2020 Was Full of Sports Moments Despite the Empty Stands

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:48 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:48 a.m. ET

The public memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 24.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

I was flying to San Francisco on March 11, the night before the Golden State Warriors were scheduled to host the N.B.A.’s first game without fans, when I was rocked in my exit-row seat by a flurry of tweets and emails that the league was abruptly suspending the season indefinitely in response to the pandemic.

I was one of the few reporters inside the N.B.A. bubble, and thus at the arena on July 30, when the Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert — whose positive Covid-19 test led to the league’s shutdown four months earlier — scored the first basket of the league’s restart at Walt Disney World.

And I was in a tense hallway outside the Milwaukee Bucks’ locker room in that same arena on Aug. 26, when the team decided not to come out for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The Bucks’ sudden protest against police brutality and racial inequality sparked similar walkouts all across North American sports.

So many things happened in the basketball world in 2020 that will stay with me for a lifetime. Yet I also say, for all those unforgettable chapters, that no memory will have the staying power to rival the tragedy that struck the league on Jan. 26.

The helicopter ferrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others to a youth basketball game crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, Calif., killing all aboard.

Having covered much of Bryant’s career from close range, especially at the beginning when he first joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a 17-year-old, I still find myself thinking often of that afternoon. I had just returned from filling in as the coach of my son Aaron’s youth soccer team, with my wife, Rachel, nearby as the team manager, when the news broke.

I never wanted to hug them tighter. And I really still can’t believe, all these months later and even though I know it’s true, that Bryant is gone.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:47 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:47 a.m. ET

Commissioner Roger Goodell in the basement of his house to start the N.F.L. draft on April 23.
Credit…NFL, via Associated Press

When the pandemic shut down the sports world in March, the N.F.L. was preparing for its glitziest college draft ever on the Las Vegas Strip in six weeks’ time. Bringing together dozens of top players, hundreds of league officials and tens of thousands of fans was out of the question, so the N.F.L. made the best of a bad situation and turned the annual event into a virtual affair.

Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, started the proceedings on April 23 from the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y., by saying that the Cincinnati Bengals were on the clock. Minutes later, a camera showed the No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow, at home with his parents in Ohio. Behind the commissioner, a video screen included images of dozens of individual Bengals fans cheering the pick and, of course, booing Goodell in real time.

So it went for several hours. Video of Goodell in his basement, more video of top prospects sitting on living room sofas celebrating with their families and friends, and dozens of fans of each team cheering and trash-talking.

Despite the awkwardness and missing elements — players didn’t get their customary bro hug from Goodell, or the caps and jerseys of their new teams, and the booing wasn’t nearly as lusty — the three-day event drew surprisingly strong television ratings, a testament to the devotion of N.F.L. fans and the desperation of viewers starved for any kind of sports content.

And in a sign of the times, the draft generated plenty of memes that instantly popped up on social media. The most notable included the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones following the action from his yacht and the Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury sitting in a space-age living room, something fans at home could certainly relate to.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:47 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:47 a.m. ET

Raphaël Guerreiro scoring the second goal for Borussia Dortmund in their match against Schalke on May 16 at Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, Germany.
Credit…Pool photo by Martin Meissner

It was the simplicity, the familiarity, the constancy of the sound that made it so reassuring. The day soccer came back to Europe, May 16, had no shortage of strange. All those things we would grow so used to over the subsequent seven months still felt new and alien and intimidating: the empty stadiums, the mosaics of fans, the socially distanced substitutes.

That the sport had returned at all, of course, offered hope; that it had been reduced to this shadow of what it had been just a few months past, though, brought only sorrow and regret. But then, as the first game in this new world drew near to halftime, Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt slipped the ball to his teammate Raphaël Guerreiro. His shot, low and true, fizzed into the far corner of Schalke’s goal.

In the context of the game, it was just another goal, giving Dortmund a 2-0 lead in a game it would go on to win by four. Its significance, though, lay not in what it did but in how it felt. As the ball hit the net, the frame of the goal rattled. It is a sound that anyone who has watched, or played, soccer has heard a thousand times, but in this instance, it echoed and resonated far beyond Signal Iduna Park.

Everything that followed — the banners draped over blocks of seats to disguise the absence of fans, the Black Lives Matter protests, the completion of one season and the start of another, Barcelona losing 8-2 to Bayern Munich, Liverpool winning the Premier League, the artificial crowd noise — was possible only because that game happened, because Germany’s Bundesliga, ahead of every other major sports league on the planet, managed to return in the age of the pandemic.

