, but it was obvious something was wrong with parts of the building swaying, wind roaring through the facility and debris falling from above.
Seeing the catwalks moving, my first thought was of an earthquake, but the description of the noise as a freight train immediately changed that to thoughts of tornadoes.
One of the players, Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, said after the game during a press conference he heard a loud boom and wasn’t sure if it was a tornado or a terrorist bomb. That’s just part of the era we live in.
I attended the second game the St. Louis Cardinals played immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11. That was another intense fan experience with security at an extremely high level.
The logistics of moving an entire tournament to another arena on about a 13-hour notice must have been crazy both for the conference officials and the media outlets covering the games.
All-in-all, it was one weird night for sports.