And all of it mattered only because, for all that so much was different, for all that everything was strange, at the heart of it all was the game and, as the sound of Guerreiro’s shot clipping the net proved, at the heart of it all the game was the same.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:46 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:46 a.m. ET

Don Mattingly, manager of the Miami Marlins, greeted Joe Girardi, right, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies before a game in Philadelphia on July 24.
Credit…Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Imagine the pandemic as a menacing, monstrous pitcher, flinging high heat at Major League Baseball in the top of the first inning. That was the challenge for the league in the first weekend of its truncated 60-game season, when the coronavirus tore through the roster of the Miami Marlins.

Before “abundance of caution” joined “hits-runs-errors” as baseball’s three most vital words, the league agreed with the Marlins’ wishes to play in Philadelphia on July 26, even though four Miami players had tested positive for Covid-19. “Our guys made that decision,” the Marlins manager, Don Mattingly, said. “And the conclusion they came to is we’re taking chances every single day.”

Maybe so, but after that initial misstep, baseball put the Marlins on lockdown. Soon 20 members of the team’s traveling party had tested positive, and the Marlins were ordered to isolate at their Philadelphia hotel. With nowhere to go, pitchers improvised to stay loose.

“I lined up the mattress, I set up chairs to act as hitters, and I would throw for about a half-hour every day,” the reliever Brandon Kintzler said. “Just trying to simulate something, just trying to make sure I was putting some velocity into it so the arm stayed in shape.”

The Marlins’ front office — led by the chief executive, Derek Jeter — scrambled to rebuild the roster with 17 new players before the next game a week later. The team would make 174 roster moves in all during the season, but earned its first playoff berth since 2003, squeezing into the expanded field and even beating the Chicago Cubs in the first round.

For piecing it all together, Mattingly — a former Yankees captain, like Jeter — was named National League Manager of the Year in November. Days later, the team broke a barrier by hiring Kim Ng to be the first female general manager in M.L.B., a historic coda to a most unusual season for the Marlins.

Tiger Woods during the final round of the Masters in Augusta, Ga., on Nov. 15.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Tiger Woods approached the short but vexing 12th hole in the final round of this year’s Masters several strokes off the tournament lead. It was the first Masters held in November, a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic that forced Woods to wait 19 months to defend his stunning 2019 victory.

Last year, Woods made par at the 12th hole seconds after his closest rivals collapsed in the same intimidating setting, a turnabout that vaulted Woods to his fifth Masters victory. Now 44, could he again summon some of his old magic? The answer was in the pained expression on his face as his misjudged tee shot rolled into the creek protecting the 12th green. Unbelievably, two more of his shots plunked in the water. Woods took 10 strokes to get one of his balls into the cup, the highest score on any hole he had played since joining the PGA Tour in 1996.

“The sport is awful lonely sometimes,” Woods said afterward.

But he was not yet finished. With a dazzling flourish, Woods birdied five of the next six holes. The travail and triumph served as a microcosm of his 2020 season. Unable to compete at times because of a creaky back and unwilling to risk exposure to the virus for weeks at a time, a rusty Woods continually had aberrant, high-scoring holes and substandard rounds when he did enter tournaments. But often in the same weekend, he would flash extended periods of brilliance.

“My body just has moments where it just doesn’t work like it used to,” Woods said.

In the end, which was the real Tiger Woods? In 2020, it became increasingly apparent that Woods’s new reality, and likely his future, is a bit of both.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:45 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:45 a.m. ET

Coach Nick Saban at Bryant-Denny Stadium before Alabama’s game against Georgia on Oct. 17.
Credit…Gary Cosby Jr/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Perhaps we should have anticipated that college football’s coronavirus dramas — namely, whether to compete and how to avoid spreading the pathogen through locker rooms — would become neatly encapsulated in Nick Saban, the coach atop Alabama’s fearsome modern dynasty.

But on Oct. 14, Alabama announced that Saban, famously disciplined and an evangelist for public health protocols, had tested positive for the virus. There were just a few days until a game against Georgia that would help define the race for the College Football Playoff, and the coach and his university insisted that Saban — who had never missed a game during his Alabama tenure— was asymptomatic.

The distinction was more than an indicator of Saban’s health. It also carried athletic importance because if the coach remained without symptoms, he would be eligible for a new protocol, involving a series of negative tests, that could let him return to the Crimson Tide’s sideline for the Georgia game.

For days, Alabama did not say that it was betting on the protocol. But each day, Saban, isolated at his home near the campus in Tuscaloosa, submitted to a new test. On Saturday morning, less than a dozen hours before kickoff, a private jet carried his final sample to a laboratory in Mobile, Ala. Only when it came back negative, just as other follow-up tests had, did Alabama announce that Saban’s initial result had been a false positive.

He took the field that night, when Alabama won, 41-24. Just more than a month later, though, Saban would again test positive. This time, days before the Iron Bowl, the in-state rivalry game against Auburn, the result was real. He watched from home. But his team pulled off an impressive win nonetheless.

Novak Djokovic waiting for a decision from tennis officials after his errant shot hit a line umpire in the throat at the United States Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., on Sept. 6.
Credit…Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock

It was the shortest tennis season since World War II, with a five-month hiatus and no Wimbledon. Because of a temporary change in the ranking system, Ashleigh Barty played in just four tournaments and still finished No. 1 on the women’s tour. Roger Federer played just one tournament and still finished No. 5 on the men’s tour.

All that was strange enough, but the most bizarre tennis development in 2020 happened at a Grand Slam tournament that actually took place on schedule. Novak Djokovic, after a series of misadventures and testing positive for Covid-19, actually made it to New York for the United States Open.

He was the No. 1 seed, undefeated for the year and the heavy favorite for the title. But that was before he lost his serve and self-control late in the opening set of his fourth-round match with Pablo Carreño Busta.

Djokovic already was testy: He had smacked a ball in frustration earlier in the set toward the side of the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium. This time, still disgruntled as he headed for his chair, he hit a ball with much less force toward the back wall. But as he followed the ball’s flight with his eyes, they widened as he realized where the ball was heading.

It struck a line umpire in the throat, and Djokovic extended his left hand as if trying to undo what he had just done. But about 40 feet away, the line umpire crumpled to the ground: her cry of pain easily audible in the cavernous, nearly empty stadium.

Djokovic, contrite, was soon at her side, and though he had never intended to hit her, the damage was done. He would be defaulted for ball abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct: the first disqualification of his pro career.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:45 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:45 a.m. ET

Steven Stamkos scored his first, and only, goal of the Stanley Cup finals for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Dallas Stars in Game 3 in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sept. 23.
Credit…Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Steven Stamkos led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup in the N.H.L.’s pandemic bubble on just 2 minutes 47 seconds of playing time.

Sidelined in February with a core muscle injury that required surgery, Stamkos, the Lightning captain, was expected to return to action at some point during the playoffs. It did not happen until Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Dallas Stars on Sept. 23. That night, there was excitement inside Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta — even without fans in the stands.

On his third shift of the game, with Tampa Bay already leading the Dallas Stars 1-0, Stamkos accepted a pass in full flight. Streaking down the right wing, he beat the goaltender Anton Khudobin with a quick snap shot from the face-off dot. The Lightning bench exploded with emotion.

It was a triumphant moment for the 2008 first-overall draft pick and one-time 60-goal scorer, whose career has been marred by injuries and health issues.

Stamkos stayed on the bench for the rest of Game 3, but didn’t take a shift after the first period. He had aggravated the injury.

He was not seen again until, in full equipment, he accepted the Stanley Cup from the commissioner, Gary Bettman, after Game 6.

Tiz the Law, ridden by Manny Franco, winning the Travers States at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 7.
Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

The tables stretched the length of the expansive paddock, piled four high and several rows deep, as if taking a nap under the signature shade trees that blanket Saratoga Race Course. The picnic area was lush, nothing like the dust bowl it normally resembles by closing day.

Despite the gates being shuttered to the public, the races went on in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this summer, as they had all over the country since the start of the pandemic. And the people still came, lining the fences at least six feet apart — chairs, blankets and binoculars in tow — at both the racetrack in the afternoons and the training track in the mornings. It was a return to the basics for a sport in need of a reset after being dogged of late by breakdowns and doping violations.

Broadway still bustled, with the races being shown on outdoor TVs, as signs playing off Saratoga Springs’ longtime motto, “Health, history, horses,” reminded people to wear masks. “Health has always come first,” they read.

There was even a local horse to fawn over: Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes, then Saratoga’s most prestigious race, the Travers Stakes, and headed into the rescheduled Kentucky Derby as the favorite.

By the end of the 40-day meet, an increase in viewership led to $702.5 million being wagered, just off last year’s record-setting mark of $705.3 million. While this year can be considered a success given the limitations, surely all involved are hoping that the roughly one million fans, and the more than $240 million in revenue that they bring with them, can return next year.

Tiz the Law was upset in the Derby, but Saratogians still love him. And those picnic tables? They were lent to Saratoga schools to use for outdoor seating, one last benefit of a season unlike any other.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:43 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:43 a.m. ET

Sam Merrill scored 27 points and made the game-winning shot for Utah State against San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship in Las Vegas on March 7.
Credit…Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

Cheering (and booing) fans are a true performance enhancer, heightening not just a game’s energy, but its context.

College basketball was robbed of its N.C.A.A. tournament last year by the pandemic, and this year it appears all but certain to be robbed of its essence with all-but-empty arenas.

In the opening weekend of the tournament, a neutral crowd will throw its weight behind an underdog, threatening a favorite in a way that it could not be at home. (See: No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 16-seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County in 2018?) And it will ride the ebb-and-flow of a tense moment in a way that is tangible. (See: Virginia and — pick an opponent — Purdue, Auburn or Texas Tech on its run to a title in 2019.)

It was that way again in March, when Utah State’s star senior guard Sam Merrill hit a step-back 25-footer in the final seconds to knock off 30-1 San Diego State for the Mountain West Conference tournament title. More than 10,000 fans came to Las Vegas for that game. Many of them were from northern Utah, including Merrill’s father, who was embraced by his son and handed the tournament M.V.P. trophy to drive home.

Instead of a prelude to March Madness, it served as a capstone. Within days the N.C.A.A. tournament was canceled.

The tournament seems likely to return at some point next year — especially with a vaccine on the horizon — but in a reconstituted form, a 68-team tournament in a single city. It’s an audacious idea, and yet March Madness’s indelible moments will be less so if all they are accompanied by is a suffused, distant roar.

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:43 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:43 a.m. ET

The Haas driver Romain Grosjean survived a fiery crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Nov. 29 that split his racecar in two.
Credit…Pool photo by Bryn Lennon

It was a moment that as it happened made me recoil and think “Oh my God!”

I have watched Formula 1 since I was a boy. As a journalist, I have attended over 250 grands prix and have witnessed many accidents.

None have made me fear the worst like the one on Nov. 29 involving Romain Grosjean in the Bahrain Grand Prix when his car burst into flames after hitting a metal guardrail at 137 m.p.h. The force of 53 Gs split the car in two. It was the first time a car had caught fire in a crash since the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix. Not since the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix had a car broken in half.

As his car burned, Grosjean thought: “I am at peace with myself, and I am going to die,” he said later. But after 28 seconds, he emerged from the inferno. Miraculously, his only injuries were burns on the backs of both hands and a sprained left ankle.

It was the safety innovations introduced by Formula 1 over the years that saved him. The main device was the halo that wraps around the cockpit to protect the driver, which Grosjean criticized in 2017, saying it was “not F1.”

At the time, I agreed with him.

After his accident, Grosjean said, “It was the greatest thing brought to Formula 1.”

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:42 a.m. ET

Dec. 16, 2020, 8:42 a.m. ET

The Highlanders’ Shannon Frizell going for the ball against the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on June 13.
Credit…Marty Melville/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

New Zealand is positioned well to keep out nasty things that could upend the holy things in the nation’s sanctuary, like rugby.

About 20,000 fans packed Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on June 13 to watch a thrilling 28-27 match between the Highlanders and the visiting Chiefs, and then the next day 40,000-plus turned out at Eden Park in Auckland to see an exciting 30-20 contest between the Blues of Auckland and the Hurricanes from Wellington.

It brought home just how much spectators of global sports missed games with real, enthusiastic fans in the seats that were occupied by cardboard cutouts in other countries. The emotion was palpable even through a video screen.

The competition gave New Zealand rugby the right to claim it was the first country to put a world-class professional team competition on the field in full stadiums during the pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the country to 102 virus-free days, and when an outbreak hit Auckland in August, canceling the last meaningless match in Super Rugby Aotearoa, she put measures in place that beat back the coronavirus again in about seven weeks — and allowed fans back in stadiums for matches of the domestic Mitre 10 league, even in Auckland.